Knowing my interest in such things, my daughter recommended a documentary to me last week. I was doing a bit of cleaning and decided to watch it while I did my work. I rarely just sit when a program is playing. Call it attention deficit disorder or obsessive compulsive behavior, I can’t seem to quell my energy long enough to just stay in one spot unless I am writing or working on a tutoring project. This particular program, however, was so compelling that it captured my attention totally and I was soon in a chair taking copious mental notes about its content. I also found myself sobbing, the reasons for which will become clear as I discuss the remarkable film, Brother’s Keeper.
The documentary was produced in the early nineteen nineties by fledgling film makers who took out a bank loan to purchase the equipment that they needed. They had been transfixed by the story of the Ward brothers who lived in rural Munnsville, New York. Bill, Delbert, Roscoe, and Lyman had grown up on a dairy farm and when their father died while they were still young boys they dropped out of school and did all of the work to keep the family business going for their mother. Sadly she died in nineteen sixty five when they were all still quite young men. After her death the brothers became reclusive, only going into town to eat breakfast and carry out matters related to running the dairy farm.
The Ward boys were outcasts because they lived in a way that few in the modern world would comprehend. They never bathed nor washed their clothes. They simply threw their garments away when they became too worn to wear. They lost their teeth early and grew unruly beards. Their tiny house was filthy and so small that they had to share beds just as they had done as young boys. None of them ever married. Instead they relied on one another for companionship. Their days were relentlessly uneventful as they cared for their cows and other animals. They lived in poverty and squalor seemingly without realizing how dire their social and economic situation actually was.
On a morning in nineteen ninety one of the brothers ran to a neighbor’s farm to ask for help. Brother Bill was in very bad shape and possibly even deceased. When police and medical personnel arrived they found the man dead in his bed. It initially appeared to be just another old person dying from the effects of age, nothing to be concerned about. When the Medical Examiner checked the body, however, he found some spots of blood that lead him to be suspicious that the cause of death was more sinister. Therefore the police returned to question the three remaining brothers.
The lawmakers took all three of the Wards to police headquarters and after hours of interrogation Delbert signed a statement confessing to suffocating his brother, asserting that the deceased had been complaining of pain for some weeks. He would later claim that the police had demonstrated to him how he had murdered his brother and that he had only agreed to sign the document because he thought he would be able to go home if he did. Because he had only a third grade education and an IQ of about 63 it is doubtful that he was able to either read or understand what he the information contained in the written confession. Furthermore he did not have his glasses with him and would not have been able to see the words even if he were able to read. When he was charged with murder the people in the small town became enraged and joined together to help him in his defense.
While the citizens of Munnsville had generally avoided the Ward boys, they nonetheless knew them to be good if ignorant men who minded their own business and worked hard to eke out a subsistence living. They were appalled that anyone would accuse any of the men of a crime as violent as murder. They raised Delbert’s bail money and even held events in his honor. For the first time the Ward boys felt that they were part of a loving community.
The film follows the story all the way through Delbert’s trial and the final verdict. With a disturbing poignancy it shows the effects of low intelligence, lack of education, mental difficulties, social isolation, and poverty. The Ward brothers were throw backs to another era in our history. The modernity of the world had all but passed them by save for an ancient refrigerator and a small television that were the most precious of their possessions. They had no heat in their home even though winter temperatures were often brutal. There was no running water either. They had long ago given up on cleanliness so that decades of filth lay all around them. They had been left to themselves and their own resources as long as they didn’t bother anyone. People simply thought them odd but did little to help them until they were finally in dire trouble.
Watching the story of the Ward boys was heart breaking and I cried multiple times. It was difficult to view but something that I felt I compelled to do. As Mike and I have traveled in our trailer we have often driven into areas so different from our urban environment as to make us uncomfortable. The abject poverty of some people is all too apparent. The opportunities in some places are so few. We see evidence of social rot on virtually every trip that we take. There are thousands and thousands of Ward boys in our country that we rarely take the time to consider. Through combinations of ignorance and illness they have to fight just to stay alive. They often become hopeless. They are part of a great American tragedy that we don’t always see up close.
The interesting thing about the Ward brothers is that they were actually quite hard working men. They did not simply sit around waiting for welfare checks. They arose early each day and cared for their livestock even when snow covered the ground. They lived much like our ancestors would have. They never owned a car and their needs were quite simple. They often ate soup for dinner and virtually never enjoyed the kind of entertainment that most of us take for granted. They didn’t feel sorry for themselves either. They were rather stoic and taciturn individuals. They had figured out a way to survive from one day to the next that seemingly worked for them.
As an educator I often wondered and worried about some of my students who struggled so mightily to learn. They too lived in poverty and were part of an unbroken cycle of one generation after another barely scraping by. Sometimes I became angry that we had so few answers and options for them. Our educational systems all too often fail the very people who most need the knowledge and the skills necessary to do better than just living forever on the edge. We can’t all go to college nor would we want to. Instead of only celebrating those who earn degrees we should also individualize our efforts for our students to include training and certifications for becoming electricians, mechanics, welders, plumbers and other skilled craftsmen.
Simply throwing money at our economic problems isn’t enough. Even today coal mininers in Kentucky and West Virginia are unemployed and unsure how to proceed in a rapidly changing environment. Rather than just giving them compensation we must also be aware of the need to retrain them and to bring alternative job opportunities into their communities. It’s easy to pass environmental legislation that seemingly helps us all but more difficult to take into account those who will lose their livelihood. We can’t just ignore the plight of those among us who have become chronically poor. Education is our main weapon for combating such situations but we can’t simply create a one size fits all curriculum and think that we have done our best. If we are honest we will admit that we have let down so many of our children just as the town of Munnsville forgot the Ward boys.
We are all our brother’s keepers. We can’t turn our heads away when we see horrific situations. The problems will not go away if we ignore them. We need the seriousness and the willingness to tackle them honestly and as a community. Hats off to those who are battling in the trenches as educators, doctors, and counselors. The work that they do will bring change to one person at a time.