I Deep Breath

Wally, a client who loved to provoke him, would sometimes grin and say, “Boulder, Charles? Charles going back to Boulder?” Charles would bite his hand, then grab a paper towel and write, “Mad, Mad—NO MORE BOULDER.”

When there was something Charles wanted to draw, he wasn’t particular about materials. He’d grab a pen or pencil, plus whatever paper was within reach. In the Glass Department, heavy, brown paper towels were everywhere, so that was generally what he used. Less professional than a sketch pad, perhaps, but what mattered was the image he wanted to record. He drew hurriedly but well. Then he’d write his name in the bottom right-hand corner of the towel. “Charles Garr,” it sometimes said, but more often, “Charles is Artist,” or simply, “Charles Artist.”

He might draw any subject that presented itself. One time he gave me a paper-towel drawing he’d made from a magazine picture. It was a realistic depiction of a lighthouse, a docked rowboat, and a sea wall built with stones. A sketch he once made of a small church in the woods was later printed on stationery. And a mountain scene, done in watercolors, was his wedding gift to a friend of the Larsons, his foster parents. He added comments to most of the sketches he did at work. Above his drawing of the sprawling house he lived in, he wrote not only the address and phone number, but also “LARSON HOME!” and “BIG HOUSE $” and “Dollare money $.”

Intelligence tests revealed that Charles’s visual memory was above average, and he also did well on geometrical and mechanical problems. In the late 1970s the Center had a Furniture Refinishing Department. One day a disassembled oak buffet was brought in. The clients sanded and stained each of the many pieces. Supervisors had just begun putting it together when Charles drew a detailed picture of the finished buffet, showing where each piece should go.

The last few months of 1981, the Glass Department produced two special lines of candleholders, known as Spanish and Florentine. One step involved squirting a black substance called Craft Steel around the top and bottom edges of the glass. When Charles was learning this task, he made dozens of sketches showing how these borders should be applied: how to hold the tube, how to rotate the glass while squeezing the steel on, and the difference between an even bead of steel and an uneven one. The hands in these pictures, though hastily drawn, were large and lifelike—the joints, the lines in the skin, the fingernails. I tried to make his performance on this job as good as his drawings of it, but didn’t succeed. On many sketches he wrote comments and suggestions he heard from me: “Keep working. Charles making nice smooth. Slowly. No bumps. No holes. Not fast: slowly turn round.” In December we suspended production of these glasses and assigned the clients to other work areas. Charles’s final Spanish/Florentine sketch showed the darkened doorway to that room, with the remark, “Glass room clased down.”

Writing, like drawing, was something he did compulsively. Sometimes at lunch he’d make a list of every kind of drink in our machines or every item in his pockets. Other days he brought a crossword puzzle, but since he rarely understood the definitions and never knew what words to fill in, he’d wave a teacher or supervisor over. We’d spell the different entries while Charles, listening intently, recorded them. His writing, like his sketching, was tinged with urgency.

Often on paper towels he scrawled his thoughts: “Bad Boulder fighting, Good Great Falls. Danger. Keep away, no touch sholder. Fire! Behave. Stay sill.” The sketches that sometimes accompanied these words were of police cars, of Charles being handcuffed, of fire trucks and ambulances, of houses in flames, of smoke detectors blaring, of the Center burning down, of Charles getting punched, or of Charles, sitting in a chair, being choked. On many of these drawings he wrote, as an afterthought, “Think about work”—a suggestion I offered frequently, though apparently without effect.

Charles could not let things pass by, unexpressed. Fears and obsessions, places and memories, techniques and advice—all this he had to record. His interior life demanded acknowledgment; it was too compelling to be swallowed by time, evanescent and unnoticed. It was not enough to think or see or do: like someone who’s passionate about taking photographs or keeping a diary, Charles had to objectify the things that mattered. His thoughts refused to be confined inside his head; they demanded to be preserved in words or drawings.

One day when Charles was working in the glass assembly area, Sharon got mad at her work and threw her glue gun on the floor. Ellen, the supervisor, asked her to pick it up. Sharon, who had recently become too big for her clothes, used the table to pull herself up to a standing position. When she bent over to retrieve the gun, she revealed about twelve inches of back and hips, right down to the crack. Charles leaped from his seat, ran over, and put his face within inches of this chasm that vanished in darkness. He looked at it as if he had never seen anything so bizarre. Sharon, moving slowly because of her weight and unaware of the scrutiny she was undergoing, was still bent over when Charles swooped to the side to get a good look at her face. It seemed incredible that the face and the crack went together, so to make sure he jumped back and studied the view from behind once more. Satisfied, he sat down, and eventually so did Sharon. For days afterwards, Ellen was waiting for Charles to draw a picture of this, but if he did, he kept it to himself.

Charles was thirty-one years old, about 5’10” and 160 pounds. He dressed neatly, usually wearing a dark blue work shirt and slacks, Red Wing boots, and a bright wool jacket. His black, wavy hair was parted, and he had a mustache and a beard, which was thick but trimmed. There was a buoyancy to his walk, and that, together with his beard and his lean build and his blue L.L.Bean backpack, made him look like just another graduate student in a university town. But his eyes suggested something altogether different: the black plastic frames of his glasses made them seem deeply recessed, like the somber eyes of a prisoner at Auschwitz.

His mother’s labor with him had been difficult, and the brain damage he was later diagnosed with might have resulted from injury at birth. He was unable to speak; as a child he made his needs known first by pointing, later by drawing.

His temper was uncontrollable, so at age seven, on a doctor’s recommendation, he was sent to the state mental institution in Warm Springs. Three years later he was transferred to Boulder.

Had Charles been born in the 1960s, rather than in 1950, everything—his childhood, his education, his life—would have been different. Special Education programs for children with intellectual disabilities sprang up in public schools across the country in the 1970s. Because of that, many of the younger clients at the Center had attended Special Education, at least during adolescence. For Charles, though, this wasn’t possible; in the fifties and sixties, such programs were rare. Instead, parents usually had to choose between keeping their children home all day or putting them in an institution. As a result, many of our clients had spent a significant part of their lives in Boulder.

Boulder is a small town where, in 1889, the Montana State Training School for the Feeble-Minded was established. In 1967 the state renamed it the Boulder River School and Hospital. The town is surrounded by mountains and streams, so if you wanted an idyllic but isolated spot to sequester the feeble-minded, you couldn’t do any better than Boulder.

In 1934 there were 404 inmates in the institution. By 1965 the “inmates” had become “residents,” and the number had climbed to nearly a thousand. The institution, filled beyond capacity, was little more than a holding tank; residents were housed in large brick buildings with up to forty beds in a row. But from the late sixties to the late seventies, the state underwent deinstitutionalization—a program that moved residents out of the institution and back into their communities. Children and adolescents were enrolled in Special Education programs, while some of the adults went to sheltered workshops—places where they did not have to compete for jobs with the general population. Some of these Boulder emigrants moved into group homes or foster homes, while others returned to their families. By 1970 the number of residents had dropped to 854; by 1974, 549; and by 1983, 225.

Charles lived in the institution in the 1960s—the time of its greatest overcrowding. His parents frequently came to see him, but as soon as they left he’d become disruptive, so Boulder officials thought it best to discontinue the visits altogether. His parents had no contact with him after age fifteen.

Charles found satisfaction in the work he did there—sweeping and mopping floors, making beds. He was possessive about these jobs, and during idle moments would hunt for more work. Charles took an immediate dislike to some people, and sometimes hit them. He didn’t mix with other residents; instead, he spent his free time alone, drawing. In the presence of staff he struggled to produce sounds, but except for hi and bye he was unable to speak. He was classified nonverbal, and did all his communicating through gestures and drawings.

Charles left Boulder after eleven years. He lived with two foster families—the first for only a few months, then the Larsons. The Larsons were also foster parents for Ken Spencer, another adult with an intellectual disability, besides having children of their own. Charles, however, avoided Ken and the children, interacting only with the parents. He began attending Special Education in 1971, as an adult, but in the next few years he often drew pictures of playgrounds and wrote, “No more swings. Man work.” He came to the Center in 1975.

Estimates of his intelligence varied enormously. One psychologist said his IQ was thirty-four; another said it was close to a hundred. He did well on tests that required visual rather than verbal skills. Most examiners felt that if they made allowances for his language problems, Charles possessed near-normal intelligence.

It’s not hard to understand how a young child who senses his intelligence, but cannot demonstrate it through the use of language, could become agitated and disruptive. Later, in Boulder, Charles steered clear of persons with intellectual disabilities, believing he was not like them, but his frustration over his inability to communicate led to angry outbursts—the very acts that would convince staff he was indeed like the other residents.

Any time Charles was upset, he wrote about Boulder, and the surest way to get him upset was to mention the place. Wally, a client who loved to provoke him, would sometimes grin and say, “Boulder, Charles? Charles going back to Boulder?” Charles would bite his hand, then grab a paper towel and write, “Mad, Mad—NO MORE BOULDER.” Boulder was his greatest hate and his greatest fear. I don’t know how his experiences there compared with those of other residents, but his scars ran deeper. The memory of those years haunted him. He had been thrown into a mental institution at age seven, then an institution for the feeble-minded at age ten. The grimness and turbulence of life in an overcrowded institution must have exacerbated his innate frustrations and anxieties, while crushing whatever hopes he had for self-expression and peace of mind. When the day of his release from those elongated brick enclosures finally came, it must have felt like liberation, like revelation.

In 1971 Charles left Boulder. That year, at age twenty-one, he began to speak.

Someone, somewhere, saw something. Someone—a teacher, a psychologist, a speech therapist—saw what, in a better world, someone else would have seen twenty years earlier: that classifying Charles as nonverbal was too easy, that he had more words inside him than just hi and bye. There were reasons, of course, why he had never learned to speak. Despite his considerable intelligence, Charles was diagnosed with dysphasia—impairment of his ability to speak and to understand language, resulting from brain damage. And his speech organs, whatever their initial capacity, had now been atrophying for decades. They had, essentially, never been used. Yet his desire to speak was so obvious, so intense, that someone thought maybe, in some way, he still could.

Charles underwent years of intensive speech therapy at schools and medical facilities. It began with basic skills—breath control and tension reduction. Then he learned how to shape his mouth and position his tongue, with biofeedback being used to help him gain control of the muscles. Next he was taught how to make the vowel and consonant sounds. Only at this point, after much preliminary work, was emphasis put on vocabulary. He began combining the sounds to produce one-syllable, and later two-syllable, words.

This was what he’d been waiting for all along. The groundwork had made him impatient, and when he finally got past it, he was hungry for words and words and more words—he couldn’t get enough of them. He would watch the therapist’s face closely, then try to make his own mouth conform to the same patterns. He found the articulation of words to be an immensely complicated task. He put everything he had into each one, reproducing it slowly and laboriously, grimacing as he spoke. Whenever a session ended he was disappointed, but his labors didn’t cease: he’d sit by himself for hours, practicing his latest words. More than anything, Charles wanted to be able to speak.

In the early 1980s he was one of many clients who participated in speech therapy at the Center. For a while he attended both group and individual sessions, but he had to be dropped from the group program because he demanded so much of the therapist’s attention.

Charles knew that his tongue couldn’t keep pace with his thoughts, and that tormented him. Every day he felt the anguish of his enforced silence. He had no sense of humor; nothing ever made him laugh. His mind was so packed with fears and frustrations and goals that there was no room for laughter and no time to relax. He was all work. He had to learn, and learn quickly—a large chunk of his life had already slipped away. Everything he did had a frantic quality about it, as he tried desperately to make up for lost time.

If I said, “Morning, Charles,” he’d stop whatever he was doing and, holding my eyes with an anxious gaze, say each word deliberately: “Gooood. Mor-ning. Gleeen.” Sometimes he put his hands near his chin and mouth to be sure he had everything properly positioned for making that sound. His lips and tongue would make slow, exaggerated movements. The words never came naturally; they required a series of steps that had to be performed consciously. Choppy and disjointed, they lurched out of his mouth syllable by syllable. His speech, like his writing and drawing, was directed exclusively at staff.

One day he came up to me and pointed at my shirt—“da-ahk gwe-een”—then my jeans—“bwooo”—and my boots—“bwown”—before walking away abruptly. Later, during morning break, I sat down beside him.

“I hear you’re doing a good job in glass assembly.”


“Ellen tells me your glasses are really pretty.”

“Pwit-ty,” he said, then began reciting the colors of the mosaic pieces: “Bwoo… yel-low… wed… gween… bwown.”

“Yeah, all different colors.”


As soon as the first clients started back to work, Charles jumped up from his seat.

“See you later, Charles,” I said.

He turned back, grabbed my hand, and shook it. Then he fixed his eyes on me as he spoke: “You. La-ter. Gleeen.” He dropped my hand and raced out the lunchroom door.

He was an impassioned reader, wholly absorbed in the transmutation of written characters into sounds. He once read an entire fourth-grade book about the Old West, attacking it every day at lunch and break for weeks. He read it all out loud, either quietly by himself, or with a supervisor or teacher if one was available. He understood little of what he was reading; many of the words he didn’t know, and even in conversation he had trouble following all but the simplest sentences. For Charles, though, the value of a book lay not in its meaning but in the opportunity it gave him to speak, to utter an almost infinite number of words. His finger would point to each syllable as he said it, never leaving the page unless he came to a word he couldn’t untangle. Then, if I was with him, he’d wave his hand in hurried jerks, wanting me to say the word. I would, and he’d repeat it. It was almost impossible to excuse yourself from one of these reading sessions: he never paused for a moment’s break, and he read with such an air of urgency that you couldn’t just walk away. He’d read right up to the last minute, then slap the book shut and dash back to work.

On the band saw, cutting pieces for the rocking horses we made, Charles was fast and skillful. He was also a good grouter, but any time he was doing a sit-down job his mind wandered, eventually leading to a torrent of writing and drawing. Charles was always hopped-up, always pushing. In the Spanish/Florentine room, his application of the Craft Steel was so rushed that the resultant bead was often uneven. I kept reminding him to slow down, and he kept recording that advice, but he couldn’t follow it.

It was hard to change the way he did a job because he was so defensive about his work. He watched apprehensively any time I checked his glass. If I tried to show him how he might improve, his body would start shaking and he’d bite his finger. “Mad, mad. No more Boulder,” he’d say. The specter of Boulder never left him, prompting fears of an enforced return. In his mind, any time a supervisor offered a suggestion, it meant his work wasn’t good enough, and that would give cause for sending him back.

His anxiety bordered on paranoia. One morning he saw a policewoman, who was at the Center investigating a break-in from the night before. Though she was in his sight for only a few seconds, he spent the next hour jumping up from his seat, biting his hand, and writing about handcuffs.

His drawings of fights and police made me think that things sometimes got rough at home. Occasionally he came to the Center with a bruise on his face, and often he came there agitated, calming down only after he settled into the rhythm of his work.

He was so volatile that anything, no matter how trivial, could trigger an outburst. He couldn’t stand to be touched, so supervisors never touched him, but we often had to walk past his work station, and sometimes he regarded even that as a violation of his personal space. He’d jump up, then brush his shoulder furiously, as though you had dumped a bunch of ants there.

“Don’t. Touch. Shoul-der,” he’d say. “Stay. A-way.”

If you said, “Charles, I didn’t touch your shoulder; now please sit down and get back to work,” he’d start throwing punches, punches that came at your face with full force, but that always stopped an inch or two before making contact. He’d bite his hand, then aim a few kicks at your shins, stopping those at the last moment, also. The first time or two, this routine could be unnerving, but after that you got used to it. If you stood silent and unflinching, he’d eventually sit down, bite his hand some more, and begin writing, only to pop up again a minute later, run over to where one of the clients was sitting, and threaten him with some punches. Then he’d return to his seat and write his No touching/Fighting bad/No more Boulder messages. If you had to walk past his table again in the next few minutes, the whole cycle might be repeated.

One day when Becky, a client with a physical disability, was leaving the Spanish/Florentine room, her crutch slipped and she staggered into the card table where Charles was working. Anyone else would have steadied her, but Charles, with his aversion to physical contact, instead drew back in horror. While I reached over and caught her, Charles called out, “Dan-ger!”

Sometimes, though, touching didn’t bother him. Occasionally he got a supervisor’s attention by grabbing the person’s shoulder, and he often shook hands with strangers in the lobby. These motions were impulsive, and it’s possible that his inclination to touch was so strong, especially before he began to speak, that he was repeatedly told not to do it. He then became fanatical about enforcing that rule, especially when other people tried to touch him.

One time when Charles noticed a client going into the bathroom, he bit his hand, got a paper towel, drew a picture of a toilet, and wrote, “No play with self.” Again, his impulses might once have led to a rebuke, which in turn gave birth to one of his commandments.

Occasionally Charles hit another client, but his victim was usually more surprised than hurt. Once, after writing “No fat—bad belly,” he chased chunky little Mike around a lunchroom table until staff could get between them. Mike ended up untouched but in tears. Another time, when Molly asked Charles to clean up for lunch, he kicked the air near her shins and said, “No touch-ing!” When I walked over there, he turned away from Molly and me and hit Holly, the closest client, on the shoulder. It wasn’t much of a blow—just enough to wake Holly from her usual slumped stupor. Later that afternoon he apologized to her.

Rarely did he follow through on the threatening gestures he directed at staff. But once he did kick our nurse in the ankle, and for days afterward he wrote, “Kicking bad—not nice.” And one time he punched Joe, the workfloor manager, who responded by saying quietly, “Hey, Charles, I thought we were friends.” Charles, distraught, ran over and repeatedly banged his head against the wall.

There was such a difference between the way he behaved and the way he thought he should behave. He longed for composure and stability; instead he was anxious and volatile. Charles gave me some twenty drawings over the years, two of which were self-portraits. One morning he drew a picture of himself sitting stiffly in a chair—hands on his knees, mouth turned down, eyes looking straight ahead. “Stay sit down chair” was written in the margin. “Behave.” To the right was a small picture of the client van. “No more fight on van. Stop!”

The second portrait was a close-up of his face, with arrows coming from his mouth, beside which he wrote, “I deep breath. I go air outside.” Nearby were other reminders he gave himself constantly—reminders he heard from supervisors and teachers, but that ran counter to all his impulses: “I keep clam down. Cool down. I take it easy. I feel better. Stay relax.” The picture was titled “Charles Garr by youself” and was addressed to Gleen. At the bottom it posed an unanswered question: “I keep happy?” Charles’s self-portraits—like everything else he drew, wrote, said, did—manifested the relentless turmoil he felt unable to contain and barely able to express.

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