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Living Life Well: 03/15/2015

Two Tales of the Drooling Ward



There are two quick reads that will stay with you for a long, long time, and they will take you quickly and deeply into an apparently surreal - yet so acutely real - world that many avoid, and few understand. Written in broad strokes and with great compassion, they are certain to change your mind about those severely disabled people that are conveniently tucked into a corner of the community.

Jack London wrote about them in his short story “Told In The Drooling Ward,” which first appeared in the June 1914 issue of The Bookman, a literary journal of that time. Then, just this past year, and a hundred years later, they reappeared in a novella by Ed Davis entitled In All Things: A Return to the Drooling Ward. And not much seems to have changed over the ensuing century.

In its own way, each tale tells the painfully real story of a place set apart from the world that we consider normal - in a place known as Eldridge, just south of Glen Ellen, called the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC). When it was first established in 1891, the place was originally named the California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble Minded Children.

London's story is told by a resident who calls himself a “feeb” - feeble-minded - and believes himself to be better than the “droolers” and “stuck-up epilecs” who seem normal but throw “such terrible fits.” London uses strong language so that we clearly hear a person who, much like ourselves, struggles to find his place in an incomprehensibly difficult world. We find ourselves surprised to identify so deeply with him, as he gives voice to those fundamental feelings we know within ourselves: pride, fear, and outrage.

Davis tells another story, his own slightly fictionalized account of an altruistic, innocent, even naïve, young man being trained to work with the residents of SDC as a psych tech - providing intimate, hands-on care for a range of disabled “inmates,” as they are called by the supervisors training him. It tells of the world that unfolds beyond the groomed lawns and stately trees, and within the quiet buildings of the campus. Taken together, the two stories give a deeper understanding - and much fuller appreciation - of a world few know.

The stories show how a continually profound intimacy shapes the relationships that inevitably evolve between residents and caregivers - the disdain of some, and the affection of others. Tom stoically endures the stuck-up epilecs in London's story, but has more than a custodial concern for little Albert. “I can always tell the way he twists his left eye what's the matter with him,” he tells us, and tells the attendants. Davis' narrator gradually develops an equally complex regard for Gerald, a case study assigned to him: “I was nervous, and he was nervous,” he admits, as a new medical procedure is being introduced; “I could see it in his eyes.”

Harshness among people also happens, and its more subtle consequences. Tom suffers inhumane treatment by a farmer who briefly adopts him: “I know the law, and I knew he had no right to lick me with a strap halter.” In Davis' book, a barber - now permanently injured by a resident - complains “I'm not going anywhere, Keck saw to that. And he's not going anywhere either, are you Gerald? If he ever come at me again, and I know he will, I'll take these boots to him, bad back or not.”

Throughout both stories Sonoma Mountain hovers above SDC as a constantly alluring, mysterious presence - at once a refuge from the institution, inviting escape, and a dangerous wilderness that reflects the wilderness within. The night Tom runs away with two epilecs and little Albert, he remembers “worse than everything was the quiet. There was only one thing worse, and it was the noises. There was all kinds of noises every once in a while, with quiet spells in between... First Charley got a fit, a real one, and Joe threw a terrible one. I don't mind fits in the Home with everybody around. But out in the woods on a dark night is different.”

Decades later, a supervisor named Ducktail tells Davis' narrator “We've lost a few up there over the years, but usually they find their way back if we don't find them first.” Playing catch with Gerald one afternoon sometime later, the young psych tech says “my eyes drifted to twilight landscape above The State Home. I imagined the creeks and the meadows and the sheltered hollows up there, where patients sometimes ran away, and sometimes didn't come back... Gerald had followed my gaze. He too was staring up into the purpling hills.”

The subtitle of Davis' novella pays homage to Jack London's original story, and his title raises it to an allegorical level. It is taken from a chance comment made when the author was young, that he was a pantheist - which he says meant seeing God in all things. The phrase actually originates in Romans 8:28 - “And we know that in all things God works for the good.”

This good is not meant in the sense of some mere personal gratification, but in the greater sense of a deeply moved wonder. This may be why, at the end of his story, Davis' narrator still wanders about Sonoma Mountain - which has now become “a wilderness park, accessed by hiking trails that lead from the valley floor all the way to the summit.” Like that mountain, each story reminds us of a numinous realm - Out There and In Here - that may be domesticated and laced with trails, yet will remain, in some ways, hauntingly feral.

Jim Shere is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Glen Ellen. He is also a writer and poet, and executive director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com.
Email: jshere@sonic.net

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