Review: American Snake Pit: Hope, Grit, and Resilience in the Wake of Willowbrook by Dan Tomasulo

Reviewed by D. M. Clark

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cover of american snake pit - a collage of handsAmerican Snake Pit: Hope, Grit, and Resilience in the Wake of Willowbrook (Stillhouse Press, May 2018) covers a chaotic time in Dan Tomasulo’s life. The book centers on how he and those of his staff handled a group home for those with mental disabilities during the advent of the “group home” model, as opposed to the state-run mental institution model long held in place at the time in America. The book starts out with a startling and violent scene involving his soon to be patient. Here’s a sample of what is to come: “I never tasted another person’s blood before Sophia’s.” That’s just the opening line to the book.

Like I said, chaotic.

“Dr. Dan” as he is so affectionately called by staff and patient alike takes on the monumental job of caring for people with special needs in one of the most infamous mental institutions in the history of America: Willowbrook. If this facility sounds familiar, you’ve probably seen the footage of a young, then unknown television reporter taking a film crew inside the doors of a horrifying institution where people were left to rot in their own filth without any treatment whatsoever, and he did it without the administration of the “hospital” knowing about it. That reporter’s name? Geraldo Rivera.

The footage aired all over New York State and helped launched Geraldo’s career. Here’s a link to the video, but I warn you, it is very hard to watch.  It was so bad that Senator Robert Kennedy in a 1965 press conference stated that, at Willowbrook, the state “had a situation which borders on a snake pit.”

Dr. Dan was the new guy at Willowbrook when the public became aware of the atrocities happening within its walls. There was also a shift in thinking at the time about how to care for those with special needs. He didn’t realize this yet, but Dr. Dan was on the cusp of a new era in treatment for the mentally disabled in this country. I don’t know if one could quite call it a tidal shift in thinking, but it was certainly a hard jolt to the consciousness of every American. Legislation was passed and the group home model of rehabilitation and care was given a go.  Lucky for us, Dr. Dan helmed one of the first of its kind in the U.S.

And that’s where most of the book takes place. Dr. Dan was picked to head up a group home and charged with taking in and caring for some of the toughest patients not only from Willowbrook, but from around the country. These were the people even the most forward thinking institutions couldn’t handle. These men and women were, in a word, tough. Tough in every aspect of that word: tough to calm down, tough to keep from eating glass and inanimate objects, tough to keep from throwing a full couch through a wall, tough to understand, diagnose, treat and care for. Dr. Dan, though, has a knack for taking the supreme difficulties with these people in strive.

The meat of story centers around Dr. Dan starting this new facility, the patients he gets, and the staff he hires. Many chapters center around a single person or how they interact with the group—character sketches, in other words. There’s Mike the giant who has explosive rage and inhuman strength, who threw aforementioned couch through the wall and can rip fire systems from the ceilings. There’s Lilith, an enormous woman who compulsively eats and constantly hits on anything that moves, that becomes so overcome by her need for food that it takes several staff members and medication to pull her away from the fridge before she chokes, and who ends every conversation by pointing her finger at someone’s nose yelling “Think about it!” Then there’s…

I could really go on and on, but I really don’t want to spoil it. The same amount of detail is spent talking about his dedicated staff members, and after a while you can see the staff is really a gang of misfit toys, so to speak. There’s an ex-con who recovered from injuries in Vietnam by becoming the Tenzo at a Buddhist monastery; there’s a hard-nosed, saucy British lady who is basically Dr. Dan’s assistant and handles all the patients far better than Dr. Dan ever does (but she loves to wear proactive clothing and has the body to back it up), and… again, let’s not give it away. But the point is these people have at least one chapter devoted to them. I think it might be a way of showing Dr. Dan’s deep affection and appreciation for everyone involved in the home. Whatever his motivation for laying the chapters out in this fashion, it really works.

There is a problem though. A big problem. The little New York town that holds Walden House (as the group home was coined) didn’t want them there. In fact, they hated them. It seemed everyone in the town feared what would happen with all “those” people in their community, and the two biggest opponents were the town mayor, and the town fire chief (who, incidentally, were brother-in-law’s).

Chief Willy is the worst. He constantly belittles the residents of Walden House, regaling them with every derogatory term for those with mental needs one could think of. An asshole, really. And this asshole wants these people gone and has the power to banish them. Why? Because all the inhabitants of Walden House (Dr. Dan included) have to meet New York State’s mandatory two-minute limit for exiting the house in a fire drill. Should they fail, Dr. Dan and company will lose their occupancy permit resulting in all the patients being sent back to institutions, and the subsequent closing of the home.

Even the most caring person among us would fold after the unending setbacks the home experiences, but Dr. Dan and his staff are nothing else if not resilient. Along the way breakthroughs are made with the patients, and little by little the group home becomes not just a group home, but a family home in its place.

I’m going to stop right there because going any further will reveal too much. It’s a very humble, honest, humane book by a man anyone would be proud to call their doctor.

Think about it!

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