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"It smelled of death"

April 14, 2011

I recently saw a picture of the back of a naked child huddled in the dark with the quote “It smelled of filth, it smelled of disease, it smelled of death” written across the bottom of it.  A few Google moments later, I was reading about a 28-minute documentary that was filmed in 1972 by Albert T. Primo and news correspondent Geraldo Rivera, who now appears regularly on various Fox News programs. The documentary, entitled “Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace” focused on a Staten Island institution for children and adults with mental disabilities, and earned Rivera a Peabody Award.

Ten years before Rivera and Primo filmed the documentary, Senator Robert F. Kennedy visited the institution and was recorded on film saying that Willowbrook was “a disgrace” and that the residents were being allowed to reside in “a snake pit”.  Despite Senator Kennedy’s call for reform at Willowbrook, no further investigations of the medical practices and treatment of residents residing there were carried out. 

By 1972, when the documentary was filmed, it is reported that because of budget cuts, the patient to staff ratio was nearly 40 to 1.  As Rivera explains in the film (and shown in the trailer below), the horrific conditions at Willowbrook were only brought to his attention when a friend of his, a doctor working at Willowbrook, decided to quit and offered Rivera a key to one of the wards.  With this key, Rivera and his cameraman toured several wards of Willowbrook documenting the filthy living conditions, lack of effective or even basic care, and the upsetting state of the residents.  In a follow-up film entitled “Unforgotten: 25 years after Willowbrook“, Rivera is interviewed and expresses that, even after many years, he still has a difficult time talking about the horrors he witnessed at Willowbrook.

Thankfully, Willowbrook was closed in 1983 after laws were passed that emphasized community placement programs for former residents.  In “Unforgotten”, the stories of several former Willowbrook residents are chronicled and family members describe the difficulties of having a family member with mental disabilities.  Most importantly, the film depicts life after Willowbrook for the former residents, which includes group homes and hospice care.  The film even tells the story of Bernard Carabello, a resident who was interviewed by Rivera in the original documentary, who spent 18 years at Willowbrook before doctors realized he had misdiagnosed as mentally retarded, but actually suffered from cerebral palsy.  Carabello is now works as on an advisory board responsible for monitoring problems at institutions such as Willowbrook. 

I highly, highly suggest watching both the original documentary and the follow-up film.  Both are eye-opening movies that remind us that less than 50 years ago, men, women, and children were treated like less than animals, forced to live in the most unlivable conditions simply because they were different.  And while great changes have happened in the way we care for those with mental disabilities since Willowbrook, there are still those in the world who de-humanize mentally challenged individuals every day through their words and actions.  After watching the films, please keep the residents of Willowbrook in mind before using the word “retard” to insult a friend or before imitating an individual with disabilities and please please please encourage anyone you know to refrain from such words and actions as well.

Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace
3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 19, 2011 8:41 pm

    This is an amazing post, and it really touched me. Not only do I have a love for documentaries, but I also have people in my family who suffer from mental retardation as well as mental illness. This is going on my list of docummentaries to watch.

    Would you mind if I did a follow up post on this?? I would link it back to you of course.

  2. V.E.G. permalink
    June 20, 2011 3:17 pm

    I hope (if possible) that Bernard Carabello should get an honorary high school diploma!

    • June 21, 2011 7:46 am

      I agree. What an incredible man, to have gone through what he did and come out all the better for it.

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