The Shocking Truth

By Paul Kix | Boston Magazine |

This is the machine.

It is a gray square of hard plastic, looks like a garage door opener but is perhaps double the size of one. Inside this square is the circuit board and all that is evil and beneficent and contentious about the machine. But the square itself couldn’t be more pedestrian. Fastened to it, by Velcro, is another casing of hard plastic, another square, which houses a 12-volt battery. Dangling from the machine’s corners are wires, and at the ends of these wires, electrodes that emit 60 volts and 15 milliamps of electricity in two-second bursts. The electrodes are attached to the arms, legs, or stomachs of roughly half of the 209 students at the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton. The machine’s sole purpose is to shock these students. The shocks are viewed by JRC, and pretty much only JRC, as a corrective therapy.

It is a painful shock; you hear all sorts of stories about it. JRC’s lawyers used to let journalists receive it, but not anymore. They can watch, though. They can watch Ralph Antonelli, director of quality control training at JRC, a wiry man with swept-back black hair, secure an electrode to his right forearm, the machine on the table before him, and the transmitter for it, the little remote control that staffers hold at all times, sitting next to that. They can watch as Antonelli presses the button and his forearm tenses and his middle and ring fingers shoot downward toward his palm. Then they can watch his face, relaxed even as the transmitter is beeping and the electrode is bzzzing his skin. "See?" he says. "Just two seconds and it’s over." Some liken it, as Antonelli does, to a bee sting. Others, including a student who’s received it, call it the longest two seconds of their lives. One thing is certain about the machine, known as the Graduated Electronic Decelerator: What we just witnessed isn’t it at its most powerful. There is a version that is three times stronger.

The school says that the GED needed more juice. The mentally handicapped and behaviorally impaired students who attend JRC, who are in fact its lone attendees, weren’t responding to the machine. So in the early 1990s, a couple of years after the GED was first developed, the school made a new one—upping the milliamps from 15 to 41 and the voltage to 66, and calling it the GED IV. Even at its higher capacity, the GED IV still carries less power than a stun gun, a defibrillator, or a cattle prod. But the GED IV, as well as the base model, has been found in numerous state reports and in the accounts of former JRC staffers to burn students’ skin. Some have been taken off it for a month at a time as a result. And then put back on.

These students are severely autistic, mentally retarded, or behaviorally challenged children and adults. JRC is the only school in the country to shock them—using a machine it alone manufactures, a machine it distributes to no one else. Some Massachusetts legislators who’ve filed bills this year to limit the use of the machine call it "barbaric" and the school "like Abu Ghraib."

The legislators are only half-correct. Spend enough time around the machine and it will test everything you know about right and wrong.

This is the machine’s inventor. He is an unassuming old man, short and with a slight potbelly, rounded shoulders, half a head of curly white hair, and warm eyes. He looks as if he could be Fred Rogers’s older brother. Matthew Israel, 75, is the founder and executive director of JRC, which he incorporated under a different name in 1971. Israel responded to questions for this article only by e-mail, but while watching the school’s promotional video one notices the softness of Israel’s voice, just above a whisper and even-toned, even while describing the GED’s purpose. One notices the academic’s indifference to dress: Israel often wears suits when he’s photographed, but the tie droops a few inches below his belt line and the jacket fairly engulfs the tiny man. In Israel’s writings on the school’s website and in interviews he has given, one notices his dream, as grand as anyone’s in Hollywood but documented and executed better than most scientists’. Matthew Israel is out to save those that society discards.

He grew up in Brookline, the son of a lawyer and the younger of two brothers. Israel had loving parents; they rarely spanked him, and punishment was never emphasized. At Brookline High School he was one year ahead of Michael Dukakis. They ran cross-country together and became good friends.

Israel entered Harvard in 1950 unsure of what to do with his life. Later that freshman year he picked up Walden Two, a novel by the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner, who taught at Harvard. The controversial book is about a utopian society where behaviors can be modified for the benefit of all inhabitants. It is based on Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning: If an action is rewarded, it increases the likelihood that the person will perform the action again. This is, after all, how Skinner had taught pigeons to play table tennis: by rewarding the behaviors that led to their game. Israel loved Walden Two and Skinner’s theory. He wanted to start his own utopian community based on its ideals. For the next 10 years, he studied under Skinner, first as an undergrad; then as a grad student; and finally as a postdoctorate fellow, after having received his Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard in 1960.

Following his time at Harvard, Israel started a commune in 1967 in Arlington. He hoped to grow it into his utopia. The previous year Israel had founded the Association for Social Design, whose objective was to "establish a network of associated experimental communities in cities throughout the world," writes Hilke Kuhlmann in the 2005 book Living "Walden Two": B. F. Skinner’s Behaviorist Utopia and Experimental Communities. Israel’s Arlington commune was the first step toward something he was tentatively calling "Walden Three."

At the commune, Israel lived next to a spoiled three-year-old named Andrea. Andrea whacked people with a broom. She screamed. She cried. She wanted always to barge into Israel’s room. He asked Andrea’s mother if he could try behavioral techniques on the girl. She agreed. Israel rewarded Andrea when she behaved well—going on walks with her and giving her treats. And one day when Andrea screamed as she sat in time-out, he flicked his finger against her cheek. The girl quieted down, and he left the room. A few minutes later, she started up again. Israel returned and once more flicked his finger. The crying stopped for good. In the days and weeks that followed, Israel could look at Andrea when she acted out and shake his head, and the girl would stop. She became a "charming individual," Israel once told Mother Jones.

Soon after that, Israel’s commune fell apart. As did a second he started in the South End. As did, ultimately, the Association for Social Design, despite the fact that it had expanded to three other cities. In Living "Walden Two," Kuhlmann blames Israel, suggesting he, as the commune’s patriarch, wanted his inhabitants to live lives based on altering one another’s behavior; the others in the communes and the association thought this was no life at all. Israel says the communities fell apart because the people living in them didn’t get along. Simple as that.

But he wasn’t ready to give up. He thought if he opened a school, he could provide the commune’s inhabitants with jobs. A self-sustaining economy might lead, ultimately, to utopia. Plus, he kept thinking about the success he’d had with Andrea. Skinner had experimented only with rats and pigeons, but Israel had had this little girl, a real person, whose behavior had changed as surely as Skinner’s vermin’s. Israel wanted his school to serve autistic children&mda
sh;their actions could be changed with fewer social ramifications, Kuhlmann writes—where he could implement the theories his predecessor had tested in the lab. But the pupil would differ from his teacher: He would punish the children when necessary. Skinner never advocated that.

  • http://illusionofcompetence.blogspot.com Zoe

    Wanting your kids to be tortured isn’t love. Threatening to “blow their brains out” isn’t love either. Why do we call it “abuse” when this happens to non-disabled kids, but “love” in this case? It’s shameful that you would write a story that portrays threatening your child’s life as acceptable behavior.

  • Shain

    I’ve been studying JRC for four years now, and still – don’t ask me how – I manage to be surprised by how they and their supporters think about people with disabilities. This article reads like a list of all the reasons why they should shut down, except that the conclusion its author has reached is that all of what they’ve done is justified by virtue of who they’re doing it to. It takes a special kind of “othering” of people with disabilities to think them so incomprehensible and unreachable that this is an acceptable, let alone the only, way of dealing with them. And to portray it as love, for a parent to essentially threaten their child’s life if they were ever to be free of it…! I don’t see how such a statement could or should ever be viewed in a favorable light.

  • Alex

    Anyone who supports this kind of cruelty towards children has no conscience. The fact that JRC remains open is absolutely appalling — as is the fact that the author of this article apparently thinks a parent saying “I would blow [my son]‘s freakin’ brains out” represents anything resembling “love.”

  • Des

    I worked for JRC when it was located in Rhode Island. It was the most uncomfortable environment to work in and my heart went out to the students there who had to endure Matt Israel’s self important ego. The group homes were decorated richly and both the homes and school made to look happy and functional in front of visitors…but in my opinion, it was no more than one man’s power trip. Employee morale was not good, not sufficiently trained staff (Ie: People educated and trained to work with autistic or otherwise mentally challenged individuals). To me, it was nothing more than Matt Israel playing God. And the “behavior modification”? – Nothing but cruel and seriously disturbing. I saw cattle prods in the electronics department, a bomb threat once, and nothing but a bunch of people who I sincerely believe did not enjoy nor believe in working there or working for what the school REALLY stood for. Matt Israel is a sick man.

  • Lily

    This is one of the most disturbing articles on institutionalization that I have ever read. I’m ashamed to be a part of a society that considers this acceptable behavior. Eerily, the author did not seem to challenge JRC’s methods at all, but instead turned this institution and its founder into a hero. Serious abuse has gone on in this place, and some continues today. Moreover, the way that the institution views the mentally ill is extremely archaic. I encourage you to please, PLEASE do more substantial research in the future on issues concerning mental health in our country and institutionalization when writing an article like this, particularly on the positive effects of drug therapy.