Not a "cheesy after-school special", December 9, 2010
By Dienne (Cicero, IL) - On Amazon
This review is from: The Boys of the Dark: A Story of Betrayal and Redemption in the Deep South (Hardcover)
First I have to say that Amazon chose some pretty poor reviews to use for their Editorial Reviews. The Booklist
review contains a blatant factual error right in the first sentence. Robin Gaby Fisher, being female, was never
sentenced to the Florida School for Boys. Co-writer Robert Straley, however, was. And Publishers Weekly
derides the "maudlin tone", which leads me to wonder if they even read the book. The book can be described
as brutal, macabre, heartrending or any number of other adjectives, but "maudlin"? "Cheesy after school
special"? Only if you have a heart of stone. So read the customer reviews (not just mine) and ignore the
But anyway, on to my own review.
I've read many books on holocausts and genocides, and this book rang some familiar notes. Sure, there are
significant differences. Most notably, the State of Florida wasn't trying to systematically eliminate all people of
a certain racial, ethnic or religious background. But the patterns and the characters involved are all familiar.
There's the ringleaders - the evil men who coordinate the atrocity. There's the guards and administrators who
not only know what's going on, but who participate with gusto. There's the guards and administrators who
know what's going on and participate or turn a blind eye because they "were only following orders" and
because they have families to feed. There's the townspeople who know but don't see what's going on. Some
in the latter two categories even make small gestures to help. And then there's the terrified victims, yanked
from their former lives, stripped of all rights, wondering how they ended up in this nightmare, how they will
escape it, and if they even will.
Robin Gaby Fisher, in collaboration with two of the "White House Boys" (the now sadly deceased Michael
O'McCarthy of "Rosewood" fame and Robert Straley), compiles a thoroughly researched, hard-hitting
investigative book chronicling how a small group of brave men confronted the corrupt bureaucracy of the
Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) about the abuse and torture they'd suffered in its custody
decades before, and how those men confronted the demons of their own past.
In the fall of 2006 Robert Straley was shaken from his existence by overwhelming memories triggered by a
news report of a child found dead in the custody of the DJJ. Suddenly Straley's own experience with the DJJ
came flooding back - being dragged out of bed at night, taken to the "White House", listening to the cries of
other boys being beaten, being beaten himself, and feeling the blood running down his legs, his underwear
stuck in deep welts in his skin. Determined to speak out on behalf of himself, the newly dead boy, and all the
victims of Florida juvenile "justice", Robert begins researching the history of the Florida School for Boys (FSB)
and reaching out through the internet for other victims. Upon hearing of O'McCarthy's success in publicizing
the horror of the Rosewood massacre, Straley reaches out to him, never suspecting that O'McCarthy himself
was an inmate of FSB.
Fisher documents how together the two men continue their obsessive crusade, capturing the attention of a
Florida politician and a Miami Herald reporter both known for aggressive and dogged work on behalf of
abused children. The men's demand of the State of Florida is simple: an acknowledgment of the wrongdoing
and an opportunity for closure. Despite misgivings of many DJJ and Florida state officials, the men win the
right to revisit the FSB campus, hold a ceremony and be acknowledged by the State of Florida.
Throughout their crusade, more and more men (and their families) come forward with strikingly similar
experiences: being woken up taken to the White House in the middle of the night, the fan not quite drowning
out the screams, the filthy mattress, the blood-spattered wall, the sound of the whip, the agony of seared
flesh, the "rape room", the boys never seen or heard from again. By the time of the ceremony and soon
thereafter, it becomes clear that a tree and a plaque simply aren't enough to atone for the torture, the wasted
lives and the missing boys. Furthermore, it is revealed that one of the lead torturers, one-armed Troy Tidwell,
is still alive and living a happy family existence. The men decide to push for a full-scale investigation of the
If this were truly a "cheesy after-school special", the book would end with exhumations of the 32 unmarked
graves, searches of the surrounding countryside for the remains of missing boys, arrests, prosecutions and
convictions of Troy Tidwell and his fellow perpetrators, closure for the hundreds (thousands?) of families
affected and the closing of the Florida School for Boys. But neither the book nor the real-life situation is an
after-school special. The Florida School for Boys is - and will likely remain - an open gaping wound in hearts
and minds of those affected and in the reputation of the State of Florida. The White House Boys showed great
courage in coming forward. It remains to be seen whether the Florida juvenile justice system and state leaders
will show the same courage as this painful chapter continues to unfold.