The Kenwood Press
: 05/15/2015

What we learned at SDC

Jim Shere

Perhaps the single greatest issue confronting us today, regarding the quality of life lived here in the Valley of the Moon, is the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center. I had the opportunity to take part in a conference about that earlier this month, down in the town of Sonoma, and this is what I had to say.

As a local therapist in private practice, and as an historian, I wear two hats in this conversation. As a practitioner, I appreciate the way attitudes regarding mental health and developmental disabilities have evolved over this past century, and recognize that much of what we’ve learned we’ve learned in places like SDC. Employees there have been among my clients, and so I also have an intimate understanding of the world in which they live – their frustrations, and their passionate convictions.

On the other hand, as an historian, I believe the purpose of an historical society is to remember the significance of a particular place and – with that in mind – to help guide, rather than resist, its inevitable change. This way the innate nature of the place does not get lost in the shuffle. Historians do not traffic in mere nostalgia, which is to say a laundered and sentimentally romanticized view of the past. We look instead to remember and understand what our pioneers learned, applying that to a better future.

The Glen Ellen Historical Society began some 20 years ago with a grassroots community demonstration to successfully protest the sale of our beloved civil war cannon – which had been sitting for a century by the bridge in downtown Glen Ellen, and was suddenly about to be sold to an east coast gun collector. We have watched over the recovery and rehabilitation of the Chauvet Hotel in downtown Glen Ellen, and Jack London Village nearby, each one an historic location that has since gained recognition as a cultural destination.

Now, we are very much involved in remembering the story of SDC. Because it has always been by far the largest employer in the region – despite downsizings there are still well over a thousand people working there today – the very character and quality of life in Glen Ellen has been shaped by the sort of people who came, throughout the past century, to care for the most severely disabled people among us.

You meet these folks here every day – hard working and uniquely skilled, compassionate people, people who are fiercely protective of their vulnerable clients as they tend to the most intimate needs of their survival. At the same time they provide shelter they also provide needed contact for their clients with the world that surrounds them – a world that includes the wild paradise of the mountainside standing behind them, and the largely ignorant society that tends to ignore them simply because they do not understand them.

A negative bias has regrettably crept into much of the public discourse about SDC, coloring popular perception and manipulating popular opinion. There is a human tendency to judge things on the fly, with assumptions that make us look upon ideas such as eugenics as primitive and unethical. We must remember that we are always capable of the errors that we find in others – otherwise we couldn’t recognize them – and that future generations may as easily find what we do equally primitive.

I’m quoted in a recent article in the Sonoma Index-Tribune about that conference in Sonoma: “When questioned about the ethics of conducting scientific testing on a disabled and confined population, psychotherapist Jim Shere of the Glen Ellen Historical Society agreed, ‘There are dark places in human history.’ Yet he argued that these conditions could and do generate information of great value – ‘Progress is built on the back of tragedy,’ he said.”

In saying that, much more should have been said. I do not minimize the egregious crimes committed in the name of research; I do take them as important, expensive lessons we cannot afford to repeat. Alexis de Tocqueville, who had traveled through our country in 1831, wrote in his Democracy in America: “Americans will always be destroying and forgetting the past.” I believe there is always a danger he can be right, and I would work to prove him wrong.

This very important conversation will continue at the annual meeting of the Glen Ellen Historical Society (GEHS) next week, Saturday, May 23, at Morton’s Warm Springs. Speakers will include County Supervisor Susan Gorin, President of the Parent Hospital Association Kathleen Miller, Paul McCaull of the Sonoma Land Trust, ecological historian Arthur Dawson, and GEHS president Charles Mikulik. The topic will be the long rich history of SDC, and the preservation of what is uniquely irreplaceable about it. The role of the Glen Ellen Historical Society as a guardian of the Valley of the Moon is also up for discussion.

As I’ve often said, the history of Glen Ellen – and the Valley of the Moon – is not simply about what has happened there; it is in fact about the soul of the place. As custodians of the past we must undertake learning about the people who have lived before us; as stewards of the future we must remember their vision, in order that a better world can be provided for those who have yet to arrive.