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The Beautiful, the Tragic, and the Retarded

by David Yeagley · November 30, 2012 · 19 Comments ·

“Retarded?” No, I’m not talking about the Democrats, or liberal media, like Ann Coulter might. I’m not talking about those who intentionally make foolish choices, as though they were handicapped.

I’m talking about people born with no mind, who can only feel, and not even show much of that. I’m talking about human beings who are dependent on others for their very lives, who require attendance 24/7. I’m talking about bodies without souls.

I’m talking about not just the deformed, but the broken, the forever lost, the empty life forms milling about before us all, and the motionless, vapid bodies reclining in our midst.

Who are they? What are they?

How does God Almighty regard them? Do they have any sense of right and wrong? Do they have any moral responsibility? Are they capable?

Earlier today, when grocery shopping, I saw an older woman in one of the power chairs, gently rolling along the aisle. Behind her, following her, holding on to the back of the chair, was a young girl, probably around 13 or 14. She had beautiful long, wavy brown hair, pale but impeccable, porcelin skin. Then I noticed her dark brown eyes. She was severely retarded. She held on to the back of the chair with one hand. She was being led along, behind the chair, as if she were tied, or hitched–by her own willing hand. She was with apparently her grandmother, who evidently looked after her.

Suddenly, I was ready to burst into raging tears, and to scream out to heaven, “God! God have mercy!” What in Hell was this thing before me? What manner of Damnation moved so gently before my eyes? What curse strolled so innocently down the isle?

How is it to be understood? What does it mean?

Forever. It was forever. The girl would never have a life. She could stand, walk, maybe see, maybe talk a little. Would she ever know love? Would she know joy? Would she ever hear Debussy’s “L’Isle joyeuse“? Did she have any thought of God? Was their any spiritual life present?


Vladimir Horowitz performing Claude Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse [joyous island], written in 1904. Early Horowitz live recording.

The prospect of a human being in but the most hollow image of God is a most unbearable tragedy. I can scarcely sustain the thought. Not long. How can it be?

Robert Castel’s The Regulation of Madness (1988), originally published in 1976 as L’Ordre psychiatrique, offers a simple, objective account of the history of madness in France, beginning with the 1790 Constituent Assembly. From that date, March 27, all “insane” persons would be examined in three months, and either freed or cared for in hospitals especially for them. An interesting concept, but before two centuries passed, the trend became the opposite, to de-institutionalize such “patients.” It was more human to put individuals in home care situations, if at all possible. Group homes. Half-way houses. As society has out-grown much of the superstitions associated with insanity, it seemed the family’s responsibility to care for the needy ones. By the early 1970′s, Thomas Szasz pushed it to the point of suggesting denial that the mental illness was so genuine as the profession of psychiatry had made out to be. See, The Myth of Mental Illness, by Thomas S. Szasz (1974). Of course, Szasz was speaking of neurosis, really, and not retardation or handicap, congenital or acquired.

But the theological question is the same. Are the mentally incapable to be regarded as morally or spiritually incapable also? Do they have hope of eternal life? Parents of such are often remarkably generous, loving, and even forgiving about it. They show nothing but love, special love, for special needs children. But what of eternity? We are theologically nurtured with the thought that eternity is the reward of spirituality–earnestly sought. The pearl of great price is the forgiveness of God. But, can a severely retarded person seek anything but basic bodily functions?

American Indians, at least out on the plains, whenever encountering the “mentally” ill, often called them mud heads. Perhaps this notion came from the Hopi, and the Koyemsi Kachinas. I don’t know. I know I heard of it long ago, from my mother. Indians have an especially simple regard for the mud heads (retarded and Down Syndrome patients). It is not as if anything is particularly wrong with them. Indians just sort of smile at it, if anything.

I know something special happened at the 2012 New Year’s pow-wow hear in Oklahoma City, at the state fair grounds. Mike Burgess (former Comanche Nation chairman) was the MC. I will always remember this pow-wow. Long into the evening, the drum called us farther and farther into the spirit. At a height of intensity, a young white man came out into the arena with the gourd dancers, and starting riding the rhythm, hard! He was short of stature.

He was a mud head.

Lo and behold, he danced like it was the most wonderful feeling he’d ever had–that any human being had ever had. The look on his face was inimitable joy. He had no gourd, and no fan. He wore no Indian clothes. He just came in, came in to the heart of the drum, into the heart of the spirit. He held his left hand, with a fist, higher and higher, and his smile grew wider and wider, as if he were knocking on the door of heaven, and the Spirit of God came into him. Oh, he was high, like no one in the world had ever been high.

Nor was he ashamed, at all. He was utterly unabashed. He was free. For that moment, in that time, in that place, he was in heaven.

It was one of the most remarkable things I’d ever seen. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I know there were tears welled up in my eyes. I was close enough to see Mike, and I could see there were tears in his eyes, too. We felt the same feeling.

It was a holy triumph of some kind. The young man transcended whatever his handicap was. On the beat of the plains Indian drum, he found his wings. We Indians had given him that glory.

In a way, it was a transcendent spiritual moment of us, too. His innocence, his obvious deformity, yet, his obvious joy, his pure delight in the drum. There with us, a horde of Indian gourd dancers, I venture the spirit spoke to all of us.

I shall never forget that strange moment. It was somehow, indeed sacred, in a way I had never known the sacred before.

It was sublime, yet also ridiculous. It was sacred, yet mockery. It was indescribable, yet obvious.

I don’t think anyone there knew the young white mud head. He was foreign but for his free ride on the Indian drum beat. At that moment, he was truly one of us. Maybe even more than us. Yet, he might have been just a local wanderer, who heard the call of the drum. I don’t know.

I know that the mind is our ultimate treasure. Impossible as it is to grasp, consciousness is our only resource. Without it, we lose the imago dei, the image of God. We do not know him.

If a mud head can know joy, can he not also know beauty? Is it a song of degrees? Can he know his Creator?

Posted by David Yeagley · November 30, 2012 · 5:44 pm CT · ·

Tags: American Indians · Arts · Bad Eagle Journal · Christianity · Music · Race · Religion




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19 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Sioux // Nov 30, 2012 at 6:11 pm   

    Oh, Dr. Y, such anguish – some random thoughts after I answer your last question – yes, I do believe these people can know our Loving God through the love of the people who believe in Him. I believe it’s in our genetic code from the time we are born to be receptive to that love.

    Many years ago, when I was still married, my husband had just graduated from college and couldn’t find a job. After awhile he was hired at an institution in Florida for the mentally retarded — the job was cottage “parent” that housed some very large and very retarded men. I’ll never forget dropping him off at work one day, and seeing these men run out of the cottage shouting his name and embracing him in this big group hug. I never felt such love as I felt at

  • 2 Sioux // Nov 30, 2012 at 6:14 pm   

    oops – hit the wrong key again. Any how, you get the drift. Then the job evolved into getting as many of these people of the institution and into the group homes. Some of them did fine (some weren’t even retarded, just deformed). Most needed the consolidated services and trained people to make sure they were safe and well cared for – I think the same could be said for the intractably insane. The drugs may helps some, but it’s kind of just trading one kind of prison for another.

  • 3 David Yeagley // Nov 30, 2012 at 6:34 pm   

    Indeed. My Comanche mother was an RN, you know. (I think the first in the tribe, she and one of her sisters, my Aunt Edna.) Mom for a time was a nursing home administrator. I remember she described one small home that housed a couple of retarded adults. One of the retarded men really appreciated my mother’s work and care.. He one day blurted out to a visiting doctor, “She’s..a gooooood woman!.” The way my mother said this to me was imitative of the retarded speech.

    I tell you it touches my soul, to this day. Something so perfectly pure about their emotions, these mud heads.

  • 4 Sioux // Nov 30, 2012 at 7:10 pm   

    There but for the Grace of God….

    I acted like a total mud head today – this was the deadline for submitting to my hospital’s coercive policy requiring me to get the flu shot & the Tdap or lose my job. My request to wear a mask instead was denied. I just ranted and raved to anyone and everyone in the Occ Med office about this Nazi injustice – my moronic rage was met with sympathy by the nurses who agreed with me, including the one who stabbed me in the arm.

    Truly, being a simpleton who doesn’t pour over the problems of the world sounds very appealing tonight. I plumb wore myself out today :-[

  • 5 Thrasymachus // Nov 30, 2012 at 7:15 pm   

    I just happen now to be reading a book entitled In Defense of Free Will. So far, the book does not address the question of mental retardation. However, it would seem to me that, according to the teaching of this book, it would be impossible for a severely mentally retarded person to be fully or authentically morally responsible, as moral responsibiity is predicated on the ability to say “No!” to our desiring nature’s foolish urges and to act in opposition to them when empowered with a recognition, sustained by an effort of Will, that there exists a moral superiority inherent in a genuinely open alternative course of thought or action, and it seems that such a recognition normally requires intellectual powers of some kind. According to this book, an act of Free Will is ALWAYS a moral act that inhibits one motive (the naturally stronge one) and empowers the other (the naturally weaker) by means of a creative fiat. Otherwise we are acting on “auto pilot.” (I know I’m not wording this perfectly at this point in time.) The Psychology of the Act of Will (as described and taught in the early 1960s) is something I studied years ago (but not in the 60s!) — but I have not memorized it sufficiently to present it here.

  • 6 Thrasymachus // Nov 30, 2012 at 7:19 pm   

    I remember also seeing on television a severely mentally retarded boy swimming in a river among allegators. His parent was terrified. However, it turned out that he was not in danger. The allegators would not attack him because he was absolutely fearless — he did not know that they were potentially dangerous. It is said that the same is true of the rattle-snake. It likewise will rarely attack the truly fearless person.

  • 7 David Yeagley // Nov 30, 2012 at 7:37 pm   

    When I gourd dance, I wear a rattle snake skin draped over my shoulders, head and tail hanging down in front. The head is on, with mouth open and fangs exposed. The rattle is also in place.

    There are Indians who are disturbed by this…

  • 8 Thrasymachus // Nov 30, 2012 at 8:13 pm   

    “When I gourd dance, I wear a rattle snake skin draped over my shoulders, head and tail hanging down in front. The head is on, with mouth open and fangs exposed. The rattle is also in place.” D.Y.

    Chouette! [= (more ore less) "Cool!"]

  • 9 theShadow // Nov 30, 2012 at 9:28 pm   

    “I’m talking about people born with no mind, who can only feel………. I’m talking about bodies without souls.”…DY
    I think, that it might be the other way around: souls without bodies, since what they are missing in reality is a capable body to carry them through life. I have a bit to say on this topic but find it hard since it’s a bit personal to my life.
    Maybe I’ll find the fortitude. One thing though, although it sounds insulting at first, when you really think about it, mud head seems like an accurate description.

  • 10 David Yeagley // Nov 30, 2012 at 9:57 pm   

    I confess, I don’t know the Hopi background on this. Very “spiritual” people, however. I don’t know what they meant by “mud head.” A design? A headdress of some kind, an actor’s mask? A role player? I don’t know. Kind of like an interlocutioner, a clown, an transmigrator, a segueyer.

    Were there retarded people in Jesus day? Did He heal them? What would they have been called, possessed of a dumb spirit? An unclean (impure) spirit? They say He healed anything. What of the retarded?

    Or, does modernity cause by peculiar, unnatural malady? Chemical problems…

    I want these people healed. They have been robbed of life! Robbed of true humanity.

    Do they feel greed, avarice, revenge, you know, the deeper emotions?!

  • 11 theShadow // Nov 30, 2012 at 10:52 pm   

    Slower than molasses might be the closest equivalent to mud head. Slow, dreary, unlike a fresh spring full of life.

    “Do they feel greed, avarice, revenge, you know, the deeper emotions?!” DY
    Could it be that for a moment the white mud head found not heaven, but maybe Eden?

  • 12 Bonus Gift // Dec 1, 2012 at 5:49 am   

    Personally, and possibly my own mental deficiency, I tend to see many things in life through the prism of statistics and principally related probabilities. For me, the “mud heads” are a type of sorts but more of one side of the distribution on certain mental and possibly physical attributes. For example, with respect to mental or cognitive abilities they, by definition, may be limited in our eyes. But just because they are limited in certain cognitive traits doesn’t mean, as you have all pointed out, that they lack a soul.

    What is interesting, and as pointed out by many heartening, is that in many cases they appear more moral than those with more apparent cognitive gifts (and I will resist the temptation to use this as an occasion to mention the idiot/retarded traitor in the WH, oops, my bad). If you think of them in terms of where they fall on a distribution of certain mental or cognitive traits they occupy a portion of the distribution of things like IQ on the low end (i.e., by definition), but as DY pointed out some show extraordinary abilities that we cannot touch. My own theory on this is that as a general rule we have only so much space in our own respective minds/heads and it is often (and clearly not always) the case that someone, mud head or not, that has an extreme mental gift (or conversely extreme “disability”) may be generally compensated by a corresponding extreme disability (or conversely extreme gift). Think of it as a kind of rough physical and mental leveling and equilibrium. For example, I have met two people with extreme memories (what would be called “photographic memories”). One was the CEO of a company, the other one of my cousins. My cousin was left in her bathtub as a baby and suffered brain damage after being submerged. When I was a child I can remember her still by her seemingly odd ability to repeat whole passages from the Bible or seemingly any book she read (and I do mean whole unrehearsed passages word for word). The CEO didn’t have as extreme a case of memory as her, but he would remember what you said last meeting and the one before; but, and it’s a big but, he seemed to lack a certain basic morality. In fact, a few years after I left he and the president of the firm were essentially fired for illegal activities. Where am I going with this? For me, sure it is hard not to be sad about the mentally retarded, but it seems to me that we exist on this planet with many people who clearly aren’t mentally retarded in the mud head sense, but they sure are retarded in the moral and ethical sense while many/most mud heads are clearly not. Maybe, just maybe God has a sense of humor and has decided to balance the ledger just a bit and periodically point out our own arrogance and folly through the mud heads? Obviously, I don’t know but DY’s story makes me think and remember my own interaction with various retarded people (i.e., mud heads and non-mud heads).

  • 13 Ellendra // Dec 1, 2012 at 4:02 pm   

    I’ve had the dubious priviledge of seeing things from both sides of the “mentally handicapped” world. A few years ago a problem with my neck caused pressure to build up in my brain stem, and as a result, I spent nearly 2 years unable to walk and struggling to think clearly enough to recognize my own name. I had to count using my fingers, and get lost before I got to “5″. I’d look at the words on a page and the letters would have no meaning. I swear it felt like someone had taken an ice cream scoop and removed large chunks of my brain.

    I remember finding simple joy in things. As terrifying as it was not to be able to think, at the same time all the complications we put on things got stripped away. I could giggle at the way a flower bobbed in the breeze. I could look strangers in the eye instead of averting my gaze so they wouldn’t think I was staring. I hated the way people treated me like a “thing”, but at the same time I was free of their expectations. I could laugh out loud, or cry, or be silly if I wanted. There was a freedom in it.

    The mind is an amazing thing. It’s too precious to waste, and I thank God every day that he let me have mine back. But I don’t think retardation is quite as much of a curse as people think.

  • 14 Thrasymachus // Dec 1, 2012 at 4:46 pm   

    By far, the worst experience of human life is to have exceptionally high intelligence but be unable to put it to good — and I mean the BEST POSSIBLE — use. To desire to accomplish something significant but find that one has lost one’s way — that is the greatest suffering.

    Ironically, if one American Renaissance-linked article be true, those with very high IQs are more likely to deviate from the norm in ways that people ordinarily find questionable:

    The Downside of Higher IQ

    It’s actually very much worse to have an ultra high IQ and find no worthwhile use for it — or, worse yet, to find a bad use for it — than to be mentally on the low IQ end. To whom God gives little, he demands little.

    The Bible does say that Jesus healed all the mental diseases as well as the physical ones — in one of the translations it says this explicitly.

  • 15 Thrasymachus // Dec 1, 2012 at 6:10 pm   

    The big alternate question may be: Can a man (=human being) be too intelligent for his own good?

  • 16 Thrasymachus // Dec 2, 2012 at 9:01 am   

    Serious food for thought:

    Huston Smith: Beyond the Post-Modern Mind (excerpt) – Thinking Allowed w/ Jeffrey Mishlove

  • 17 David Yeagley // Dec 2, 2012 at 10:28 am   

    I have a friend back east who once OD’d. He was a street kid coming up, and had an abrasive life…

    He said that, in the hospital (recovering), he had a vision of Jesus. (He was Sicilian Catholic). He said he was shown Jesus, crucified. He was shown that Jesus loved him. He told me that he felt it in his soul.

    He told me he couldn’t stop crying, for five days.

    I find great, “eternal” comfort in this simple testimony of my friend, so many years ago.

    We were in New Haven, at the time. Near Brewster Park. I was working at a home for “emotionally disturbed” youth, at the time. I’m still recovering from that experience, actually.

  • 18 David Yeagley // Dec 2, 2012 at 10:32 am   

    This is the same time period when I wrote Jahan-dideh, the epic collection of poetry for Farah Diba Pahlavi; I wrote also my first attempt at a novel, “The Smoking Steps,” a very weird piece of Eastern European history.

    Another one of my beloved Italian friends said, around that time, “No one needs to try and sell Dave any drugs!” (implying I was already spaced out!).

    Ah, life! Too much. Alto belle!

  • 19 Thrasymachus // Dec 2, 2012 at 2:02 pm   

    Visions of Jesus are very significant. When my mother was in hospital, she had turnd ashen gray and they had to rush her to the ER for life-saving. She told me that she had a vision of Jesus in a celestial chapel. In her case, Jesus was a Being of Light — a personal being — in the room. My mother was given answers to some questions about her life experiences which were troubling her — namely, my father’s struggle with (what was most likely) Alzheimer’s Disease — and in which she was reassured that she had done all she possibly could in dealing with these challenges (i.e., she had done all she could for her husband). These things were presented to her in “writing,” and she was asked to promise to continue to live the Christian life — to become a better Christian. The vision included her “signing” the paper presented to her.

    I think these visions are of the utmost importance in the lives of Christians. After all, we are living in very unsettled times.

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