Blogs > HNN > Murray Polner. Review of Stephen J. Taylor, Acts of Conscience: WWII, Mental Institutions and Religious Objectors (Syracuse University Press, 2009)

Jan 27, 2010 4:15 pm

Murray Polner. Review of Stephen J. Taylor, Acts of Conscience: WWII, Mental Institutions and Religious Objectors (Syracuse University Press, 2009)

By 1943, Frank Olmstead of the War Resisters League had turned sharply critical of World War II’s Civilian Public Service Camps and what he contended was the pointless work assigned to Conscientious Objectors. While briefly volunteering in a mental institution he approached a closed door. “I have been in storms at sea, in train wrecks, and in Moscow during the Bolshevik revolution, but I have never had quite the feeling that I had when I turned from that locked door to face three hundred insane incontinents.”

He was not unlike the intrepid 19th Century reporter Nelly Bly who faked her condition and entered a New York City mental institution and then described her experience in her best-selling book Ten Days in a Mad-House. Many decades later, in 1948, Hollywood’s Snake Pit discovered mental institutions when Olivia de Havilland portrayed a wife dispatched into the hell of an asylum. Despite excellent reviews, it did little to change governmental and popular indifference.

To their lasting credit, 3,000 COs also chose to reject what they regarded as senseless work assigned them in CPS and instead work with mentally-ill patients in state asylums (many also opted to serve as human guinea pigs in medical and scientific experiments). “The idea of CPS mental hospital units came from COs at two AFSC Forest Service camps in Massachusetts who wanted to do more socially significant work,” writes Steven J. Taylor, Centennial Professor of Disability Studies at Syracuse University. COs like these were then able to document the wretched conditions they observed, let alone occasional ruthless mistreatment. One photo in the book displays a metal pipe used by non-CO attendants to maintain control of patients.

“Harsh treatment and brutality were commonplace at many mental hospitals and training schools and offended the pacifist sensibilities of many COs,” notes Taylor, a phenomena that ironically “challenged the[ir] pacifist beliefs.” How to control violent mental patients attacking other patients, attendants or even themselves? Some pacifists chose to “turn the other cheek,” but others simply left or “came to a position that distinguished between unacceptable violence, on the one hand, and acceptable force or nonviolent coercion, on the other,” only blurring the distinction. Still, many tried to be true to their nonviolent faith, and as one report put it about those who stayed, “even when dealing with a group of people who were mentally incompetent, the philosophy of love practiced in all human relations, was both practical and achieved the best results”

When COs Philip Steer, Leonard Edelstein, Willard Hetzel and Harold Barton tried to establish an organization to seriously alter the way mentally ill patients were treated it “failed to have a lasting impact on mental health and developmental disabilities,” writes Taylor, just as Snake Pit failed to generate any widespread popular attempt to humanize asylums. Yet the COs were able to pass on what they had seen and learned to Eleanor Roosevelt, who visited CPS mental hospitals and praised and publicized the COs. Albert Deutsch, of the adless leftwing newspaper PM, made the mentally ill his beat and picked up their findings. In article after article he concluded that the CO’s exposes were enormously valuable since they were more interested in underlying causes than headlines. “They rarely concentrate on personal scapegoats. Many put the blame where it rightly belongs—on calloused state executives, penny-pinching legislatures and an apathetic and ill-informed public.”

Steven Taylor has written a seminal book about a subject largely ignored. Acts of Conscience honors these forgotten WWII COs, as much a part of the “Greatest Generation” as anyone else.

Originally published in Fellowship magazine,

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