Monday, March 07, 2005

Flowers for Algernon

A few days ago I recalled a passage in Flowers for Algernon where “a male resident of the state hospital held another youth on his lap, unself-consciously diddling him.” As I found no mention on the web for this sort of incident in a novel often assigned in high school I began to doubt my memory. Being as I work at the public library it was easy enough to find a copy of Flowers. But how to find the passage? Fortunately amazon has that “search inside” feature now. I wasn’t able to search the specific edition I got from the library and the pagination seems to be very different from the one searchable online but by searching words I thought would appear in the text rarely (“ivory” for instance, as when a doctor fumes about the “ivory tower” of pure research) I was able to home in on the appropriate “lap”. The scene is rather more innocently drawn than my memory had it. The narrator steps into “a recreation room filled with some seventy-five boys sitting around waiting for the lunch bell to be sounded. What caught my eye immediately was one of the bigger boys on a chair in the corner, cradling one of the other boys – fourteen or fifteen years old – cuddling him in his arms. … [T]he dinner bell sounded, and the boys filed into the dining room. I noticed that the big boy who had held the smaller one in his lap was now leading him to the table by the hand.

“‘Quite a thing,’ I said, nodding in that direction.

“Winslow nodded too. ‘Jerry’s the big one, and that’s Dusty. We see that sort of thing often here. When there’s no one else who has time for them, sometimes they know enough to seek human contact and affection from each other.’”

There it is. Fraught, isn’t it?

The younger of the two would be, at 14 or 15, pubertal. The elder? Most definitely. In my small experience with developmentally disabled adults (and stories I’d heard even then) they can be unself-conscious about sex, may even masturbate in public. Sexually mature they become aroused just like those of normal intelligence. Youths in single sex institutions don’t abstain from sex because the other sex isn’t available. Would it be different if the youths were retarded? I don’t think so. Dr Winslow says, “’[T]hey know enough to seek human contact and affection from each other.’” I read between the lines, I suppose.

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