Through the centuries they have been known as “cretins,” “simpletons,” “morons,” “idiots,” “imbeciles” and “feebleminded,” among other classifications. These labels at various times have enjoyed the status of proper names, among them the Massachusetts School for Idiotic Children and Youth (a progressive organization founded in the mid-19th century) and the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded (which followed in the early 20th century).
Dan Barry’s disturbing yet beautifully told story begins in the mid-1960s, when a few dozen men from Abilene, Tex., are called “mentally retarded.” Along the way they and others like them are upgraded in public discourse to “retarded citizens” and eventually become the “intellectually disabled.” The new language does not reflect a change in circumstances, however. For several decades, the men’s lives revolve around grueling labor at two turkey-processing plants, initially in Texas and mostly in rural Iowa after they are contracted out as a collective. Their sub-minimum wages all but evaporate after deductions for expenses, real and spurious, including room and board in conditions that become increasingly uninhabitable.
Most striking about this gothic injustice is the timeline. The group first caught the eye of authorities in 1974, when a social worker filed a report declaring they lacked “most basic human rights,” including access to their wages and the choice of where to live. Higher-ups at the Iowa Department of Social Services concluded otherwise, deciding that the employees of Henry’s Turkey Service were fed well enough and noting that they were allowed weekend excursions into town.
Afterward, the plant came sporadically to the attention of social agencies and newspapers in Texas and Iowa, as well as the federal Department of Labor. All the while, “the boys,” as they were known by one and all, kept toiling. They were not rescued until 2009, after The Des Moines Register published a series of investigative articles. Henry’s Turkey Service had become an anachronism in an age when the intellectually disabled are usually able to enjoy a decent measure of dignity and independence.
The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland is a gentle though ultimately damning exposé. Barry’s reports on the plant in Atalissa, Iowa, appeared originally in The New York Times, for which he has traveled the country writing the “This Land” column, and his book is a work of narrative nonfiction. The topic lends well to remonstrance and judgment, but he approaches it, before all else, as a storyteller.
Barry introduces Willy Levi, one of the Texans trafficked to Iowa. (“You’ll know Levi when you see him: a wild-haired, white-bearded black man in his late 60s who walks as if in fear of falling.”) Like the other men, Levi’s nasty job was to eviscerate turkeys and inseminate the female ones: “Chasing and grabbing the toms [male turkeys]. Stimulating them. Catching their semen in little bottles. And running it like the track star he was, over to the hen pen.”
The Texas rancher who, for all practical purposes, owned the men was T. H. Johnson. “He often wore khaki pants that he’d scribble on, calculating the costs of running a ranch,” Barry tells. In the mid-1960s, Johnson was looking high and low for cheap labor right when the Abilene State School for the “mentally retarded” began experimenting with the concept of deinstitutionalization—releasing the disabled back into the community. He started acquiring men with I.Q.s between 35 and 70. “Like a gruff den mother, he’d do bed checks at night to make sure they were safe and well” in the bunkhouse, Barry writes. With its veneer of paternalism, Johnson’s operation drew plaudits. In 1968 he was honored as “Outstanding Employer of the Year” by the National Association of Retarded Children.
The story darkens as the veneer is peeled off. “The boys” are physically and emotionally abused at the Iowa plant and in the roach-infested former schoolhouse that functions as their living quarters. Injuries and medical conditions go untreated. Encountering townspeople, they speak giddily of the day when they will retire to a home that Johnson (still in charge) is building for them in Texas with money deducted from their pay. No such place ever materializes. Take-home pay lingers at barely $65 a month, due in part to a federal law (since repealed) that allows below-minimum wages for the disabled. To qualify for the exemption, the plant has to show that the disabled workers are less productive than their nondisabled counterparts. They are not. Johnson underreports the productivity of the men.
Some asked, why didn’t the men complain? “It is the same facile question that arises in cases of domestic violence, workplace harassment, and schoolyard bullying,” the author comments. “The question comes from a position of doubt, at a safe distance.... One answer could be that the bunkhouse boys believed they had nowhere else to go.” They had reason to fear retaliation as well.
Among other glimpses into human nature and society, Barry turns a light on the charitable impulse, so elevated and yet so often skewed in our culture. The citizens of Atalissa showed many kindnesses to the men, involving them, for example, in parades and other civic events. Church ladies dubbing themselves the ABCs (Atalissa Betterment Committee) rustled up Christmas presents and other items for the migrants from Texas. Alert to charitable opportunities, townspeople nonetheless had little eye for the exploitation and injustice in plain sight. Those paid to have keener eyes, including social workers, journalists and government investigators, kept missing the mark as well.
In the end, the authorities—galvanized finally by investigative reporting—descended upon the former schoolhouse and shut it down on the spot. The disabled workers who had by necessity learned the habits of solidarity and mutual support wound up in group homes and suitable jobs with social services that helped them lead dignified lives in community. A tireless government lawyer won a symbolic victory in a civil lawsuit on behalf of the men and recovered a slight fraction of the money stolen from them. Worth adding: A roving New York Times reporter decided to “go to the periphery” (to use Pope Francis’s words) and spend a year writing a book about these men on the margins.
All that is part of the “salvation” highlighted ultimately by Barry, in a story that is, in equal measure, salvific and sad.