I’ve had more than a few friends ask me, “Are you sure your doctorate’s not in psychology?” over the years. I usually laughed it off, saying that well-heeled historians are ones that can look at the human condition through a variety of disciplines. But that’s hardly the whole truth. I have a lifetime of experiences that have enabled me to play the role of pop psychologist and psychiatrist, mostly because of Darren and issues related to him.
For example, if this were any summer between ‘77 and ‘83, these would’ve been years I could’ve gone with my older brother to his summer day camps at The Clear View School in Dobbs Ferry, upper Westchester County. For four summers I did go with Darren to his private school for the mentally retarded and developmentally disabled, between ‘77 and ‘80. It was a strange experience, but I learned a lot about diversity, the human psyche, and perceptions of intelligence. I hardly realized how much until much later, in my years in the workforce and in grad school.
The first two summers at Clear View were a blur for me. I remember a few things. Like going to see Star Wars for the first time. Or going swimming, learning how to ride a bike, bowling, and lots of other fun activities. In that sense, Clear View was a fun place to be. I picked up a bunch of things there that I would’ve never learned at 616.
It wasn’t until my third summer there, the summer of ‘79, that I noticed the distinct differences between myself and Darren’s friends and classmates. Not to mention between Darren and them. It came as a bit of a shock to realize that Darren simply didn’t belong at a school for the mentally retarded — he was acting out at times in order to get whatever he wanted. As for me, I seldom had any lengthy conversations with the other kids. Not for lack of trying, though. It was the summer between fourth and fifth grade for me, and I’d already become used to talking politics and pop culture with a few kids my age.
I ended up talking mostly with staff, summer staff or regular staff. It didn’t matter. Even as socially awkward some of the teachers were, it was far better than forcing a conversation with a kid who might’ve had the equivalent abilities of Noah at two and a half or three years old. I had nothing against the kids at Clear View. They obviously suffered from Down’s syndrome, autism, bipolar disorder, severe brain injuries and so on. But at nine years old, I recognized the differences, and they were in stark contrast to anything I’d ever seen from Darren. I knew by the middle of that summer that my older brother wasn’t mentally retarded. I also knew, deep down, that staying at Clear View would do permanent damage to his psyche and destroy his best chances at living a normal life.
A visit to Mrs. Holtslag’s (Darren’s psychiatrist’s) Hastings-on-the-Hudson home in ’79, in which the front sat on a hill, the back on stilts, all overlooking a pale sandy-rock beach and the Hudson River below, was further evidence of both his relative normal-ness and of what bothered me about Clear View. This was my first experience of visiting anyone from an affluent or upper-middle class background, and certainly anyone White. A bunch of kids were there, including Darren. My older brother’s well-practiced autistic behavior — similar to at least three of his friends — was what bothered me about the visit. That, and being in a house I’d only seen before in a Hollywood movie. Wow, I remember thinking. Psychiatrists must make a ton of money.
I learned about other things affluent and White through my summers at Clear View in ‘79 and ‘80. That Darren’s initial diagnosis had changed, from “mildly mentally retarded” to “emotional mentally retarded.” That Clear View’s tuition was $33,000 a year – about $55,000 in today’s dollars. That New York State was paying for all of the tuition. That our group of healthy-eating White counselors thought that a cottage cheese and cucumber sandwich on whole wheat was a normal lunch. And that they were moving in ‘81 to a lush private campus in Briarcliff Manor.
I did get something out of that summer. Another layer of eclectic-ness to add to my already eclectic music tastes. Donna Summer, meet Kool & The Gang. Billy Joel, meet Barbra Streisand. I did get to see Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. But I also saw affluent White parents who’d occasionally visit, sometimes with their “normal” kids in tow. It made me realize that despite all of the hardships of life, many of these mentally retarded and developmental disabled kids had it better financially than anything I would see for more than twenty years. That’s hardly to say that this wasn’t a hardship, either for the parents or the kids in question. It was something I noticed, an ironic twist between the psychology of race and class and the psychiatry involved in working with both.
I provoked my mother into at least thinking about getting Darren out of Clear View after my last summer there in ‘80, six years after my father Jimme had him placed there because of Darren’s shyness. Darren at twelve had been institutionalized long enough to become more comfortable around the mentally retarded than in mainstream settings. He threw a temper-tantrum, kicking and screaming on the floor of our neighborhood laundromat when my mother suggested that she should send him to our local public school. My mother gave up, saying that “Darren only listens to White people,” and Darren stayed at Clear View for another seven years. This was typical Mom, taking the path of least resistance when the best option was often the more difficult one. It’s sad, but I still haven’t given up, on Darren or my mother.