Monday, January 14, 2008

Reminiscences from Bulgarian literature triggered by the Judge Rotenberg Center

The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center is an institution located near Boston that houses severely disabled students and uses on them various "behaviour modification techniques", including electric shocks. Last September, an article in Mother Jones magazine featured the Judge Rotenberg Center and I blogged about it under the title Double Standard.
To my surprise, the Center's Director, Dr. Matthew Israel, commented on my post and gave a link to his response to the Mother Jones article. I am not going to give a link to the response; those interested in it can follow the above link to my old post and find Dr. Israel's comment. At any rate, I wasn't impressed by it but I am not going to explain in details why. Joseph and Mike Stanton, here and here, explain it well in my humble opinion. I'll just paste a sentence from the latter Mike's post: "If Matthew Israel was treating diabetes he would dispense with medication and use electric shock every time they looked at a candy bar."
What was striking to me was that Dr. Israel cared to find my post and comment on it. This clearly shows that he is actively searching the blogosphere and putting his twopence on every blog that criticizes his institution, no matter how obscure. So the good doctor doesn't leave his cause undefended or, as we Bulgarians say, doesn't leave his donkey (stuck) in the mud!
Thinking of this, I remembered the 1923 poem Visiting the Devil by Bulgarian poet Hristo Smirnenski (1898 - 1923). Bulgarian readers can find the poem at Slovo; for other readers, I'll translate its beginning as I can:

In all my life, I'd never think
I could receive such favour:
To be invited for a drink
By no one else than Devil.

Or, I would say, to receive a comment by the Devil himself on one's humble blog.
Meanwhile, the New York Times also wrote about the Judge Rotenberg Center. The article, by Leslie Kaufman, is titled Parents Defend School’s Use of Shock Therapy. It is not exactly my cup of tea but, keeping in mind what I wrote last November, what else could be expected from the New York Times? In particular, the article suffers from the defect recently pointed by Andrea as "falsely ascribing equal weight to “both sides” of a controversy". Almost half of Kaufman's text is devoted to Susan Handon, who was unable to cope with her severely disabled daughter and because other institutions refused support, she was happy to have the girl placed in Judge Rotenberg Center and shocked. So, the experience of an exhausted mother is given the same weight as the long, painful path of civilization to renouncing torture.
Recently, another work of Bulgarian literature gave me a reminiscence of the Judge Rotenberg Center. It was the 1945 novel Doomed Souls by Dimitar Dimov (1909 - 1966). The plot of the book is the love of an Englishwoman to a Spanish Jesuit monk, and the scene is war-torn Spain in 1936. It is fiction, but it has its base in Dimov's observations on Spain in 1943-44. He was a vet and won a scholarship for a one-year study in the Cajal Institute in Madrid.
Dimov describes Spaniards from both sides of the civil war embracing their opposite causes with equal courage. (Alas, where was that courage in 2004? Nations develop and move away from old stereotypes.) Among them, the Jesuit, named Ricardo Eredia, is a character that no reader will forget. He is a medical doctor but has none of the enlightenment we tend to associate with this profession. On the contrary, he is a merciless fanatic possessed by the dream to build a global Catholic empire. I would describe him as the sort of person who today would go to Al-Qaeda and be met with open arms. Eredia has real prototypes - Jesuits met by Dimov in Spain, both in the Cajal Institute and outside it.
After returning to Bulgaria, Dimov described his arguments with Jesuit researchers in the Institute. The Jesuits had the opinion that only humans have souls and could feel joy and suffering. On the contrary, Dimov regarded the "soul-producing" human brain as a product of evolution and, hence, ascribed something soul-like also to other animals. Once in the lab, he pointed to the cage with experimental mice and asked his opponents, "Do you say that these creatures have no soul at all, no ability to feel and suffer?" The Jesuits replied, "Yes, none at all." To show his opinion more clearly, one of them took the cage and applied voltage to it. The animals began to squeak and writhe in pain and horror. However, the monks (who often talked about sympathy) were watching unmoved because, to them, animals were only biological machines unable to feel and suffer.
I'll add, perhaps some people think that disabled humans also have no souls and cannot suffer?
(The biographic information about Dimitar Dimov is from an essay by Krastyo Kuyumdjiev which is attached to the 1974 edition of Dimov's novels.)


Matthew L. Israel said...

For an accurate summary of what the Judge Rotenberg Center is really about, please go to

Maya M said...

My hypothesis about Dr. Israel actively searching blogs for posts criticizing his Center is confirmed. And how quick he was this time! My post was published less than 24 hours ago.