Deinstitutionalizing difference: asylums for the severely or profoundly mentally retarded between 1960-2000




Ely, Michael

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This is a history between 1960 and 2000 of asylums operated in the United States for children labeled as "severely or profoundly mentally retarded," and "emotionally and behaviorally disturbed." I use one primary case study of the Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, New York. Willowbrook has already received some focus in the works of David and Shelia Rothman as well as Drs. David Goode, Darryl Hill, and William Bronston, and Geraldo Rivera's newscast in 1972. Primary focus has been given to it because it is both unique and indicative of asylums across the U.S. during the mid 20th Century. It was unique in some of the severity of treatment, which its residents experienced, but overall mirrors national trends in brutal and neglectful living conditions. It also signals larger national trends in the mid to late 70s, which carry over into the 80s and early 90s as part of the deinstitutionalization movement. I find that this movement was largely a response to the conditions for which Willowbrook became a national symbol. Furthermore, even in the wake of the deinstitutionalization movement, there are many problems with federal and state policy that disproportionately disaffect people of color as well as poor people. Finally, I argue that the historical canon must expand somewhat to take into account Deleuze and Guattari's ideas about Societies of Control. Many scholars, such as the Rothman, Tonya Titchkosky, Kim E. Nielsen, and others base their work on the Foucault's notion of a 'disciplinary' society. But Deleuze (sometimes with Guattari) offers a sympathetic critique of Foucault's understanding of discipline that adds a great deal of depth to the study of asylums and deinstitutionalization in the mid to late 20th Century.


The author has granted permission for their work to be available to the general public.


Asylum, Deinstitutionalization, Deleuze, Guattari, Staten Island, Willowbrook