Around 1959 or 1960, a baby with severe disabilities was born at the now-closed St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. In last week’s Psychology Today, Dr. Fredric Neuman, a psychiatrist in New York who was an intern at the hospital, describes the inhumane treatment meted out to the baby in a piece called The Cyclops Child.
Infanticide in New York City, ca. 1960
The obstetrician pronounced the child (whose gender Dr. Neuman does not note, referring to the baby as “it”) to be a “monster” and, fearful of ” the effect on its mother of seeing the child,” told the parents that the baby was born dead. Hospital staff were told that the baby would soon die.
The baby lived for 13 days. The baby was kept in the St. Vincent’s pediatrics ward and not fed or given fluids. Dr. Neuman was instructed by a resident to amputate one of the baby’s extra fingers so he could “use this opportunity as a learning experience.” Nursing staff, many of whom were nuns, were instructed not to comfort the baby and Dr. Neuman, aware from the child’s screams that “the baby was suffering, and so was everyone else,” contemplated killing the child by suffocation.
Dr. Neuman writes of his disbelief whenever the baby — clearly not considered a human being — showed signs of pain and suffering:
Because it did not look like a human being, most of the time no one was disturbed by it; until it cried! Then it sounded like any other baby.
The kid was in pain. It could feel pain. I should have realized that, but somehow I did not. It was because the baby did not really look like a baby, I thought.
In his response to comments about The Cyclops Child, Dr. Neuman seeks to justify not only his actions but what he wrote about the baby. If you ask me, he only implicates himself further with statements such as:
…no one would want a memento about having given birth to this child.
The Cyclops child is too strange for anyone to imagine. But, perhaps, the reader can imagine something else. Try to imagine an interaction between that child and its mother. Imagine her reaction to this horribly deformed child doomed, obviously, to die. I think the mother would have been crippled by seeing the baby she just gave birth to. Perhaps you think I am exaggerating. Is it possible to be crippled simply by seeing something? It is. I have seen someone marred permanently by seeing a twin brother who was walking besides him crushed by falling masonry. More than one soldier has been damaged permanently by standing next to a friend who has been blown apart.
A Monstrous Piece of Writing
I read the essay last night and I have not been able to get the baby, born with holoprosencephaly, out of my thoughts. I want to go back in time and march over to the baby’s crib and hold her or him.
I hope you will read Dr. Neuman’s account. It reads like a confession. It is one of the most monstrous pieces of writing I have read.
My response to Dr. Neuman’s post is that of a parent of a teenage son who is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum. My son Charlie’s disability was not apparent when he was born and I suspect that Dr. Neuman would argue that Charlie’s case is completely different. But the patronizing tone towards parents in Dr. Neuman’s post — the notion that the baby’s mother would have been “crippled” to see her child — was precisely that levied at parents of autistic children in the same period. Accused of causing autism in their children by being emotionally “frigid” refrigerator mothers, parents had their autistic children taken away from them “for their own good,” just as the doctors at St. Vincents decided about the baby.
Dr. Neuman states that the baby has “haunted” him through the years. A reader may wonder why he chose to write The Cyclops Child.
Photo by jessicafm
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