An Interview with Dr. Lou Brown

The ultimate reality of institutions

Produced in 1987 (Run time 5:06)


Ed Skarnulis: Lou, one of the things you said that peaked my curiosity was that you don't like to go to institutions. I don't know this for a fact, but I've heard from people that do know you that you've refused to go to institutions, that you've refused to give talks at institutions, that you don't want to tour the campus of institutions. In many ways, even though you have this fervor about integration and about caring about this population, isn't that a little like turning your back on those people?

Dr. Lou Brown: It got to the point where emotionally I couldn't bear to go to those places. I mean, I just couldn't do it. The last, not the last time, the next to the last time. You see, the smells get me. The screams get me. Seeing large numbers of people self-stimulate on the walls get me. The fecal matter on the floor gets me. I mean, I can't, I can't, I can't sleep at night. I can't stop thinking about it, you know?

I mean, the most telling experience I've ever had is when, and this not something that this is just one night, I mean, this is an accumulation of years and years of trying not to notice these things. Trying not to remember these things or of explaining them away or trying to justify them or something. It became years. And then you get to a point where your defenses don't let you handle it anymore, and you say, "This is horrible, I mean, this is no way for human beings to live."

And so one time, we were going to testify against the state of New Hampshire in Laconia, they had this institution. And so the attorneys, one of which was Dick Cohen, who now works in Minnesota, and the other one was John (unintelligible). They took me up there and it was night. And this place had opened in 1906, you know, when Seguin came to America, this is one of the places that they went around talking to all, doing this Dorothea Dix thing in mental retardation. This is 1906 now, and they still had 600 people in it.

And I'd walk up on the grounds at night because we got there late, and the best time to ever see an institution is at night anyway. And it was. The shadows, people in large rooms with no clothes, running around. The shadows you could see from outside, and the lights and the glass. And then hearing the screams, and the glass broke. Somebody put their fist through a window. And then you go there and you see these people tied to chairs and people sticking food down their faces. I mean, it just, it just threw me. That was it. I couldn't. I knew, I knew I couldn't deal with it anymore emotionally. I couldn't deal with it. And I couldn't stop thinking about it, you know?

I imagine it's like… There's a trial in Israel now, this Ivan the Terrible. I don't know if he is or not, but the trial is about this person, Ivan the Terrible. And the people who had been there have to relive these experiences of seeing people treated the way they were treated in these concentration camps. And I just couldn't deal with it. And so I… At that time, I was working in Wisconsin, you know, a consultant, and I came home and I said, "I can't do it. I can't go anymore."

So I quit that and I stopped taking jobs. We used to go, do these workshops with these people. Let's do language training on institution wards and they would come in. Toilet training was always, "Can you help us with toilet training?" You know, so they'd have 15 commodes lining 15 people up. I mean it was just, you can't do it, you can't do it. Plus the idea of an individual and a life in that environment. And so I just said, "Well, we quit. We're not going to work there anymore. We're not going to take any jobs speaking. I just don't want to do anything to keep them open any longer." And that…

There was one job we took in Kansas. And they were dedicating the new cafeteria and they asked me to speak at the dedication and my dedication speech was that we should close the place. It was just, you know. And you do that a couple of times, you don't get too many invitations, you know. But, yeah, the only thing I could think of with this cafeteria is close it, get these people out of here. I mean, let's stop this madness, building more institutions, putting more money into these places.

And also… I mean that was the deep, deep psychological part of it, deep emotional part of it. But there was also the rational part, the professional part. We were building better lives for people. It's better living in a community. It's nice doing real work in a real world. It's great using…experiencing the richness and variety of our towns and cities. It's better when you compare what you have there with what you have here, it's better. So it wasn't all just, you know, I can't take the heat anymore, I don't like to see blood. I mean it's not only that, it's certainly part of that. Not only that, but it's better out there.

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