Sunday, February 27, 2011

'Boys of the Dark' an enlightening read


When I studied Sir Philip Sidney's "Defense of Poesy" in college, I paid particular attention to his
statement that poetry is a superior form of literature because it has the capacity to "teach and
delight." Since then, I apply that standard to any work I read, whether it is poetry, prose, fiction or

However, there are times when I feel compelled to read something that does not delight because
it sheds light on the human condition. Robin Gaby Fisher collaborated with Robert W. Staley and
Michael O'McCarthy to write "The Boys of the Dark." Published in 2010, it exposes the atrocities
that occurred during a 50-year period at the Florida School For Boys. It tells of the unspeakable
abuse and institutionalized sadism that finally, through the persistence of many, culminated in a
voice that called for justice.

Fisher's book begins with the 2008 story of Marvin Lee Anderson, a resident at the Florida School
for Boys, who died after a beating that was captured on video and telecast nationally. Staley
happened to be watching the news that night, saw the tape, and flashed back to his stay at the
Florida School for Boys in the early 1960s after running away from home.

The beatings he endured there left deep emotional scars, and Staley knew it was time to act, to
end the decades of abuse.

For the rest of the book, Fisher constructs the improbable sequence of events that led to the
cathartic homecoming of The White House Boys, men both black and white, whose beatings
occurred in the ironically named building.

Showing a deft touch for drama and pathos, Fisher transforms the silent victims into determined
messengers, undaunted in their efforts to be heard.

Staley, seeking a sympathetic voice, contacts O'McCarthy who had written about the 1923
Rosewood massacre, "where mobs of whites stormed black neighborhoods, burning down homes
and killing innocent men, women, and children." O'McCarthy, a successful writer and filmmaker,
was a resident at the Florida School for Boys, and he, too, becomes involved. O'McCarthy contacts
a former Florida legislator, Gus Barreiro, now with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, who
investigates the school and finds it suspicious.

At risk of losing his job at the FDJJ, Barreiro contacts Carol Marbin Miller of the Miami Herald.
Miller wrote about the death of Marvin Lee Anderson, and Barreiro hoped she would further
explore the past abuses at the Florida School for Boys. She did.

In a solemn ceremony on Oct. 21, 2008, the White House Boys returned to Marianna, Fla., to seek
closure from the lasting nightmares of the White House. Finally given a chance to speak, they
described the beatings, administered by a one-armed man, with a leather strap with grooved metal
in the center, 10, 20, 30, even 50 times.

One man described seeing an African-American boy forced into an industrial dryer; he never saw
the boy again.

Several said that some of the boys simply disappeared. Authorities discovered a cemetery with 31
unmarked graves.

The one-armed man, a devout Baptist named Troy Tidwell, testified that the punishments in
question were "spankings." When asked if "spanking the children with a leather strap might be
excessive punishment," he responded, "I never did think nothing about that, because that was
the rule when I went to work there..."

The last sentence of the Epilogue reads, "THE WHITE HOUSE has been officially sealed."

The Boys of the Dark is not light reading; rather it is enlightening reading. It raises awareness of
the suffering and scars possible when those with power assault the psyches, souls and bodies of
the defenseless.

Healy retired after 35 years of teaching English at Dubuque Senior High School and two years at
the University of Dubuque. He is the author of "Becoming a Master Teacher: A Guide to a
Successful Career in the Classroom," published by Hickory Grove Press.