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Christmas In Purgatory: A Photographic Essay On Mental Retardation

Creator: Burton Blatt and Fred Kaplan (authors)
Date: 1974
Source: Available at selected libraries
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When a commercial publisher discontinues, as in this case, publication of a book it is because it is no longer profitable. This does not necessarily mean that people do not want to buy the book. It can mean that the escalating costs of printing and promotion -- and, of course, the need to maintain certain profit levels -- put the costs of the book out of the reach of most people, e.g., students. (Fairness requires that I acknowledge the fact that the previous publisher was the only one willing to take a chance with so "different" a book.) Some extraordinarly -sic- good books have sunk into oblivion. It would have been immoral, or at least an adverse commentary on our societal values, if Christmas In Purgatory was allowed to be available only in libraries (those which had copies). For one thing, this was an historic document. It was extraordinarily "profitable" in terms of its international influence on thinking, values, practices, and planning (not, ironically, in Dr. Blatt's home state where huge building complexes for the retarded continue to be developed). It was a simple, easily grasped, compelling, upsetting visual document which stood as a reminder of what existed in our society, and as a criterion by which to judge any derivative of our propensity to segregate people who are or look "different." It is noteworthy that in his last book, Souls in Extremis, Dr. Blatt concludes that purgatory is inherent in our concept of institutions, and he recommends that we close them and build no more. Precisely because institutional purgatories exist today and will continue to exist for the foreseeable future, Christmas In Purgatory should continue to be available. We should be grateful that it will be.


Seymour B. Sarason
Yale University




"They cover a dung hill with a piece of tapestry when a procession goes by."
Miguel de Cervantes


There is a hell on earth, and in America there is a special inferno. We were visitors there during Christmas, 1965.


During the early fall of that year. United States Senator Robert Kennedy visited several of his state's institutions for the mentally retarded. His reactions to these visits were widely published in our news media. These disclosures shocked millions of Americans and infuriated scores of public office holders and professional persons responsible for the care and treatment of the mentally retarded.


A segment of the general public was numbed because it is difficult for "uninvolved" people to believe that in our country, today, human beings are being treated less humanely, with less care, and under more deplorable conditions than animals. A number of the "involved" citizenry -- i.e. those who legislate and budget for institutions for the mentally retarded and those who administer them -- were infuriated because the Senator reacted to only the worst of what he had seen, not to the worthwhile programs that he might have. Further, this latter group was severely critical of the Senator for taking "whirlwind" tours and, in the light of just a few hours of observation, damning entire institutions and philosophies.


During the time of these visits I was a participant in a research project at The Seaside, a State of Connecticut Regional Center for the mentally retarded. The superintendent of The Seaside, Fred Finn, and I spent a considerable amount of time discussing the debate between Senator Kennedy and his Governor, Nelson Rockefeller. We concluded the following. It does not require a scientific background or a great deal of observation to determine that one has entered the "land of the living dead." It does not require too imaginative a mind or too sensitive a proboscis to realize that one has stumbled into a dung hill, regardless of how it is camouflaged. It is quite irrelevant how well the rest of an institutions's -sic- program is being fulfilled if one is concerned about that part of it which is terrifying. No amount of rationalization can mitigate that which, to many of us, is cruel and inhuman treatment.


It is true that a short visit to the back wards of an institution for the mentally retarded will not provide, even for the most astute observer, any clear notion of the antecedents of the problems observed, the complexities of dealing with them, or ways to correct them. We can believe that the Senator did not fully comprehend the subtleties, the tenuous relationships, the grossness of budgetary inequities, the long history of political machinations, the extraordinary difficulty in providing care for severely mentally retarded patients, the unavailability of highly trained professional leaders, and the near-impossibility in recruiting dedicated attendants and ward personnel. But, we know, as well as do thousands of others who have been associated with institutions for the mentally retarded, that what Senator Kennedy claimed to have seen he did see. In fact, we know personally of few institutions for the mentally retarded in the United States completely free of dirt and filth, odors, naked patients groveling in their own feces, children in locked cells, horribly crowded dormitories, and understaffed and wrongly staffed facilities.

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