Authors: Evelyn Piper
To the real Virgie
Dr. Bee had asked Sarah to bring the ceramic figure Joey had made of himself in crafts to the staff meeting, so she carefully set it on Dr. Bee's desk and stepped back. Then, on an impulse, she bent the gooseneck lamp so that the figure was spotlighted. Obviously, she told herself, she wanted the staff to see it while they discussed Joey's going home.
She went and sat on the window sill and stared at the eight-year-old body, the pipestem arms and legs, the big head precariously balanced on the long delicate neck. Joey had made clumsy thumb indentations for the eyes, but somehow they were Joey's, enormous, cavernous, unplumbed. She particularly wanted the staff to see Joey's eyes while they discussed his going home.
This room, which had been the dining room when the huge ornate stone house had been the local mansion, was now Dr. Bee's office. His flat-topped Swedish modern desk, the Eames chairs and the spider-legged typewriter table looked not only incongruous, butâ
â¦? Temporary, she decided, on sufferance here. The High House School (for Disturbed Children) was not a money-making proposition and could not afford the kind of modern building which would have matched Dr. Bee's thoroughly modern methods. Sarah told herself that the children weren't disquieted by the heavy dark paneling, the big shadowy rooms, the slits of windows; only she was, and, she reminded herself, Dr. Bee's rich visitor, Mrs. Wilson, who was here “observing,” might decide to give the school a new building.
Uncomfortable alone, Sarah went out into the hall to see whether any of the others were coming. She was the first down, because, being only a probationer, her duties were lightest. Each of the other members of the staff was in charge of a dormitory and had to wait until the children were quieted, which, sometimes took hours. She glanced up the stairwell which went to the third floor. From here the thickly carved mahogany banister looked like a monstrous serpent writhing down. That must be why she wished the modern furniture wasn't so lightweight! She felt that this serpent house might at any moment decide to rear up and shake them off its back and â¦ and that the dark forces in human life might rear up and shake off psychiatry's puny attempts to control
“I'm a fine one,” she told herself. “What's the matter with me tonight?” High House was a damn good school. Dr. Bee had done wonders for the children, she told herself. The members of the staff, she told herself, nodding and smiling to them as they came downstairs, were wise and dedicated men and women. They would
, she told herself.
The staff went into Dr. Bee's office and talked quietly among themselves until Dr. Bee came in with Mrs. Wilson. Olaf gave her his chair and squatted on the floor. Dr. Bee seated himself at the chair behind the desk and immediately began the discussion, pointing at the figure of Joey with the stem of his pipe. “For our visitor's sake, I am going to go over Joey's story briefly. Francis, will you bring me his case history file?”
The paneling of the wall opposite the windows slid back to reveal an enormous safe which must have been for silver when this was a mansion but in which they now kept the papers they did not wish the children to see. Everybody waited while Francis brought out three thick folders. “Here,” Dr. Bee said, rustling pages, “is the Initial Intake Note.” He read: “This six-year-old boy appears to be about his stated age. Physical examination reveals a tall, normally developed six-year-old who is so thin as to be emaciated. Blood pressure 140 over 60. Urine analysis negative. Blood study negative.” Dr. Bee smiled at Mrs. Wilson. “Except to assure you that we do a complete physical work-up on each child, this won't mean anything to you. So â¦” he pulled on his pipe. “Joey was born in and lived in Manhattan. Until he was four, he was an only child. At three, to give him companionship, he was sent to a good progressive nursery school where â¦ we've checked this, of course â¦ he was a dreamboat.”
Because Dr. Bee avoided trade terminology he substituted slang, generally out of date, like “dreamboat.” Sarah found this endearing.
“In fact, everything was hunky-dory until baby brother came along.”
“Sibling rivalry!” cried Mrs. Wilson, bouncing up triumphantly, like a child who knows the answer.
Dr. Bee nodded. “Yes, the usual sibling rivalry, only with certain complications. After the birth of the second child, Joey's mother became seriously ill with thrombophlebitis and they had to have someone take complete charge of the infant. Through Mr. Fane's secretary, an English girl, they got hold of an English nursemaid, an old maid nursemaid in her â¦” he glanced at the notes â¦ “seventies, in her seventies, but, according to the family she had worked for, a gem. Full time, sleep in. There was a pile of expenses, naturally, so Joey was taken out of his nursery school, since the English nursemaid could handle him along with baby brother.
“By the time Mrs. Fane recovered, they had become very much attached to the nursemaid and kept her on. Now we skip two years, to when Joey was six and baby brother two. This is a Thursday afternoon, nurse's day off. Little brother is playing with Joey's big blocks in the playroom. Once again, Joey is Little Lord Fauntleroy and when Dearest asks him to give up his precious blocks to the baby, he does so. Joey retreats to his favorite toy â¦ water. He goes to the sink in the bathroom off the playroom and, as always happens, little brother soon becomes bored with what was given him and comes into the bathroom, one of Joey's big blocks in hand. He immediately wants what Joey has now. This is the way of little brothers, only nowadays we don't let them get away with it.
“With the help of the bathroom step, with which little brother is being trained by the nursemaid to urinate like a gentleman, he can reach the faucet, and does. He gets possession of it and poor Joey is driven beyond endurance. He cannot pry that tenacious little hand away from his faucet. He knows from bitter experience that if authority is called in, he will once again be asked to defer to little brother. It is too much. He grabs the big wooden block little brother has put down and hits with it. Little brother falls, overturning the stool. He strikes his forehead against the corner of it and is knocked unconscious.
“Joey is frightened by the silence and by the blood â¦ there is a lot of blood. Because he is afraid he will be punished â¦ nursie has punished him whenever he has asserted his right to anything â¦ he leaves the child and retreats into another bathroom, locking the door. In fact, Joey makes like it never happened. This is what we would all like to do when we get into trouble, of course, Mrs. Wilson, only we can do it more successfully when we are six. Joey begins to play with the water there. The sound alerts his mother. She is concerned that there will be complaints from the Downstairs again. (Joey has done this once before. We understand this, Mrs. Wilson; some of our boys, not our girls but our boys, who have been overpowered by their mothers â¦ in this case by the mother substitute, the English nanny â¦ flood our bathrooms regularly. It is a symbolic gesture. They wish to flood the whole world. We understand this need, but all Joey's mother understood was that she would get hell from the Downstairs.) Joey will not let his mother into the bathroom, so she has to get the Super, et cetera, and by the time the other child is missed, he is dead.”
“How awful,” Mrs. Wilson said. “Oh, how
” She put her hand over her mouth and over it her eyes rolled. “But the poor child didn't mean to.â¦ Did they blame him, Dr. Bee? Oh, how could they blame the child! I mean he didn't mean to.â¦ Did they?” she asked.
“We must try to put ourselves in their place,” Dr. Bee said gently. “Remember, we love
children. We must try to feel what our reaction would be when it
that one of our children deliberately saw to it that our helpless baby bled to death.”
“This is not a vicious criminal! This is a baby of six!”
“Yes. We can assume that the Fanes tried to do their best because they called in a child psychiatrist and then he told them how to handle it and then, as far as we can discover, they acted â¦” he paused to find a substitute for the clinical phrase â¦ “according to Hoyle.” Then he raised his thick shoulders to his ears. “Hoyle-schmoyle! Life is no game with rules which work â¦ certainly not when life deals a kid a hand which contains the death of his younger brother.”
“You mean the sibling rivalry? You mean that Joey felt guilty anyhow because he really did have death wishes against his younger brother?”
“His mother thought so. He certainly didn't take it â¦
. Joey began to refuse his food. I mentioned he was emaciated when he came to us.” He pointed at the figure of Joey. “He isn't exactly fat now, but when he came to us he was skin and bones and eyes. Also, he retreated to his small room like an animal to his cave.”
“Yes. He was in trouble. And then they discovered he had taken a rope from some closetâstrong, thick rope. When his mother found this rope in his bed, she broke up.”
“He was going to hang himself! He couldn't forgive himself! No matter whether his parents forgave him or not, he couldn't!”
“We don't know, Mrs. Wilson. You'd be surprised how little we know. But Joey asked us for a rope first thing when he came here and we gave him one.”
“No!” Mrs. Wilson said. “How could you?”
“As far as possible, we give the children what they want. Of course we watched him very, very carefully and â¦” he grinned â¦ “he's still here.”
“Did you ask him what he wanted it for?”
“What's the folk saying? Ask a stupid question, you get a stupid answer? I don't mean you're stupid, Mrs. Wilson. I mean with disturbed children you ask a direct question, you get a useless answer. From watching Joey, we don't think he meant to hang himself, perhaps the rope was for protection.” He rubbed his pipe between his palms. “Joey was scared stiff.”
Mrs. Wilson breathed tragically. “Scared of retribution? An eye for an eye â¦ a life for a life! Did he think he was in danger of his life? Did he have paranoid delusions?”
“We can call Joey's fear a delusion since it couldn't be true, but Joey was definitely not paranoid. This is why a school like ours is valuable, Mrs. Wilson. Here a child like Joey learns that he is not alone in his fears. Most of our children believe that adults are dangerous to them. Well, now we come to the happier part. When Joey arrived, not only did he appear to be in fear of his life, but he seemed equally afraid that if he even
anger against anyone he would kill him as he had killed his brother. In the time Joey has been here he has learned that other children are jealous of their siblings and that we accept this. It does not horrify us. He has learned that other children hit out for their rights without its ending in death, and he has learned he has a right to his rights.
“There is an extremely disturbed child whom Joey has been able to make contact with. This child fears
adults. All adults are out for his neck, Mrs. Wilson, even Dr. Bee! Well, Joey has learned, slowly, little by little, that in this school we are to be trusted. He calls Simon's fears â¦ what is it, Sarah?”
“The imaginaries. Simon has the imaginaries, he will say.”
“But so tenderly,” Sarah said. “He isn't making fun of Simon. He tries so hard to help Simon with his imaginaries. Joey is the sweetest little boy!”
“Yes, he is,” Dr. Bee said. Because he disliked even the symbolic authoritarianism of a desk, he now rose and came around to the front and sat on the desk. As Dr. Bee's weight came down, the ceramic figure wobbled and Sarah gasped as it was steadied just in time. Dr. Bee smiled at Sarah. He was a big fat man, his thighs as they pressed against the edge of the desk were massive. “A regular bull in the china shop!”