Fifty Seven Years in a Cage: A Story of Psychiatric Disability from the late Puritan Era


My historic work is not about famous able-bodied men, battles or presidents as many think of when they think of history; it is about women, epidemic disease, art, slavery, mental illness, reform and disability. It is about those were marginalized, the ones lost to history whose stories have been long forgotten or never told. The medieval anchoresses who lived in little rooms, those kept in towers, in prisons, in asylums, those who were physically or socially incarcerated. As a genealogical researcher in North Syracuse, I worked primarily with a collection of one hundred and forty four letters written by four generations of Massachusetts women in the late eighteenth through mid nineteenth centuries, which centered my work on Puritan New England. The collection had been long forgotten until its discovery about four years ago in an Arizona attic. Within the still pristine letters, preserved by dry heat, was the story of the…

View original post 1,214 more words

Why Are There So Many More Disabled People Now?

A common refrain that is often espoused these days by the able-bodied is, “Why are there so many more disabled children today than when I was growing up?” To many, the seeming “epidemic” levels of disabilities such as autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, and so on is frighteningly high. Looking to answers such as an abundance of pesticides, vaccines, ultrasounds, “chemicals” and other culprits is increasingly common as people search for an answer. When someone says it is due to better diagnosis or a broadening of diagnostic criteria, people like prominent ableist Jenny McCarthy respond:

“All you have to do is find a schoolteacher or principal and ask them that question. They would say they’ve never seen so much ADHD, autism, OCD as in the past. I think we’re over diagnosing it by maybe 1%. Now you look around and there are five shadows — kids with disabilities — in every class.”

I have no idea where she gets the label “shadow” from and I don’t care; it is par for the course with her. She is completely wrong about many things. At any rate, the answer to the burning question of why there are so many more disabled children now is this:

They used to be institutionalized and were kept out of society at much higher rates.

The film Lost in Laconia (closed captioned) about Laconia State School in New Hampshire, provides answers from those who were inmates at Laconia State School, employees of the school, parents whose children were sent there and Disability Rights activists who know of the school’s history. Laconia is not unusual by any means. For almost one hundred years, disabled children and adults lived out their lives at “schools” such as Laconia, Willowbrook and others.


Film still of the large room in which inmates of Laconia State School were kept, with only a small area at the perimeter in which to spend their days.

Where I live in Syracuse, New York, the local institution for disabled people was called the New York State Asylum for Idiots. My great grandmother, Nellie Kearney, worked there as a maid after immigrating to the area from Ireland in 1905. In nearby Rome, New York, one of the asylums was called the New York State Custodial Asylum for Unteachable Idiots, established in 1893. Some of these institutions also admitted those who had epilepsy, but there were separate asylums for epileptics as well, just as there were separate asylums for the Deaf and blind. Asylums and schools changed over one hundred years as trends in diagnosing and defining disability differed, but they remained places that disabled children were deposited and kept segregated from society. Laconia State School closed its doors in 1991, following the closure of many institutions.

ROMEDoctors and state employees would often tell parents of disabled children, especially if they were poor, to admit them to one of these schools. As discussed in Lost in Laconia, parents in the 1950s had no context in which to understand their children’s diagnosis of what was often “mental retardation”, a term that had its beginnings in that era. Mental retardation was a blanket term that was applied to many disabled children, not just those who had low IQs. Intelligence Quotient as a means of defining intellect and ability has roots in the eugenics movement, and is highly problematic and inaccurate when it comes to the abilities of those who are disabled or people of color. The test was given to people during the eugenics era to weed out what were considered undesirable members of the population. The label “feeble minded” was applied to citizens based on race, class and disability and was a way for the hegemony to control and select who could participate in society and have power. African American women were sterilized in tremendous numbers and were often not told what was happening to them whether they were given the feeble-minded label or not. The effects of this injustice continue to this day.

Sterilization and institutionalization followed the “feeble-minded” label. Other terms used as part of this diagnosis were idiot, moron and imbecile. So when you use those words, think about where they came from and what they mean to disabled people. Eugenics, largely started in the United States, reached its popularity during the early twentieth century and continues to be an ideology, as it has morphed into new areas of expression such as genetics. The era reached its apex with the adoption of eugenic ideology in Nazi Germany. The first group of people to be exterminated by the Nazis during the holocaust were disabled people, many of whom were living in the type of “schools” and asylums mentioned above. The course of action taken by Germany was to either kill or allow disabled people to starve to death. Starvation was a tool used by Stalin and Hitler during this period in history, as it was the most inexpensive way for millions of people to die.


Disabled men in Nazi Germany. The Nazis deployed the Aktion T4 program to exterminate disabled citizens. This was the first extermination program that the Nazis used. Disabled people were first targeted to begin the process of eliminating vast swaths of the population systematically.

Disabled asylum inmates during the Third Reich were considered too expensive to care for and not deserving of humanity or life, and it was believed that if they were murdered, it would facilitate the end of an inheritable, genetically “defective” line of humans, therefore eradicating disability completely. Sterilization and sequestration were preferable to outright extermination of disabled people in the United States, so they were housed in asylums. Children who were given the feeble minded and later “mentally retarded” label were considered unteachable. Those who had things like cerebral palsy, autism, intellectual disability, hearing loss and learning disabilities were sequestered in “schools” and asylums, and given nothing to do all day. They ended up being abused, neglected and treated like sub human beings.


Syracuse State Institution for Feeble Minded Children, Syracuse, New York. The term “Feeble Minded” was a blanket term for many disabilities and conditions, and often was given to the impoverished in order to keep them from society.

The liberation of children from these conditions began in the late 1960s in part due Wolf Wolfensberger’s essay “The Origin and Nature of Our Institutional Models”, published in 1969. The essay stated that “mentally retarded” people were kept in institutions due to biased and discriminatory thinking about their value as human beings, which has its roots in the eugenics movement and a history of preconceptions, prejudice and lack of understanding. The institutions were the physical manifestation of these attitudes, and the abuse within their walls was a result.  As Wolfenberger wrote:

It is a well-established fact that a person’s behavior tends to be profoundly affected by the role expectations that are placed upon him. Generally, people will play the roles they have been assigned. This permits those who define social roles to make self-fulfilling prophecies by predicting that someone cast into a certain role will emit behavior consistent with that role. Unfortunately, role-appropriate behavior will then often be interpreted as a person’s “natural” rather than elicited mode of acting.

Wolfenberger was instrumental at Syracuse University with programs at the School of Education which continues to deconstruct and dismantle ideas of disability. Also pivotal in the movement was Burton Blatt, who, along with Fred Kaplan, wrote “Christmas in Purgatory”, a photographic essay of the experience of mentally retarded inmates of state schools. Syracuse University School of Education and its staff has worked for decades to promote inclusion of those with disabilities in education and society. Assuming that disabled people are not intelligent is a bias that many there, including Steven Taylor, Christine Ashby and Douglas Biklen have worked hard to dispel. As a result of the work of pioneering disability activists in many arenas, disabled children are not taken from their parents and put into state schools and institutions they way they used to be. Parents include their disabled children in the family and look to schools and communities to assist with accommodations and support. Because a person may look different, do things differently or communicate in non-typical ways does not mean that person is unintelligent, incompetent and has nothing to offer. Disability Studies scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes that she supports a biodiverse world. Ability, intellect, insight and brilliance do not appear in only one type of person. Those who experience life from a different vantage point enrich society with diverse insights, and deserve humanity and respect like anyone else. Leaving children to suffer in deprivation, shuttered away in abysmal, dank and disease ridden buildings is not something that benefits anyone and is shameful. So why are there more disabled children in schools now? Because there have been great strides made to shut places like Laconia down and include people in society and education. If your child has a disabled classmate, or two, or five, it is because those children are considered worthy of being educated and worthy of existing alongside able-bodied people. Human society is diverse and it always has been, and diversity is hugely enriching and necessary in order for all people to thrive, excel, and be happy. The presence of disabled people in society now should not incur mass hysteria about vaccines, pesticides or GMOs. We should be celebrating the fact that places like Laconia are considered inhumane, and that disabled people like myself can exist in society with pride, respect and inclusion.

Christian Patriarchy, Homeschooling, Disability and the Naugler Family of Kentucky

A news story about the Naugler family of Kentucky has been going viral this week. Headlines from sites like and Off the Grid News state that CPS “seized” the family’s ten children simply because they live off the grid on several acres of Kentucky land and homeschool, and are therefore being unfairly persecuted for their lifestyle by local government authorities who are in disagreement with the family’s values. It is not my inclination in writing about this story to make anyone feel stupid, or to say that CPS is completely right, but rather I am irritated at the sensationalistic angle being taken on the internet that is perpetuating the viral nature of a story in which there are many components that the average reader is unfamiliar with, but those who study the Christian Patriarchy movement know all too well. Also, what is the place of disability in this story?


Off the Grid News writes: “An off-grid homeschool family of 12 in rural Kentucky was raided, the mother arrested, and the 10 children seized simply because the government disagrees with their lifestyle and their educational choices, family members and friends say.”

It is not surprising that adult friends of the family and the Naugler parents themselves are taking this protective angle and making the issue seem like unfair lifestyle persecution, therefore turning the outrage squarely on authorities and distracting from the realities of this case. It has been extremely effective, hence the viral nature of this story, and certainly appeals to American ideals of freedom from unwanted government interference and regulation. The heart-wrenching image of an innocent pregnant mother trying to keep her children from being taken away by cops is also shocking and compelling.

The Naugler family also has been asking the public for money in order to fight CPS. So there is more than an angle for sympathy here, the parents do have a financial agenda in presenting the story this way.  As for the “news” sites, interviewing adult friends of the family who are likely of the same ideology and have a motive to protect the Nauglers is not unbiased reporting, and portrays an ideological and financial agenda on the part of both the websites and those interviewed for this story.

The ones who are unable to speak in this case are the children. It is important to remember that. 

This paragraph has been repeated on several sites:

“The family may be off grid, but they aren’t anonymous. In fact, they have Internet, as well as a Facebook page dating back to 2012 where they frequently post pictures and videos of their children, animals and their off-grid life. A May 5 post showed a video of a toddler, Mosiah, learning to walk. An April 24 post showed a happy family, gathering around a campfire, roasting marshmallows.”

The picture used in articles decrying any possibility of abuse or neglect.

The picture used in articles decrying any possibility of abuse or neglect.

How sweet, Mosiah was learning to walk, and everyone was toasting marshmallows. The video of Mosiah walking can be viewed on the Facebook page. This doesn’t provide evidence of a non abusive family. Anyone can carefully select a photo from a happy event and post it online. This photo does not indicate abuse one way or the other, but it is being used by biased websites and Naugler family supporters as evidence of no wrongdoing.

Another pro-Naugler image that for some clearly indicates no abuse or neglect.

Another pro-Naugler image that for some clearly indicates no abuse or neglect.

There is a social media presence, yes, but this does not mean that the parents are being completely free and open about everything, or that the images are not controlled and selected to perpetuate an ideological agenda. People tend to think that child abuse always happens behind closed doors and that an abusive family would never have children that look happy in any circumstances, nor would they have a public Facebook page. Abuse is much more complex and subtle. Many abusive families have public blogs, write books and have Facebook pages full of smiling children, particularly in the Christian Patriarchy movement, which the Naugler family is a part of. It doesn’t mean either way that they are abusive or not, but public interface can be an aspect of promoting Christian Patriarchal Homeschooling and controlling public opinion of what can amount to a pretty oppressive lifestyle and set of beliefs.

So what about these photos? 

The cabin, although I would refer to this as a shack or a shanty.

The cabin, although I would refer to this as a shack or a shanty.

This is the family’s homestead, referred to by them as a cabin. It is up to reader to make their own inferences from these photos, which are not being widely publicized on sites like or Off the Grid Living. These images can be found on the family’s Facebook page. Those who know about Kentucky can attest that this type of off the grid lifestyle is not uncommon there. It is also not the reason that the children were taken, nor is the fact that they are homeschooled. As noted on the site Homeschoolers Anonymous, homeschooling is legal in Kentucky and many people flock there due to the extremely lax homeschooling regulations. Also included in the recent article linked on that website titled “Here Are Seven Surprising Things You Need to Know About Joe And Nicole Naugler” are testimonials from community members who also unschool and who know the family personally, and state that the parents are troubled. Mr. Naugler is  described as violent and “scary”, and so is Mrs. Naugler by a few people who claim to actually know them.

The original CPS complaint, posted on Facebook by Nicole Naugler herself, states that piles of garbage, broken glass and nails litter the property; remember little Mosiah learning to walk? In the video he is barefoot and walking on a dirt floor. Threats of violence had allegedly been made to neighbors by Mr. Naugler, a pond without any type of barrier around it was another issue, no septic or running water and a complaint was made that Mrs. Naugler was giving birth unassisted in a tent. These issues led CPS to conclude that the children were unsafe on this property. It was not because the parents homeschooled.

The outside of the

The outside of the cabin, which is not fully enclosed.

What is the Christian Patriarchy movement?

You may have heard of the popular TLC television show, “Nineteen Kids and Counting”. Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar are Christian fundamentalists who follow the large family, no birth control, strict gender binary, homeschooling patriarchal culture of Quiverfull, although they do not use the Quiverfull label. Many of these families don’t, because it has negative connotations due to yes, the abuse that is almost a naturally occurring and inherent part of this system, depending on the family. A good place to start to learn more about it is the site No Longer Quivering. Like many people, I enjoy watching the Duggars on TV and I am not making statements that they or the Nauglers are abusive to their children. However, part of the ideology that these families follow can involve practices that could be considered abusive or oppressive.

Briefly, Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy are ideologies that can be applied to almost any religion, but primarily is followed in Protestant Christian Fundamentalism. In the United States, it is an ideology that exalts the Puritan New England model of large families headed by a Patriarch who is next in line to God as the ultimate authority. The roles of men and women are rigid and strictly defined within this model: women are often completely submissive, sexually and otherwise, to their husbands, and birth control or in some cases, even natural family planning, is considered an affront to God, so families of ten, fifteen or even twenty children result.

The Naugler children.

The Naugler children.

Daughters are expected from a very young age to care for and help raise their many siblings. For women and girls, standards of femininity are enforced which includes what is referred to as “modest” dressing, long hair and patriarchal control by the father and church over things like dating, going to college or having a job. Women in this model often do not work unless it is at home in a family business, they do not debate theology like their husbands do as church leaders, they are supposed to take care of the home, have babies and provide educational instruction. Debt or relying on government assistance is considered sinful, and modern medicine is often eschewed. Christian Patriarchy is a spectrum, like many things, and people fall anywhere along it.

Modest Christian dress the more strict end of the spectrum.

Modest Christian dress the more strict end of the spectrum.

The Naugler family, wherever they fall upon the Quiverfull spectrum, are a part of this movement. Built into it is corporal punishment, something that is not discussed very much at all on any internet forums or television shows due to the bad publicity received by Quiverfull families who have had children die. The teachings are straight out of the Puritan Era and are the same ones used by Protestants in the 17th through early 19th centuries. Professor Phillip Greven of Rutgers University writes extensively about the historic tradition in his book. Switching and beating children and infants as part of child “training” and instilling obedience is used by modern Quiverfull/Christian Patriarchal families who look to Michael and Debi Pearl’s book, “To Train Up a Child”. Due to several abuse-related deaths which occurred in large homeschool families who used the book as a manual, Christian Patriarchy members do not advertise this “spare the rod” philosophy, but research reveals that Michael and Debi Pearl are very popular and considered influential in this movement. They run No Greater Joy Ministries, based in Tennessee, and have a slew of books, products, YouTube videos and blog posts found at their website,

The question I often have when viewing these types of lifestyles is what happens when there is a disabled child or presence of something like a learning disability in a family member? While an adult might have a right to live in what amounts to a three room cabin off the grid and allow children to be unschooled and “free range”, is it really possible to accommodate disability in this environment? In a family of ten, there is a likelihood that a child may have a learning disability or some other type of disability, and within the Quiverfull movement, there are many disabled children, as there are in any other part of society. In the case of the Jeub family, another Quiverfull/Christian Patriarchal homeschooling family, daughter Cynthia attests that at least two of her fifteen siblings was learning disabled, but her parents did nothing about it. And how could they? With that many kids, no one had the time or the resources. Taking that time and extra attention was simply not feasible, and seeking help from outside sources or government assistance for things like hearing aids or a wheelchair runs counter to the ideology. A wheelchair can cost five thousand dollars. A child who needs a wheelchair or assistive devices is not going to appear to be falling over on the ground. Sometimes you cannot tell by a photograph if someone is disabled. They are just straining very hard to get by. I would like the question of disability to be raised when people read stories about these families, because disability is a common occurrence.

Also, how much of the “free range” thing is actual ideology, and how much of it is just easier than trying to supervise ten children in these conditions? As someone with psychiatric disability and sensory-neural hearing loss, this type of upbringing would not have fostered my intellectual development or health. Another aspect of this lifestyle is that often there is no health insurance, no government benefits taken (as mentioned) and few trips to doctors or specialists, as stated on the Naugler family blog, Blessed Little Homestead, by Mrs. Naugler in a post titled, “No Doctors, No Drugs, Lots of Critics”. The rhetoric she uses makes it seem like modern medicine is pretty unnecessary and she can teach herself almost everything she needs to know. Again, this type of rugged individualism can be respected and admired in the United States, but what are the consequences for disabled children within this mindset, and even for the non disabled children?

Living in conditions where one is consistently exposed to the weather or living in a tent on the ground is another issue that might severally constrain and hurt a child with a disability. So while the Naugler’s life is portrayed in the viral posts as being bucolic, one has to ask, whom is it really ideal for? And yes, their blog looks really sweet. So what? So does the Jeub’s, so does the Pearl’s, so do most of the blogs that come from this movement.

Read more about the theoretical concept of Crip Time and the Christian Patriarchy in my essay here, if you are interested. Crip Time is the time that disabled people need in order to learn, thrive, get ready, or do a number of other things. Within these type of highly structured or in the case of the Nauglers, completely unstructured environments, disabled people can have a hard time adjusting to a concept of time designed by one who is able-bodied.

Read Cynthia Jeub’s blog Insights on Epic Living to hear a rare perspective of a child who was raised in this type of family. Yes, the Jeubs have an internet presence, they are friends with the Duggars, they were on TV, they write books and everyone looks happy in the photos. However, the corporal punishment inflicted on the children was right out of “To Train Up a Child”, and Michael and Debi Pearl were close friends of the family. Erika Shupe, a Quiverfull mom who writes “Large Families on Purpose” also cites the Pearls as influences on her blog. The lists go on and on. Before sending money to the Naugler family or decrying their so-called persecution at the hands of government, it is good to really examine the reporting of this story and also to examine the reality of their lifestyle.