Part 6 in an occasional series about my early years as a social worker (also known as Reminiscence Therapy.)
May contain triggers for abuse
Bobby’s story has been buzzing around in my mind for months, but I’ve been hesitating to write it down. It is so outlandish as to be almost unbelievable. And yet, when I inherited his case as a very junior, inexperienced and unqualified social worker in the 1970’s, I remember that I just took it all in my stride. Working with such people is just what a social worker does, I assumed. And Bobby’s story somehow needs to be told, somewhere.
Bobby was in his 30’s. He had severe learning difficulties. He lived with his mother and two brothers in a primitive cottage in a small village a few miles outside Charwood.
I began by reading Bobby’s file. Bobby’s file went back to his birth in the 1940’s. At birth, he was formally classified as having severe “mental subnormality”. In fact, his official designation was “cretin”. “Idiot” and “imbecile” were other classifications of “mental subnormality” in common clinical use at the time he was born.
Bobby had a full-scale IQ of around 40. I’m not sure how they were even able to calculate that with any degree of certainty. He also had severe congenital abnormalities. He had gargoylism, which I now know to be a genetic condition characterised by dwarfism, learning difficulties and facial abnormalities. Bobby was a little over 4 feet tall, with a barrel chest and a large head, with eyes that somehow appeared to display awareness and intelligence.
His mother also had learning difficulties, as did two of his three brothers. In fact, they had all been inmates of Fairville, the local learning difficulties hospital at various times, and for various reasons. Fairville, despite its name, was a rather miserable looking Victorian asylum in the middle of the countryside which specialised in “mental handicap”, as the politically correct term for it was in the late 70’s (“mental subnormality” having fallen out of favour by the time I began in social work).
The deeper I delved into the file, the more incredible this family’s story appeared.
In the 1920’s, Bobby’s mother had become pregnant at the age of 15. The father was her cousin. The child was born with learning difficulties. Bobby’s mother was placed in Fairville for being a “moral defective” and spent several years there, although subsequently appeared to have been allowed to have her baby back.
Bobby’s mother then had two more sons. It was unclear who the father was, as she never married. One of them I never met, although he also appeared to have had learning difficulties, and the file recorded that he had been incarcerated in Fairville at some stage for being a “moral defective” after being convicted of sexual offences against animals.
Then Bobby’s mother became pregnant again, and gave birth to Bobby.
The file recorded that the social worker at the time that Bobby was about 8 years old conducted a home visit, and Bobby complained to him that he was prevented from sleeping in his mother’s bed because his elder brother kept throwing him out of the room.
There was an investigation. It turned out that Bobby’s eldest brother was, in fact, also his father.
His brother went to court (it appears they spared Bobby’s mother). He was found guilty of incest and was placed in Fairville as being deemed to be a “moral defective”.
But all that was in the past, long before I became Bobby’s social worker.
So despite the extremely murky history, Bobby lived with his mother, a brother who also happened to be his father, and one other brother. The other brother did not have any learning difficulties, and actually held down a full time job.
So what was my task as a social worker with Bobby?
This mainly consisted of supporting his mother as Bobby’s main carer, as well as troubleshooting the scrapes that Bobby got himself into from time to time.
Bobby was far too disabled to attend the local sheltered workshop for people with learning difficulties (such places used to be called adult training centres), so his main pastime was roaming the lanes of the village while chewing a catalogue. He loved catalogues. The bigger the better. He would put it to his mouth as if playing a harmonica, then chew it.
The villagers in general had a high threshold of acceptance for Bobby and his family. But occasionally I would get letters from the clerk to the parish council complaining about his behaviour. The principle problem was Bobby’s need to urinate from time to time during his village forays. He was oblivious to where he might be, or who might be watching, during these necessary interludes. I would then have to have words with Bobby’s mother and write some sort of ameliorating reply to the clerk to the parish council.
During the two years that I worked with Bobby, I never understood a single word he spoke, although his mother appeared to be able to converse with him, and would then interpret.
From time to time, I would arrange respite care for Bobby. This was generally in a respite ward at Fairville.
At other times, I would take him and his mother to see the doctor if he became ill. When Bobby developed a cold or other infection, he appeared to become psychotic. It was apparent from the way he moved his eyes and head that he was responding to voices, and during these times would converse unintelligibly with them.
At Christmas, I would take the family a box of groceries. Charwood Social Services would always receive hampers of basic food items at Christmas, and we would then distribute them to needy clients. Bobby’s mother always made sure she was on my list, by writing me a gentle reminder a little before the time.
“I’m just taking the pleasure in writing to you,” she always began, before launching into a request for assistance. She always signed these letters, “Your Sturly”.
With the benefit of hindsight, and in the light of the many years of changes in Society’s attitude to people with learning difficulties, I do wonder whether there was more that I could have done for Bobby and his mother.
It was as if they were fixed by their life experiences, going back to the 1920’s in his mother’s case, and living as they were in a cottage, and a rural community, which had changed little since Victorian times. Bobby’s mother still remembered the old “Poor Law” system, where it was necessary to defer to those with power over you in order to get even basic support. And there was always the risk of being branded a “moral defective” and being locked up in an asylum if you didn’t toe the line.
But, paternalistic or not, at least the social services department was assisting the family to stay together in the community in which they had always lived.