Nobody known to this reviewer can see into the future, but by studying the past, there are signs of directions that politicians and experts du jour should never be allowed to take our society in again.

University of Southern Maine professor Stephen T. Murphy has just produced such a cautionary volume, “Voices of Pineland: Eugenics, Social Reform and the Legacy of ‘Feeblemindness’ in Maine.” It is a balanced, fair-minded, impressively researched study that will stand as a watershed book in regional social history.

My first job after university was at Pineland Hospital and Training Center in the early 1970s. While it left me with no personal ax to grind, it produced a vivid impression and lasting interest in what became of the people “placed” there.

Murphy is not the first to write about the institution, which was located in Pownal-New Gloucester from 1908 to 1996 with a mandate to care for the state’s population labeled variously as “feebleminded,” “retarded” or “developmentally disabled.”

Journalist Richard S. Kimball wrote a solid overview, “Pineland’s Past: The First Hundred Years” (2001). Libra Foundation published that book, wanting to “honor Pineland’s history,” for they had purchased the campus as a farm and retreat.

The original idea of “reopening part of the campus” to 125 people with disabilities seems to have faded before opposition from the state and others. Kimball reached his own valid view of the school/hospital’s history, and to his credit, Murphy builds on Kimball and produces something perhaps even more valuable.

Murphy uses Pineland in its many phases to demonstrate systemic dysfunction: If one reason for existing didn’t work, directors would change purpose in mid-stream and find statistics to retrench. And to his lasing credit, Murphy ties the local reality to the national trends and mandates, including the influence of Vassalboro native Henry H. Goddard (1866-1957), who “would perform some of the most controversial and ultimately discredited research in the history of intellectual/developmental disabilities and was also an influential force in constructing a new and more formidable conception of mental deficiency and devising and disseminating methods for its widespread identification.”

Goddard introduced the categories of “idiot,” “imbecile” and “moron,” now thankfully abandoned, as well as “gifted child.” One might think that the early days would be the worst, but the political and legal in-fighting and the “compliance and closure wars” make the reader feel even more ashamed, especially when the bill is still being tallied.

The title “Voices of Pineland” gets to the real heart because former residents are quoted. Many were average individuals wrongfully placed. Make no mistake: Once you were in, it took years to get “outside.” Indeed, the need for healthy, intelligent residents to work the farm, laundry, etc., led to prolonged terms with little schooling or attention. It was often the case that the administration needed a larger population to justify Pineland’s existence or a smaller one to show they were successfully treating clients.

It is not only frightening but essential to hear the words of former residents now in their mid- to late-50s. Many still do not know why they were sent to Pineland for years but now live ordinary lives. Read it and weep.

As Murphy notes: “The legacy of ‘feeblemindness’ will likely persist until we reverse our tendency to embed our ideas about who is good and bad, high and low, in the world of nature rather than society.” 

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored six books, including “Deering: A Social and Architectural History.”