The tentacles of eugenics-based thinking are still with us today, warns Rabbi Rafael Feuerstein in a recently released collection of articles. The glass wall that separates people with disabilities from the so-called “normal” people must be “totally shattered,” he writes.
The eugenics movement, popular in the US and Scandinavia until the 1970’s, offered to benefit humanity by sterilizing those who suffer from hereditary disabilities. These were also the years in which lobotomies were performed in response to mental illness.
The argument was that illness is the result of a malfunction in the body. People who have Down syndrome, it was claimed, have chromosomal abnormality. Born this way, there was no way to fix them and rearrange their chromosomes. Likewise, people who suffer from depression simply need a tap on the frontal cortex and, like a radio that resumes to play after a healthy thump, the patient will be cured.
The argument in favor of forced sterilization, as well as lobotomies forced on patients, was that it is unfair to expect society to support those whom it considered mentally feeble and their offspring, who according to this view, were destined to be equally inept at taking care of themselves.
Forced lobotomies would make violent, mentally ill people docile, if not productive, and forced sterilization would ensure that such negative traits would not be passed on to future generations. In a shared article in the book, Arie Rimmerman, Ayelet Gur and Dvorit Gilad point out that one of the main champions of eugenics, Henry Goddard, supported keeping “feeble- minded people” away from general society in closed institutions.
Goddard also coined the word “moron” in reference to those who score between 55 to 69 points on the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, meaning a person who is able to attend primary school and be semi-independent. Other words such as “imbecile” and “idiot” were once used to describe even harsher forms of inability.
The Nazis, less reserved concerning social norms, murdered disabled German children and adults in what became known as Aktion T4. Claiming more than 200,000 lives, it was eventually dropped due to the vocal objections of Bishop Clemens von Galen and his followers, marking perhaps the only time in the Third Reich when mass killings ended due to civic resistance. The staff employed to carry out Aktion T4 was later used to carry out the destruction of another group the Nazis were concerned with – the Jewish people.
THE LATE Reuven Feuerstein, who founded the same-named institute his son now heads, “once gave an interview to a French reporter who later wrote that ‘with Feuerstein, chromosomes don’t get the last say,’” explains Rabbi Rafael Feuerstein in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. “He rebelled against the notion that education is not essential.”
The radical notion the late Feuerstein championed and is now being continued by his son is that while genes and chromosomes are certainly important as the building blocks of organisms, they do not hold all the answers to what shapes us and guides us further. Indeed, modern science speaks now of genes not as instructions that must be obeyed but as being “turned on” and “turned off” in response to changes during our entire lifetime.
The brilliance of the Feuerstein method was that it identified the power relations made possible by standardized tests, institutions and seemingly biology-based norms a long time before they were questioned by others. The trained clinical worker seeks traits to fill out the forms, the forms point to an institutionalized course of action and the action leads to a socially acceptable solution. When a so-called “moron” scores badly in the Wechsler Scale, he is sterilized and taken to live in an institution. When a young child scores badly on a math test, he is labeled as suffering from a disorder and given a drug, or simply instructed to seek a menial career, as he and his parents are told he is unable to learn anything.
In radical contrast, “I believe in states,” says Feuerstein, “not traits. Human beings are adaptable, which means these states are changeable.”
If a person suffering from mental disability such as Down syndrome is able to master one word, the method claims, then he is able to learn another word. The difficulties loving and well-meaning parents and educators experience are in figuring out what is blocking the learning mechanisms involved and how to bypass them.
If knowing one word is a tiny speck of dirt, learning another is another clod, and with patient slow effort, an island of normalcy will be created in the lives of those suffering from autism and other disabilities that will enable them to work, interact, enjoy life and even – and this is a new understanding – have sex, enjoy romantic love and form a family unit.
Published thanks to the patronage of the Ruderman Foundation, which also supports the Link 20 movement to promote young people with disabilities and the Vison centers in which training is offered to disabled people who seek to enter romantic relationships, the book, Breaking Through the Glass Wall – Relationships and Marriage for People with Disabilities, edited by Rabbi Feuerstein, presents a comprehensive view of the legal, moral, clinical and even Jewish aspects of this complex topic.
AUTHOR AND THERAPIST Esther Perel often says that sexuality and relationships are not at all the “natural” thing our society presents them to be. Television and movie couples are rarely seen arranging sexual activities before taking the kids to school and submitting a work project to ensure that sex will still have a role in the relationship. Likewise, teenagers are usually not encouraged by teachers to talk about their concerns about dating and seeking intimacy.
In the case of disabled people, and even more so with the mentally disabled, things are even more complex.
The book presents case studies of autistic men and women who are attracted to normative people only to be repeatedly rejected by them, some are in relationships but unable to openly share and understand one another’s feelings. In some cases, they are consumed by self-loathing and fear. If they are not even allowed to light the stove in the hostel they live in, one asks, how will they ever arrange a wedding or navigate a relationship?
The book also presents relationships that are warm and supportive, including an almost comedic scene in which a couple had bought a sex toy only to have it found by the supervisor of the hostel in which they live. The scene was not at all funny to the man and woman involved, they felt exposed and humiliated by this breach of their private sphere.
This is the ongoing play of forces between the need to protect those with special needs from possible harm [patronage] and the need to allow them agency over their bodies and lives [empowerment]. Among autistic people and their care-givers, a growing understanding is now being shaped that they must have some control over the door to their room, that they are able to demand privacy as others do, within reason.
WHILE THE Feuerstein method values optimism and patient work, it does not promise miracles. While a person who will never learn how to play the piano or never be allowed to light a stove has a right to privacy and a healthy sex life as part of a stable relationship, because he is a human being, no amount of effort will make autistic children non-autistic.
This might be another aspect of our fascination with traits and things we can measure. Good and loving parents might hope, against all odds, that they will figure out a way to “win” by finding a way their child might learn to act like a normative person. Yet what we lazily refer to as “being normal” is not a set of traits and actions that can be broken down into steps and taught. Mentally healthy “normal” people are able to respond to ever-changing situations by taking into account a multitude of things, from the feelings of other people to the law in their country, in mere seconds before responding.
Autistic human beings respond to the world differently, which can be terribly taxing for the families involved.
“When a parent is faced with the reality he has an autistic child,” Feuerstein told the Post, “there is a huge level of guilt felt by the parent.” The range of emotions includes anger, fear, hostility and shame.
Feuerstein, who has a son with Down syndrome, explains that “for some parents, the old model of ‘there’s something wrong with the way he was born and that’s it’ can also be appealing on some level.” If there’s nothing to do, then there’s no reason to face the complex issues an autistic person with a bank account or a boyfriend forces on the parent.
As terrible as it seems, the Aktion T4 program began with a letter Adolf Hitler received from a parent who requested permission to kill his disabled son. The permission was granted and the disabled person was the first victim of the program.
THE MEDIEVAL Jewish scholar Maimonides was careful to note that issues involving the mentally disabled are rarely simple. He insisted those who rule in rabbinical courts on such matters will always use their own sensitivity when making a decision; he understood the weakness of traits and institutional routs of action when dealing with human beings.
The late Feuerstein used to say, “My practice, in its warmth, melts the boxes society puts individuals in,” his son told the Post. Just as the late Feuerstein discovered in the 1950s that Moroccan-Jewish children who fail a standard IQ test might do very well if the questions are mediated to them in a culturally appropriate way, his son recently discovered that a young Ethiopian girl is not hard of learning but a brilliant underachiever.
“When I reached out to the teachers in the school,” he wrote in a separate essay, “From Atlantis to Mars, from Content to Process,” which is not in the book, “the teachers agreed with half of what I said, that she was an underachiever,” he wrote. ‘They resented the diagnosis that she was also brilliant.”
As proof they are right and he is wrong, they presented him with how the child answered a request to write the number 61 in words. The girl wrote “enoytxis.” Amazingly, not a single teacher realized the answer was sixty-one written backwards until he examined it.
Seeing as Hebrew is read from right to left and math is “read” from left to right, the Hebrew text was the correct answer written in “math reading logic,” meaning backwards, Feuerstein suggests.
Even if he is mistaken, and it was a simple prank meant to tease the teacher or see if anyone would notice, it was a smart prank, and the teacher, not the student, showed what little attention is there to be given.
The steady success of the Feuerstein method, which is taught in 40 countries at 84 locations, trains 4,000 people per year and ha been doing so for 55 years, might indicate it’s worth hearing out even if the tyranny of traits, of facts and content, is a hard enchantment to break.
Noting that Encyclopedia Britannica published its last set in 2010 before announcing it would no longer print books but focus instead in its online presence, Feuerstein argues that we still expect children to master content and by doing so, as if by magic, learn how to think and understand the world.
His suggestion is a radical one, to wave farewell to the concept of solid content – Atlantis – and embrace the world of learning how we really think and learn new things, which he calls going to Mars.
He recommends Jewish culture, with its powerful tradition of Talmudic study, which is not content oriented, as the focus of the study. Focus on the process – and not to have a product in the form of a solution to the question – can be a good starting point for such a step.
In the book, Avraham Steinberg explains that Jewish law calls the feeble-minded person peti and the crazy person shote, a vital distinction that led Jewish law to decide that a parent of a child who is peti must see to his education and forbade the giving of non-kosher food to such a person, thus ensuring they remain within Jewish community and are not tossed aside.
“Even such as [one who] does not know how to read,” wrote the late Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, “will not be removed from there [school], but he will be seated with the other [learners], perhaps he will understand.”
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