If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too; …~ Rudyard Kipling, opening stanza from the poem “If”
It’s unusual to read a book and simultaneously have a poem repeating in your head, but that’s exactly what happened as I read Neil Miller’s “Sex-Crime Panic: A Journey to the Paranoid Heart of the 1950s.”
Miller’s text documents the reactions that took place in Sioux City following the brutal murder of two children — an 8-year-old boy and a 22-month-old girl. The murders took place in the mid-1950s, but just as the ripples of reaction documented in the book fan out for decades, there is much that modern day Iowans can take away from the situation.
Just months after the young boy was abducted and murdered (and just months before the young girl was abducted and murdered), state lawmakers created a “sexual psychopath” law, which would presumably rid the streets of those who would prey on children. Unfortunately, the law — as many reactionary laws are — was written vaguely and held realities that the distressed populace was too emotional to consider or, perhaps, even cared to consider.
Under the new law, a county attorney could petition the court to declare anyone charged with a public offense as a “criminal sexual psychopath,” provided that person possessed “criminal propensities toward the commission of sex offenses.” In short, the law made no distinction between those who committed violent sex crimes — rape or child molestation — and those who participated in consensual sex acts with adults, if such acts were considered “deviant.” Following a judicial hearing, individuals given the classification were involuntarily committed to a special detention ward at Mount Pleasant Mental Health Institute (then known as the Mental Health Institute for the Insane and Inebriates at Mount Pleasant). Within the confines of that ward those considered dangers to society would stay indefinitely or until “cured.”
Thirty-five men, gay or bisexual, would eventually occupy the space at Mount Pleasant that had been created to hold 20. They shared one bathtub — and, often, its bath water — but otherwise were not subjected to some of the horrendous techniques that were being used in other parts of the nation to correct “deviant” behavior. (i.e., electroshock, lobotomy)
Miller focuses primarily on the 20 men who were identified during a sting operation in the wake of the second Sioux City child abduction and murder. Nearly all identified as a part of the sting were designated as “sexual psychopaths” and committed to the Mount Pleasant facility for “treatment,” although state mental health professionals had no plan for such therapies and doubts that any homosexual could be “cured.” None of the men had any connection to the murders, but were singled out because of their sexual preference.
This book, which has a 2002 copyright, was one that I picked up a year or more ago at the gift shop in the State Historical Building in Des Moines. Although I know I shouldn’t admit this, it was actually the cover of the book, which features a photo of the Mount Pleasant facility, that drew me to it. I was in the midst of covering a story about the possibility of the state closing one of its four mental health institutions and, from what I already knew about the facilities and their current niche treatment offerings, I believed that Mount Pleasant was the most likely to get the axe. (As it turns out, that was the recommendation that came down in December 2009, but no current plans are underway.)
I brought the book home and promptly forgot about it as I concentrated on more pressing issues. I re-discovered it last week while cleaning around my desk and was intoxicated by it from the first page. Unlike some historical accounts, it reads easily, only diverting to a more dry journalistic style when absolutely necessary.
In retrospect, I’m actually quite thankful that I forgot about purchasing the book for so long. If I had sat down with the book a year ago, I would have been too focused on the descriptions of life in Mount Pleasant instead of really digesting the whole of what is presented.
It is too easy, as Kipling aptly and eloquently points out in his poem, to get swept up in the crowd. And, even when we are strong enough to resist, it is often more easy to completely dismiss a situation than to thoughtfully consider the how and why behind the actions and beliefs of others. In the 1950s in Iowa too many lawmakers, prosecutors, press members and residents allowed themselves to make decisions that, no matter how good intentioned, were not thoughtfully considered.
And while it is also easy to look back on a time when news reporters spoke of homosexuals as “perverts” and shrug it off with an explanation of how far society has come, it would be a mistake to believe that we’ve come so far as to never return.
News of the brutal murder of Jetseta Gage, a Cedar Rapids girl, remains fresh on the minds of eastern Iowa residents. We are rightfully simultaneously angered and sickened by those individuals who harm children, emotions that our lawmakers reflect as they approach policy decisions. The state changes the way it punishes, monitors and treats sex offenders, in part, to placate voters. If we are honest with ourselves, however, we will admit that it makes little difference how close a person previously convicted of a sex crime lives from a library or school when there are cars and buses.
Laws built on emotion often make us feel better, but actually do very little to address the problems that have led to our anxiety. Worst yet, in certain circumstances like those documented by Miller, such laws infringe upon the rights of others to provide their false sense of security.
Bad decisions can be corrected, but the societal impressions and repercussions they set in place can ripple through communities for years. As Miller notes:
… In many respects, Sioux City’s gay community [in 1995] was almost as closeted and hidden as in 1955. Large numbers of gay and lesbian Sioux Cityans moved away or socialized elsewhere — in Omaha or in the Twin Cities. Others hid out in heterosexual marriages. Very few gay people in Sioux City were out to their families, friends, and employers. A survey by Community Alliance found a surprisingly high percentage of Sioux Cityans who believed they had lost jobs because their employers suspected they were gay. … So, Sioux City’s gay population continued to live secret lives, and amidst the invisibility, anti-gay attitudes and stereotypes flourished. There were plenty of towns of similar size around the country where the same situation prevailed, of course. Yet, I couldn’t help wonder if the legacy of the town’s troubled history didn’t make things worse. …