Excerpt from A Roomful of Teddy Bears An Intimate Inquiry into a Fragmented Psyche
by  John Scott Holman


 
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“Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets, highways, thoroughfares or public places in the City of County of San Francisco, shall not therein or thereon expose himself or herself to public view.”
San Francisco “Ugly Law,” 1867

 

 
 

“C-c-c-can you smell that?” 

The windows of the recreation yard were nearly a dozen feet above us and no more than six inches ajar, yet the scent was unmistakable.  “Rain…,” I sighed, the corner of my mouth curling upward in a smile, very slight.  “I forgot it had a smell to it.” 

“Sure does.  Yep, sure nuff does.  Smells r-r-r-r-REAL.” 

Robby and I stood side by side filling our nostrils and staring at the evening sky, a severely blank expanse of gray, blushing here and there with the fading remains of the sunset.   I could not see a single cloud and wondered where the rain was coming from.

“Real…” I breathed.  “I guess you learn to appreciate the little things in here.  It’s a matter of perspective, you know?  Jail isn’t so… bad…” 

Robby did not respond.  Born with fetal alcohol syndrome, his intellectual deficits were substantial, hence his placement in Module 10A. His childlike faith and enthusiasm were characteristic of his neurological damage and developmental disabilities, but they served him well. He couldn’t help but appreciate the simple things. 

The rain continued its soft shoe dance across the windows above – “r-r-r-REAL.” 

“Nope, jail isn’t so…” The rest got stuck in my throat.  My muscles tightened as a wave of nervous energy passed through my body.  “I just wish I understood why I was here… wish I knew when I’ll be released.  I feel so far away.  I used to have these fever dreams as a kid, you know?  Like when I was real sick.  Pneumonia I think it was.  I felt disconnected; like I’d gone so far down inside myself that I dropped out the bottom and just… just sorta hovered there watching myself.  That’s how it is now.  I guess that’s how it’s always been, but I notice it more in here.  Sometimes I think I never found my way… back to me.  Does that make sense?” 

            “You’re in jail cuz you did something b-b-b-bad,” Robby said flatly, his squinty eyes fixed somewhere on the floor.  Yes, Robby was simple.  In a way I envied him.  His world was utterly free of the ambiguous.  Human beings were either good or bad.  He admitted to being one of bad ones, but as he was fond of saying, “Jesus done washed me in his b-b-b-blood and I going to heaven one day.”   

“I didn’t do anything bad,” I insisted.  “I didn’t!  Did I?”  It was getting hard to tell. Perhaps if I could see myself through Robby’s eyes I would have my answer. 

 “Just smell that r-r-r-rain,” he exclaimed softly.  And just like that everything came into sharp, simple focus.  It didn’t really matter how I came to be there with Robby.  Both past and present were now outside my control.  All I could do was smell the rain.  And it smelled good.  It smelled real.   


Excerpt from A Roomful of Teddy Bears An Intimate Inquiry into a Fragmented Psyche by  John Scott Holman

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Take a photo tour of the Johnson County jail 

 

In the 1950s, over half a million people with disabilities lived in institutions. The movement to release people into group homes or their own homes, begun in the 1970s, continues and is still controversial.

Physical restraint of disruptive and rebellious people and as punishment included straight jackets, shackles, and confinement in cells. Physicians used surgical interventions as well. Destruction of the prefrontal lobe, using a lobotomy knife, was a common procedure in the mid-20th century. Doctors also tried mechanical and chemical ways to “quiet” or re-direct brain activity, such as electroconvulsive shock and the repeated induction of insulin comas. Antipsychotic drugs, such as thorazine, developed in the 1950s radically changed treatment of people with mental illnesses. Thorazine and dozens of other pharmaceuticals slowly replaced older therapies and led to the closing of asylums in the 1970s. http://everybody.si.edu/place/autonomy


Thorazine is an antipsychotic drug sometimes called a “chemical straight jacket” because of its effects. The suppositories wrapped in foil from this box purchased at a Rexall Drug Store were administered through the rectum. 

Thorazine is an antipsychotic drug sometimes called a “chemical straight jacket” because of its effects. The suppositories wrapped in foil from this box purchased at a Rexall Drug Store were administered through the rectum. 

Electroconvulsive shock device, 1950s Electric shock treatment for various psychiatric illnesses was popular from the 1940s to the 1980s. This wooden box contains the heavy regulator for the current and the electrodes that attached to a person’s temples where the electricity disrupted brain activity.  

Electroconvulsive shock device, 1950s

Electric shock treatment for various psychiatric illnesses was popular from the 1940s to the 1980s. This wooden box contains the heavy regulator for the current and the electrodes that attached to a person’s temples where the electricity disrupted brain activity.


 

Straight jacket, mid-20th century Restraint of patients took many forms, from Benjamin Rush’s tranquilizing chair of the 1790s to isolation cells, chains, and medication. This stiff canvas bed restraint has webbing ties and weighs about twenty pounds.

Straight jacket, mid-20th century

Restraint of patients took many forms, from Benjamin Rush’s tranquilizing chair of the 1790s to isolation cells, chains, and medication. This stiff canvas bed restraint has webbing ties and weighs about twenty pounds.

 *  Read further about frontal lobotomy on Michael Leventhal; Assorted Ramblings, Rants and Raves

 

All information and photos on this page are taken from EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability,website is dedicated to raising awareness and sensitivity about disability through a look at the history of disability in the United States.