Jimmy Sullivan Was Here
This article appeared in the December 2005 issue and is part of Indianapolis Monthly’s celebration of longform journalism.
Two boys. That’s what Jimmy Sullivan used to say. Two boys. It wasn’t always easy to make out his words. He had a throaty voice and a way of skipping syllables, like the chatter of a child just learning to talk. But people who spent a lot of time around him could usually follow him. Mary Mills understood because she saw him nearly every day at the Muscatatuck State Developmental Center, where she worked and Jimmy lived.
It wasn’t like Jimmy to stray from talking about right now, from noting that he had a cut on his arm or a button missing from his shirt. But then there was two boys. Jimmy would say it when Mills prepared him for visits from his family. He had a mom and dad he called “Mah” and “Dah.” And he had a brother named Eddie, or “Eh.” That’s when Jimmy would say it. Two boys, he’d say. Two boys.
Jimmy’s parents sent him to live at Muscatatuck in 1952. It was a state-run institution for people with developmental disabilities, a place where parents sent children with nowhere else to go. In his hometown, Jimmy was just a 6-year-old boy who didn’t speak clearly and often acted funny. But at Muscatatuck, he was a patient and a student. He had constant supervision, received regular medical attention, and learned how to feed himself and make his bed in the morning. The men and women who woke him, brushed his teeth, helped him in the toilet, took him out to eat, put him to bed—it was their approval he sought, their familiarity that comforted him. They were like Jimmy’s family. They were the ones who, from time to time, reminded Jimmy that he had another family who lived far away. Over the course of 50-plus years, Muscatatuck became Jimmy’s life. It seemed as though he’d probably die there.
But earlier this year, Jimmy had to leave Muscatatuck. After 85 years in operation, the institution, which started as a farm colony and evolved into a hospital and school, was finally obsolete, and the state of Indiana shut it down. Jimmy, with five decades lived in one place, moved to a new home—a small, three-bedroom ranch house he shared with two other men from the institution. Jimmy had a whole new family to cook for him, wash his clothes, help him in the bathroom, look out for him. He mostly watched TV and sat on the front porch, taking in the neighborhood. On occasion, a young man who helped care for Jimmy would take him for rides in the van. On one trip, they went to watch some kids play baseball and then stopped at McDonald’s, where Jimmy ate until he couldn’t breathe. That was Jimmy’s last meal.
If the old institution had become Jimmy’s life, moving beyond its walls was the death of him. But he finally returned to the place and the people he’d left all those years ago. In the end, Jimmy came home.
Roger and Muda Sullivan had high hopes for their second-born. Muda had been pregnant once before, a couple of years earlier, and carried the child to full term, but when she went to the hospital to have labor induced, the baby wouldn’t come. Muda returned home and, several nights later, she awoke in the middle of the night, covered in blood. Roger rushed her back to the hospital, where doctors gave her an epidural and put her under. When she came to, she learned that her baby had been stillborn. “We didn’t know whether or not to try to have another one,” Muda says. “But the doctor said I needed to either have another child or have a hysterectomy, because I was pretty torn up.”
Attempting another pregnancy was part of a new beginning for the young couple. Roger had taken a job as an adman for a newspaper in Evansville, and he and Muda had just moved from Illinois into a little rental house in the city. In 1944, Muda was pregnant again. On June 4, 1945, she was ready to deliver their second child.
Again, Muda, under an anesthetic, lay unconscious during the birth. This time, though, she awoke to learn that the delivery had been a success. She and Roger had received the blessing denied them just two years prior: a normal, healthy baby. They named him after Roger’s brother and Muda’s father: James Carl Sullivan. Everyone called him Jimmy.
“We were proud as peacocks of him,” says Muda. “We just thought the world of him. We took pictures every month until he was a year old.” At 3 months old, Jimmy sat up. At 7 months, he started teething. At 14 months, he began to walk. He got his first haircut (Roger thought his silky curls made him look like a girl) and learned to go to the bathroom. He did all the things a growing baby boy is supposed to do, except start talking. His parents assumed that, in time, he would do that, too.
When Jimmy was just over a year old, Eddie, his brother, was born. Roger, who now wanted to work for himself, decided to move the family to the nearby town of Boonville, where he opened a furniture store. The business flourished and so, it seemed, did the family. Muda remembers the two boys building a snowman in the fenced yard of their home while Roger was off at the store. She remembers taking the boys on walks through the neighborhood and how excited Jimmy would get when Roger pulled up to the house after a long day at work.
One evening, when Jimmy was 2-and-a-half, he saw Roger driving up the street and broke away from his mom to run to the car. It all happened so fast—the neighbor man didn’t see Jimmy run into the street, and he hit him with his pickup truck. Jimmy fell hard to the pavement, and his parents, panicked, rushed to him. But when they got there, they saw his eyes were open and he was awake. He was still there. They scooped him up and rushed to the hospital, where a doctor looked him over and said he was okay. A scratch on the shoulder, a bump on the head—but okay. Jimmy was back home the same day. He seemed happy that everyone was paying so much attention to him.
It was Eddie who made his parents begin to worry that something might be wrong with Jimmy. Not long after the scare with the pickup truck, Eddie was talking a blue streak, as children approaching 2 years old are supposed to. But Jimmy, his older brother, was not. His words came in the stuttering yelps of an infant. And sometimes it was like he wasn’t all there. They’d call his name, and he wouldn’t respond. They thought Jimmy, then around 3 years old, might be hard of hearing. So they took him to Riley Hospital for Children, in Indianapolis, for some tests. His hearing was fine. But there was something else. After more tests, doctors thought Jimmy might have a blood clot. In subsequent visits with the doctor who delivered Jimmy, Roger and Muda learned that during the birth, the umbilical cord had encircled the struggling infant’s neck
No one seems to know exactly why Jimmy was the way he was. Did being tangled in his umbilical cord at birth asphyxiate him and cut off circulation to part of his brain? Did the pickup truck deal him a more devastating blow than anyone knew? Was he born that way? Before the questions and speculation finally receded into a quiet place they rarely spoke of, Jimmy’s parents knew he was never going to be like other children. At 5-and-a-half, he had a vocabulary of 50 words, and even then you could barely understand him. Muda enrolled him in kindergarten, but the teacher called her every day to come pick up Jimmy because he was acting inappropriately and couldn’t be controlled. What were his parents supposed to do with him? In those days, most schools didn’t take (or wouldn’t keep) children like Jimmy. There were no special centers or clinics in his hometown his parents could send him to, nothing for him to do except stay home with Mom while Dad sold furniture and Eddie went off to school.
Experts in Indianapolis told Roger and Muda that the best place for Jimmy was an institution where he could be with professionals who specialized in treating children with his condition. At the Muscatatuck State School in Butlerville, some 150 miles away, doctors had new ideas about how “mentally retarded” children, with the proper instruction, could learn and perhaps someday contribute to society. Roger and Muda were advised that committing Jimmy was probably the best thing for them, too—who knew how he would behave when he got bigger and more aggressive? Already, he’d shown signs of “excitability,” was tearing up his clothes and had chased his brother while threatening to hurt him. “He was a big boy,” says Muda. “I didn’t think I’d be able to handle him.”
Administrators at Muscatatuck wanted a picture of Jimmy included with his application. His mother dressed him up in his best suit—a corduroy jacket and wide-collared shirt, open at the neck. It is one of the few pictures Muda has of Jimmy. His hair is slicked back and he seems oddly grown-up, an erect little man standing in the family’s backyard. He looks proud, and the camera angle makes him appear tall. His right pant leg is caught in his sock. He is 6 years old.
On April 16, 1952, a court in Boonville issued papers finalizing Jimmy’s commitment to what would become his new home. The form, creased and brittle, is still in a box of papers and pictures that Muda keeps in the garage. “In the matter of feeblemindedness of James Carl Sullivan,” it reads (the word “insanity” is crossed out, the word “feeblemindedness” handwritten on a blank next to it). “Whereas, the proceedings necessary to entitle James Carl Sullivan to be admitted into the Muscatatuck State School as a patient, have been had according to law.”
Muda doesn’t like to talk about the day when she, Roger, and Eddie dropped off Jimmy on the sprawling, grassy campus of the institution. She says that a nurse instructed them to wait and drive off only after she’d led Jimmy away, so that he wouldn’t know they were leaving until after they were already gone. They were not permitted to see Jimmy again for six weeks. The staff wanted him to adjust to his new home.
The term “feebleminded” emerged in the late 1800s as a quasi-scientific description of people thought to have mental deficiencies; it eventually became not only a catch-all diagnosis but a label for an entire social class. The feebleminded included not only those with below-average intelligence but also the morally depraved. They were alcoholics, deviants, and ne’er-do-wells. As the definition of feeblemindedness expanded, so did the population of feebleminded persons. In the early 1900s, dubious sociological studies traced the family trees of feebleminded couples to demonstrate the spread of the affliction and the devastation wrought by their coupling. Social commentators and public decision-makers seized on the “research,” often replicated on a state-by-state basis, and called for action. “It set off a eugenic scare,” says Robert Perske, a former chaplain at an institution in Kansas who has written several books about disability and society. “There was a knee-jerk tendency to view these people as though they had diseased protoplasm in them. They were considered part of the criminal class.”
In Indiana, segregating the feebleminded and preventing their reproduction became matters of public policy and debate. In 1907, the Indiana General Assembly authorized involuntary sterilization at state hospitals and institutions. There was no public outcry. A 1915 Indiana Daily Times editorial, citing information from the Board of State Charities of Indiana, noted the case of a supposedly feebleminded Hoosier couple married in 1815. After several generations, claimed the article, 57 progeny had resulted from their union, including “thirty-six feeble-minded, one insane, eleven whose normality was questioned, seven sex offenders, and nine illegitimate offspring.”
“What a record of wrong and evil growing out of the supposedly holy institution of wedlock!” is the author’s conclusion. “What an argument is here presented in favor of eugenic marriage legislation and against existing reckless unrestraint, with its social and economic waste and devastation! … The story of this one family of helpless social parasites, with its five generations of cumulative woe and waste and evil, ought to be forced home on every citizen who thinks […] to the end that in coming years remedial and protective legislation [should] be passed in the behalf of a chastened and punished society.”
Besides forced sterilization, another of Indiana’s solutions to the feebleminded threat was well in line with that of other states. Unlike the insane, typically housed in hospitals and prisons, the problem with the feebleminded was that there was nowhere for them to go and nothing for them to do except make mischief. So in 1919, state legislators called for the establishment of another place where families and communities could send people they didn’t know what else to do with (the state had set up the Indiana School for Feeble-Minded Youth, in Fort Wayne, in the late 1800s). Over the course of the following year, the state acquired nearly 2,000 acres of farmland in southeast Indiana, near Butlerville, deemed appropriate because it had tillable fields, potential rock-quarrying sites, existing buildings and access to the Muscatatuck River. In 1920, 50-or-so “inmates” arrived at the new Indiana Farm Colony for Feeble-Minded Youth and went to work.
The institution’s archives include an undated, neatly typed account of those years. “History of Muscatatuck State School” is inscribed on an otherwise blank cover page, and though the author’s name is not included, the document appears to have been written by a historian of Jennings County, where the facility was located. According to that account, “morons,” typically those with IQs between 70 and 50, attended to “the dairy, cattle, farm work, work in the garage, shops, and things such as these.” “Imbeciles,” those with IQs between 50 and 30, did “the quarry work, and rather simple jobs,” while “idiots,” whose IQs fell below 30, did “not have to do any work hardly at all.” The colony had an orchard, a cannery, a cobblery, a blacksmith, a sewing room, and a bakery. In the fields, Muscatatuck residents raised everything from corn to cabbage, tobacco to rhubarb. Residents awoke at 5:30 in the morning, worked from 7 until 5, then turned in at 7:30. In their free time, the “boys,” as male residents were called, played baseball and horseshoes and swam and fished in the Muscatatuck River. The “girls” sang songs and listened to the radio. “The general appearance of many of the patients was very pathetic,” notes the history. “The hair is cut short on all except the women. One can tell by looking at their faces that their mental IQ is very low. Many are deformed in one way or another. Several boys would be walking along with saliva running from their mouths. Some of the lowest grade ‘boys’ had on dresses made of overall material. These ‘boys’ would not keep overalls or pants on. Nearly all are very thin. Their socks and shoes were in a rather bad condition. Some patients had their hands tied, and the superintendent said that these wouldn’t leave any clothes on themselves.”
In its early years, Muscatatuck was generally lauded as a kind of feebleminded utopia, where each worked according to his ability and took according to his need. “Before, if you had a child with a disability, there was only one answer: Keep them at home and do the best you can,” says David Mank of the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community. “Farm colonies were seen as places where people could go so they wouldn’t be the responsibility of their family anymore. That was their mission: a place for people to be. Those who were capable enough would work for their keep on the farm. People with more severe disabilities were simply watched.”
In the late 1930s and early ’40s, a large-scale federal WPA project gave the facility a campus of modern, yellow-brick buildings. Post–World War II America, edified by the horrors that resulted from the eugenic and segregationist policies of its wartime foes, took a new view of citizens with developmental disabilities. “Society was developing an increased sense of social responsibility and justice,” says Dr. Donald Jolly, a former Muscatatuck superintendent. “Americans saw the abuses in Europe and were repulsed by it. They were starting to arrive at the conclusion that you measure a culture by what you provide for its weakest members.” The Indiana Farm Colony for Feeble-Minded Youth became the Muscatatuck Colony and then, in 1941, the Muscatatuck State School, reflecting the belief of many mental-health professionals that Muscatatuck residents needed not hard physical labor but treatment and therapy. It was now a testing ground for novel theories on educating people with developmental disabilities and equipping them with some measure of independence.
In 1954, two years after Jimmy arrived at Muscatatuck, the American Psychiatric Association commended the facility’s mental-health program, and under an idealistic young superintendent, Alfred Sasser, the rhetoric from Butlerville started to sound fairly progressive. An Indianapolis Times article from 1955, reporting on Muscatatuck’s national recognition, explained that it had once been “an institution to which Indiana sent its misfits, expecting hardly a handful of them to emerge again. It was a dead file of personalities whose presence outside was embarrassing to their parents and a burden to the state, stutterers and fumblers and the blank-staring girl who couldn’t seem to learn how to go the bathroom by herself.” But then–director of rehabilitation Dr. Ignacy Goldberg was quoted as saying that, unlike in the past, “We train them to talk again if need be. Or walk again. Or to feed themselves, if their coordination has been retarded. Above all, we remind them they are human beings and hoped for.” The administration began phasing out the farming operation—“We aim to produce people here, not alfalfa,” said Sasser—and the staff started describing residents as “mentally retarded” instead of feebleminded (though the state wouldn’t drop the old term from official records until 1965, the same year legislators proposed repealing the law banning whites and blacks from intermarrying).
“There was a point in time when everybody steered families to Muscatatuck,” says John Dickerson of The Arc of Indiana, an advocacy group formed in the 1950s by parents of children with developmental disabilities. “Doctors routinely said they were better off taking their children there and forgetting they ever had them.” Adds Nanette Whightsel, also of The Arc of Indiana, “Most of the folks who ended up at Muscatatuck had worn their families down to a nub, until their families just couldn’t handle it any longer. When they looked for help, the only help was a large institution.”
When the Sullivans took Jimmy to Muscatatuck, in 1952, “We thought he might come out normal,” says Muda. But they never learned much about the education he was getting. After the first six weeks, the period in which they were forbidden from seeing him, their earliest visits were spent in consolation. “Jimmy was crying and running to meet us,” says Muda. “It was a rather hard reunion. We took him out for a walk—tried to keep him happy rather than learn about where he was and what he was doing.” Not long after Jimmy arrived, doctors at the institution informed Muda and Roger that they wanted to try to remove his blood clot. But after a difficult procedure, they finally gave up because, as they later told Muda, it was more than Jimmy’s young body could take. There was nothing else they could do.
Today, Muda remembers only fleeting moments and brief vignettes from Jimmy’s institutional boyhood. As she and Roger drove across the grounds, older boys would approach the car and tap on the window to ask Roger if he had a cigarette. She remembers where Jimmy slept, a large, second-floor dormitory lined with twin beds. She remembers Eddie, around 8 years old, playing with Jimmy on a swingset in a little playground. Eddie, who saw Jimmy periodically after he left for the institution, says any boyhood memories of his brother are now “a total blank.” He remembers visiting Jimmy once during high school. “But he didn’t really know me,” he says. “And of course, it was hard to interact. There was very little communication. It wasn’t exactly a bonding experience.”
Jimmy grew up to be a large man, like his father—over 6 feet tall and 200 pounds. When Muda shows pictures of Jimmy as an adult, she likes to point out that “he looked perfectly normal. He didn’t look like anything was wrong with him, like so many do.” Despite his challenges, he was a strapping, handsome man she could look at and be proud of. He was like his father in other ways, too: He was full of life, and everyone seemed to like him. He’d try just about anything and, as a result, had lots of hobbies. But any hope that he might somehow snap out of whatever it was that landed him in Muscatatuck eventually vanished. The child’s brain remained. Jimmy had become an institutionalized person, a fixture attached to the cinderblock walls and linoleum floors, the pattern of his existence woven into schedules and routines. He turned 20, then 30, then 40.
On the outside, feelings about institutions were changing. It happened gradually, beginning with a subtle tip of the balance between the two functions institutions were supposed to serve. For years, despite token rhetoric that the “feebleminded” were better off at places like Muscatatuck, it was clear that the facilities existed to ease the discomfort of people who didn’t have to live in them. In time, however, the emphasis shifted to the well-being of the institutionalized. In the 1960s, the Kennedy family’s involvement with charities for people with developmental disabilities, inspired by the president’s sister Rosemary Kennedy, helped call attention to the cause and probably lessened the stigma associated with such disabilities. Calls for equal access to education would eventually lead to a 1973 federal law requiring all public schools to offer appropriate learning programs for children with disabilities. Later federal action allowed Medicaid recipients, including those with developmental disabilities, to use benefits for in-home care rather than for placement in state-run institutions.
In this new climate, institutions began to look less like benevolent refuges and more like internment camps to many advocates, who called for a new, community-based model of care that would allow people with disabilities to stay closer to home and win greater acceptance. The population of Muscatatuck, after exceeding 2,100 in 1952 (the year Jimmy entered), had dropped well below 1,000 by the mid 1980s.
But while fewer people were admitted into Muscatatuck, many parents of those who remained warmly regarded the institution for its stability and familiarity. The Muscatatuck Association for Retarded Citizens, formed by residents’ families in the 1950s, stayed active, organizing annual Christmas parties and providing support to parents. But it was clear that times were changing. Frank Migliano, a former president of the association whose son lived at Muscatatuck for more than 40 years, says he and his wife started taking their son out to eat at restaurants. “Years ago, boy, people wouldn’t have done that for anything,” he says. “People like my son have become more accepted, which is how it should be.”
Jimmy’s brown hair began to gray and thin. When Muda visited, she sensed that Jimmy was uncomfortable, as though he regarded her as his mother only because Muscatatuck workers told him that’s who she was. It seemed to her that Jimmy would have preferred his daily activities to biding time with her. “One time he seemed so dispirited because he couldn’t go to the ballgame with the other boys—because we were there to see him,” she says. Most of what she knew about him she learned from his regular caregivers. He went to see the Cincinnati Reds—red was his favorite color, in fact, and his mom would sometimes bring him red T-shirts and red baseball caps. He was an avid horseback rider; though he walked with an awkward gait and slouching posture, sometimes needing a wheelchair on long outings, on a horse, Jimmy straightened up like a general. She knew that he loved dogs and would shout and point when he saw one. He had an easier time relating to animals than people. Jimmy also had a thing for cowboy boots and had a prized pair. One former Muscatatuck employee named Ron Lechner could get Jimmy to do just about anything in exchange for letting him wear his rawhides. According to a note on one of Jimmy’s institutional evaluations, he hoped to buy a cowboy hat someday.
Still, to Muda, it didn’t seem that Jimmy “had much of a life of his own.” He would show her his newest bandage—he delighted in showing off bandages—and try to explain how he got it. “But we couldn’t understand because we hadn’t been around him enough,” Muda says. Jimmy’s father would come to the institution with bags of hard candy and always had enough to share with the other men in Jimmy’s unit. Muda tried to visit Jimmy on his birthdays and every year around Christmastime but declined invitations to the annual holiday party thrown by the Muscatatuck Association for Retarded Citizens. She thought Jimmy would rather spend that time with his friends from the institution.
In his appearance, Jimmy insisted on neatness. He bought most of his clothes at a big-and-tall shop, dressed himself in the morning, liked the smell of cologne, and if a button was missing from a garment, he’d refuse to wear it. He couldn’t stand wearing soiled clothing, and if he found a thread hanging from his shirt, he was liable to take it off or tug on it until all the seams came out. He loved to eat, so much so that attendants frequently had to encourage him to slow down, even though all his food had to be pureed because he had difficulty swallowing and a history of choking. Even mashed potatoes had to be thinned with milk before he could eat them. The condition didn’t prevent him from taking trips to the Golden Corral and Sirloin Stockade, however, because Muscatatuck employees would bring a food processor along. “But you couldn’t take your eyes off him for a minute,” says Michelle Belanger, who used to work with Jimmy. He might grab some food and try to gobble it down before you knew what happened.
Jimmy went on shopping trips to Walmart, Save-A-Lot, the dollar store and, on one excursion to an aquatic-themed ice-skating show, could barely contain himself when a school of illuminated jellyfish descended over the rink. He went people-watching at the mall and was fascinated by kids playing in the park. If he liked another Muscatatuck resident, he’d point at him and say “Good boy.” He had a couple of Beach Boys CDs and sometimes liked to dance. Belanger remembers Jimmy pointing excitedly to a man sitting next to him, who’d just peed his pants.
But Jimmy had a darker side, too. In 1979, a social worker wrote that as early as 1967, “He frequently tears his clothes off and tears shoes up. In 1973 it is noted that he often picks at scabs causing them to become sore and infected … At the present time, he continues to be restless.” When Mills met him several years ago, she had been assigned to work in Building 4, the ominously named Behavior Modification unit, or “Behavior Mod,” as employees called it. Like many of her colleagues, Mills feared the ward, where residents with severe behavioral and psychological problems lived. Stairwells were caged to prevent patients from jumping over the railings. Other residential buildings on campus were commonly open, with broad halls resembling those in a children’s hospital ward, and often decorated with the kind of wallpaper borders found in kids’ bedrooms, with pictures of racecars and sailboats. But the individual living units in Building 4 were confined, cut off from other units to prevent residents from wandering from floor to floor.
It was one of many buildings Jimmy called home at one time or another. He ended up there because of frequent psychotic episodes. Diagnosed with bipolar I disorder, he might swing from enthusiastic and smiling to sullen and unpredictable. Out of the blue, as though in the grip of some hypnosis, he would mumble that “God did it” or “God made me do it.” That meant he was about to act out, and employees often bore the brunt of the attacks. As Mills puts it, “He’d beat the snot out of you.” Once, Jimmy turned on a male employee, a man with whom he normally got along, and cracked him square on the jaw. Another time, naked as a jaybird, he chased Mills down a hallway. She was sure that if he’d gotten ahold of her, he’d have killed her. But another employee offered Jimmy some yogurt, and he snapped out of it.
Jimmy eventually moved to a building called Maple, where he spent the last several years of his life at Muscatatuck. Even there, he had his episodes and didn’t like to be touched. But Maple, a one-story brick building that resembled a small nursing home, was more comfy than Building 4. Jimmy shared a bedroom with three other men; the former building supervisor, Vicki Smith, says Jimmy’s feet hung over the edge of his bed when he first moved there. He had a dresser and nightstand, decorated with framed pictures taken on various fieldtrips. He shared a common area with seven other men, the walls painted blue with white clouds. Jimmy called his burgundy recliner, which sat in a corner, “Rose Chair.” When someone else sat in it, he’d stare at the offender until he got up.
Fifty was an important birthday for Jimmy. He’d been spending most of his days in the chapel, a large ’70s-era building that doubled as a rec center. For years, Jimmy mostly worked in Room 115, the arts-and-crafts shop, making scrapbooks and drawing pictures. “I don’t know what it was Jimmy was drawing, but he sure was proud of it,” says Rhonda Mullins, a former employee. He also had a job, earning minimum wage shredding recyclable paper. Still, Jimmy had his mind on other things as he walked through the chapel each day. He’d pass Room 122, the senior center, and gaze in longingly. This was where elder men had a sort of social club, spending the day sitting in comfy chairs and watching old movies. As Jimmy approached 50, it meant that, after years of peering into the room, he would soon be allowed to go in. His caregivers, knowing how much it meant to him, surprised Jimmy and bent the rules so he could join the the senior-room club before the birthday even arrived. “He had the biggest grin on his face the first day he got to be in there,” says Mills. “It was like he had gotten away with something.” One octogenarian, also named Jimmy, would tease him. “Jimmy Sullivan, you’re not old enough to be in here!” he’d say. But Jimmy just shrugged it off—after all, there were John Wayne westerns to watch.
The state’s first attempt at closing Muscatatuck came in 1975. As the population of the facility declined and public perceptions of institutionalization soured, it began to look to government officials like an expensive behemoth, an obsolete relic from a disappearing era. But a hew and cry from Muscatatuck employees and politicians and civic groups in the area, where Muscatatuck was a big employer, squashed any talk of shutting it down.
Closure didn’t emerge as a serious possibility again until the late 1990s, when the institution, after failing an extensive inspection, lost tens of millions of dollars in annual federal support. Facing the prospect of having to foot the entirety of the facility’s $54 million annual budget, Governor Frank O’Bannon decided that Muscatatuck, which now housed only a few hundred residents, wasn’t worth the cost. In 2001, O’Bannon announced that Muscatatuck would close and that new homes would have to be found for all residents in two and a half years.
This time, it was the parents’ turn to object. Many had grown comfortable with the arrangement at Muscatatuck and feared for their children’s safety in the outside world, or, as it’s called in disability circles, “the community.” Muda, now in her 80s, and Eddie, who had assumed partial guardianship of his brother after Roger died, shared the concerns. Jimmy needed 24-hour supervision. “It seemed like Muscatatuck called us every time Jimmy stubbed his toe,” Muda says. Who knew what kind of care he would receive elsewhere? When an opening in a home in Seymour became available in 2002, the Sullivans declined. Then a group of Muscatatuck parents filed suit against the state and won a court order to delay the closing. “He loved it at Muscatatuck, so why move him until we absolutely had to?” says Muda. “We just kept putting off signing the papers.”
In early 2004, with fewer and fewer residents left at Muscatatuck, a group-home opening in Columbus was made available for Jimmy. Again, the Sullivans declined. “We thought if we could find a home here in Boonville, that would be ideal,” says Eddie. “But that never seemed to be an option.” About a year later, a letter arrived informing Muda that “arrangements are in the final stages for James to move to his new home.” A decision had been made: Jimmy would live with two other men from Muscatatuck in a small, three-bedroom ranch house off a county road on the eastern outskirts of North Vernon. It was a “waiver home,” managed and staffed by a private provider and paid for by Medicaid. There, Jimmy would receive 24-hour supervision from professional staff. Muda and Eddie visited the home during remodeling, about a month before Jimmy was scheduled to move in. There was a sunken area in the backyard that appeared to be from a faulty septic tank. Other than that, it seemed okay. Anyway, a woman had come to Muda’s house and shown her happy photos of former Muscatatuck residents living in new homes. “She told us how great it was going to be,” says Muda. “She said we were silly to think there was anything to worry about.”
In the days before his move, Jimmy grew agitated as Muscatatuck employees packed his few possessions into boxes and carted them away. By February 16, his last day in Maple, he didn’t have much left, only some clothes, a few personal items, and Rose Chair. The van from Indiana Mentor, the company that managed Jimmy’s waiver home, pulled up to take him away. His Muscatatuck caregivers wanted to accompany him, but they were told no, it would make the transition too difficult. More than 50 years after Jimmy left home, it was another clean break—the first move of his adult life. He didn’t want to get in the van. Mills lied, told him they were going for ice cream. Mullins cried. Jimmy must have wondered what all the fuss was about. If they were just going to get ice cream, why were they bringing Rose Chair?
According to sources at Indiana Mentor, the company that managed Jimmy’s care after he left Muscatatuck, he made a fairly easy transition to his new home, the little ranch house in North Vernon. Apparently, he enjoyed watching Happy Days, The Andy Griffith Show, rodeos, and nature programs on TV. He sat on the front-porch swing and helped the staff fold laundry. Occasionally, he went out to Walmart or the dollar store, and to another nearby waiver home to visit friends from Muscatatuck. The staff at Jimmy’s house said he seemed to be getting along with his new roommates and was communicating well. Muscatatuck employees had suggested that Jimmy would like to have a dog in his new home, but he never did (although there was a neighborhood cat that would walk across the window sill; Jimmy seemed to like that). Neither Muda nor Eddie ever saw him there; Muda had plans to see him on June 4, 2005, his birthday. He was going to turn 60.
Adam Naderman worked with Jimmy in the North Vernon home. Naderman says it was a good job. He was homeless just a couple of years ago, living at a Red Cross in Greensburg. He says that while he was working at a gas station, his sister, who used to work at Muscatatuck and then at Indiana Mentor, told him about a job opening at the company. “I was really skeptical about it, because I figured it was a lot of work,” he says. “But then I started working there and I kind of liked it.” He was sort of a floater, filling in here and there at homes around Southern Indiana when extra help was needed. Naderman, a good-looking, medium-build man of 23, says he made good money and put in lots of overtime. And, he adds, “I met this girl”—a pretty, petite brunette named Jessica Taylor, now 29, who worked with him in an Indiana Mentor home in Madison. The two became close and eventually lived together in a house in North Vernon. Naderman says he hoped to marry her someday and was going to adopt one of her sons.
Naderman worked at Jimmy’s home off and on the entire time Jimmy lived there, according to Indiana Mentor. Naderman won’t say how much training he received or what his supervisors told him about Jimmy’s care. He was just one of many direct-care staffers who took shifts working in Jimmy’s home, where the residents received 24-hour supervision. He says he felt sorry for Jimmy. Jimmy didn’t say much and mostly sat in his chair, staring at the TV. He had a calm demeanor, Naderman thought, and the young caregiver often wondered how his client felt, what he was thinking. He took Jimmy on rides in the company van; Jimmy would point and laugh.
On May 11, not quite three months after Jimmy moved into the ranch house, Naderman, according to some sources, told a co-worker that he was going to take Jimmy to Walmart. Instead, they went to meet Taylor at a youth-league tee-ball practice where one of her boys was playing. Taylor says that Jimmy was wearing a yellow T-shirt, green shorts, white knee-high socks, and tennis shoes—she remembers because he “clashed a little bit.” He didn’t talk much, just looked at his companions and smiled. He seemed to be enjoying himself.
After the tee-ball practice, the five of them—Jimmy, Naderman, Taylor, and her sons—went to McDonald’s. They sat in the playground in front of the restaurant, amid the roar of traffic on State Road 7. To a man who’d eaten little but pureed food for many years, a burger and fries must have looked awfully good. Jimmy dug right in. He didn’t chew well because his teeth were badly worn from years of grinding. He ate and ate, but the food wouldn’t go down. Taylor could tell something wasn’t right—Jimmy looked scared and couldn’t breathe. His lips were blue, and he tried to cough but couldn’t.
Naderman and Taylor each tried the Heimlich maneuver on Jimmy, then stuck fingers in his mouth to clear out the food. “Come on, honey, come on, honey, get it out,” Taylor pleaded. “Get it out.” Jimmy staggered over to the next table, sat down, lay his head down on his arms, and passed out. Naderman and Taylor laid Jimmy on his back, on the ground, and attempted CPR. A man who was at the restaurant came over to help. They couldn’t find a pulse. Taylor again tried to clear food from Jimmy’s mouth, but now his jaw was locked tight. Everyone in the restaurant was standing around, watching. During the ordeal, Taylor says she told Naderman to call 911. Someone did. But when the ambulance finally arrived to take Jimmy away, he’d been unconscious for quite some time.
Later that night, Muda received a call from St. Vincent Jennings Hospital, in North Vernon. A young-sounding woman told her Jimmy was at the hospital, that he’d choked, but it looked like he’d be okay. “Oh, wait a minute,” she said. A long pause, and then the woman’s voice again. “Oh, no—he’s dead.” Muda heard the woman start crying, then another voice telling the woman to hand over the phone. A doctor came on, apologized for the call, and said he wasn’t able to give Jimmy’s status at that time but would let her know as soon as he could. Muda waited by the phone, not knowing what to think. A short time later, the doctor called again. Jimmy was dead.
Muscatatuck State Developmental Center officially closed in June 2005. Since 2001, the year the state announced its closing, at least four longtime residents have died as the result of accidents under private care. There was Jimmy, and the woman in Indianapolis who wandered into a retention pond and drowned, and the man in Aurora who was crushed when an overweight caregiver fell on him, and a woman in Columbus who wandered onto the highway and was struck by a van. To state officials and the experts who advocate placing people with developmental disabilities in the community, the deaths are hitches—albeit tragic ones—in the difficult but ultimately necessary process of transforming the lives of people once filed away in institutions. (“People died at the institution, too,” says Whightsel. “But they never made the front page—in fact, they probably never even made the paper.”) The people who lost their jobs when Muscatatuck closed, and the parents who never wanted it closed in the first place, are outraged. To them, the deaths are the fault of profit-first management styles and companies that would rather underpay and under-train employees than ensure top-notch care. Prosecutors in Jennings County, where Jimmy died, were still investigating the McDonald’s incident at press time but had not filed charges. It’s not clear whether Naderman gave food to Jimmy or whether Jimmy grabbed someone else’s food and ate it on his own. An autopsy report determined the official cause of death to be asphyxiation resulting from an “obstruction to the upper airway.” The report also indicates that the food lodged in Jimmy’s throat appeared to have been mixed with milk. Did he have a carton of milk, perhaps? Or had someone attempted to soften up Jimmy’s food before he ate it?
Jimmy had a few hundred dollars when he died. He also had some belongings that Indiana Mentor offered to return to Muda. She declined the clothes, thinking someone else could use them, but accepted his photos and personal items. Though Jimmy is gone, letters about him keep showing up in her mailbox. They’re from attorneys trying to convince her to file a lawsuit. But she can’t seem to muster the outrage so many others feel. She just wants to move on.
In Butlerville, on a grassy field just outside the Muscatatuck grounds, hundreds of flat, rectangular stones lie in neat rows. Each is nearly identical, with a name inscribed over two dates. Some of the stones have made-up names because the people who lie beneath them arrived at Muscatatuck nameless. Others say “Unknown” because no name was ever given. These are the graves of people who once lived at Muscatatuck and were buried here because their families couldn’t afford to bring home the remains, or simply didn’t want to. Or maybe they had no family at all.
A funeral home in Boonville—the town where the Sullivans ran a business, made a home, and raised a son—sent a hearse to North Vernon to retrieve Jimmy’s body. At the funeral, Eddie was struck by how many friends and neighbors approached him to say they never knew he had a brother. Growing up with Jimmy, he says, “was kind of a secret you just didn’t say much about.”
In a Boonville cemetery, a family monument marks Jimmy’s father’s grave. It looms over another plot of soil where Jimmy’s 87-year-old mother will someday lie. Next to it is a small, flat placard that reads “James Carl Sullivan: 1945-2005.” Jimmy’s headstone is nearly identical to the gray stones in that modest little graveyard by the institution where he lived for most of his life. Except that it is the final resting place of a man whose family finally brought him home. And he’ll never have to leave again.