PARIS — Carole Barrett first learned of “The State Boys Rebellion” by chance, some five years after the book was published in 2004.
When Barrett searched online last year for the obituary of her grandmother, Dorothy Zupokfska, the results included an online preview of the book. Though it referenced Dorothy, the greater focus was on Joe Zupokfska, Carole’s father.
“I thought to myself, ‘This can’t be right,’” she said.
However, the unique name and details about his background confirmed the identity. It was the first she and her family had heard of Zupokfska’s time in the Walter E. Fernald State School in Waltham, Mass., an institution for people with developmental disabilities.
“I regret partly that I found it, and then I didn’t know what to do with it,” she said. “I just felt like I had to share it with him.”
Barrett, of Paris, let her sister and mother know about the discovery before telling her father. Zupokfska, 66, who lived in Waterford for decades until he moved to Paris last year, said that up until that point, he had only confided his time at the school with his doctor and lawyer.
“It tore me apart,” Zupokfska said, “because I thought it was all in the past.”
“The State Boys Rebellion” was written by Michael D’Antonio, author and former Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist from Long Island, NY. The book chronicles the abuses at the Fernald school, which D’Antonio says once sought to isolate “undesirable” children. Though the children were seen as “morons” and future criminals, they were often not actually disabled but committed based on flawed IQ tests, according to published reports. The key figure in the book is Fred Boyce, who spent 11 years at the school and died in 2006 at the age of 65.
During the 1940s and 1950s, young boys and girls at the school were denied proper education, abused emotionally and sexually, and used for unpaid labor, according to published reports. It was later revealed that in exchange for special privileges, members of the school’s Science Club were given oatmeal laced with radioactive elements to study how the body absorbs calcium and iron, reports state. Zupokfska was one of them, his daughter said.
Researchers insisted that the radioactive doses were low enough that they would not be harmful. However, the parents of the Science Club children were never informed that radiation would be involved in the studies. Several former club members ultimately sued the federal and state governments, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Quaker Oats. The case was settled for $3 million, or about $50,000 to $60,000 per plaintif, according to court documents.
“I wanted to tell a previously untold story of American society, showing how innocent individuals can be harmed by an idea — eugenics — gone awry,” D’Antonio said via e-mail.
Zupokfska, whose mother placed him in the school in 1957 when he was 13 or 14, is mentioned in two anecdotes in the book. Boyce befriended Zupokfska and recalled that he was tough but unskilled in fighting. He advised Zupokfska that if someone bullied him, he should “pop him a real good one” so others would leave him alone.
D’Antonio writes that Zupokfska “could see that classes at Fernald were a waste of time.” He was able to get his mother to apply for his release months after he was placed there, and gave his Dracut, Mass., address to Boyce before going. When Boyce made an escape attempt early in 1958, he made his way to Zupokfska’s home. He stayed there for eight days, working as a painter’s helper and giving his earnings to Dorothy Zupokfska, before he was found and taken back to Fernald.
Zupokfska received only a third grade education, but was able to find employment after his time at Fernald. His jobs included changing lights on radio towers, sandblasting work, and operating a farm. He had five daughters and a son with his wife, Eleanor, and now has 14 grandchildren. After moving to Carver, Mass., Zupokfska lived in Florida for a time before coming to Maine.
Zupokfska and his family believe that the inclusion of his name in the book is an invasion of his privacy. Barrett said Zupokfska turned down an interview request, and thought that Simon and Schuster publishers “made plenty of money off of the misery of these children, including my dad.”
They had an attorney inquire with Simon and Schuster about the matter. In its reply, the publisher states that D’Antonio was under no obligation to seek permission from Zupokfska. It adds that the statements about Zupokfska, gathered from interviews and public records, contribute to the description of life at Fernald and are “integral to the book.”
“The biggest thing is my dad had the right to his privacy,” Barrett said. “This happened to him when he was a child. The records should not have been made public.”
Zupokfska said he did not join in any lawsuits or other matters related to the Fernald abuse because he did not want his family to find out about his time there.
“Why would I open the door for a lousy few bucks to tell my whole family that I was in an insane asylum?” he asked.
D’Antonio said he wrote and called every person in the United States with the last name of Zupokfska, and never got a response. He said the letter from Zupokfska’s lawyer is the only communication he has had from him. After responding that the book was a “non-fiction work of journalism based on thorough research,” he was not contacted again.
D’Antonio said he interviewed more than 50 people for the book, including former Fernald staffers, physicians, and about a dozen boys and girls who attended the school. Some of the former state boys also helped in the research effort for the book, and he paid them for their time.
“I devoted two years of my life to researching and writing a book that corrects the record and tells the truth about these men. I proved they were never retarded and were unjustly locked away,” he said. “During that time I earned about as much money for my effort as a typical school teacher earns.”
D’Antonio said none of the people he directly contacted declined an interview, and all were glad that he wrote the book. He said the former state boys varied in their reluctance to speak about their time at the school with family members.
“Some were very open and spoke of it,” he said. “Others only shared the truth with a few close friends and relatives.”
One of the people interviewed by D’Antonio was Albert Gagne, who was at Fernald for 11 years and now lives in Bowdoin. Gagne’s wife, Doris, said Albert was not reluctant to talk about the school but his brother, Robert, did not let his children know about his experience there until news of the radiation experiments broke.
“He didn’t mind at all,” Doris said of Albert. “He was glad to do it. He thought the things that had been done to the kids ought to be exposed.”
Dreamworks Pictures purchased the movie rights to the book in 2004, after director Steven Spielberg saw a segment on the Fernald school on the CBS TV program “60 Minutes.” Jose Rivera, the screenwriter for “The Motorcycle Diaries,” was picked to write the film adaptation. However, Rivera said the project is stalled; the studio owns the screenplay, but there are no plans to produce it.
“It’s a shame, because it’s an amazing story that needs to be told,” he said. “Hopefully another studio will pick up the project and make it happen.”
Barrett said she felt the discovery may have brought back feelings Zupokfska was trying to put behind him.
“I still think that he’s spent a good portion of his life, even right up until now, still feeling like he was what they said he was,” she said.
“I would say he has nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to his experience at Fernald,” D’Antonio said, “and everything to be proud of as a survivor.”