Your Mouth!

Grant extended his arm and held it rigid, pointing his fist at Craig. “Your mouth!” he shouted. He slapped his other hand over his face, and a few moments later his voice exploded: “Shut up!! Your mouth!!”

Grant bounded into the supervisors’ office, demanding complete attention. “Ellen!” he shouted, as he walked up to her. His walk had a lot of bounce to it, because he leaned forward and sprang from his toes.

“Oh God,” she said, half smiling, half dreading. “Good morning, Grant.” He set his lunch sack on a desk, then drummed the sack lightly and rapidly with his fingers, almost beside himself with excitement. “Oh,” she said, “you’re gonna show me your lunch!”

Grant reached into the sack and pulled out two sandwiches. He batted them back and forth between his cupped, fast-moving hands. “Look!” he said suddenly, extending his arm. Proudly he held the sandwiches on display, almost squeezing the life out of them. With his lower lip protruding, he froze for a moment, watching intently for Ellen’s response.

“Oh! Two sandwiches! Isn’t that something?”

Grant emitted a long “Uhhhhhhhh” in open-mouthed delight. Then he stuck his tongue out the side of his mouth, clamping it there with his teeth and lips, while he thumped the sandwiches with frantic, ecstatic fingers. “Me!” he said suddenly and with great seriousness, pointing to himself.

“Well, I know they’re yours!”

Squealing, he locked his strong arms around Ellen’s neck, while she struggled to get her words out: “Say, Grant, why don’t you go hang up your coat?” He released her, then charged over to Hannah, who was shrinking in anticipation, and gave her a quick strangle-hug. Buoyed by these events, he let out another “Uhhhhhhhh” as he bounded out the door.

Not everyone got off as easy as Ellen and Hannah. Especially vulnerable were the employees Grant saw only on occasion, like administrators or maintenance men. After cornering one of them, Grant would approach eagerly, holding his arm out. With his tongue protruding from the side of his mouth, he’d seize the person’s hesitant hand and shake it vigorously, elated at participating in this traditional male greeting. Then he’d clap his hands, lightning-fast, right next to his chest. Given any encouragement, Grant would smother his victim, grasping and hugging him, petting his hair and face, while grinning and uhhh-ing throughout; and he’d be stimulated to even more frenetic activity by the befuddlement and lighthearted protest he inspired.

Grant was in his mid-twenties, had blond hair, was about five and a half feet tall, and had a lean, rock-hard body. But it was his behavior, not his looks, that marked him as the most obviously abnormal client at the Center.

Lunchtime with Grant could be particularly stressful. One typical day, he began by butting in the lunch line so he could get his hands on Roland, a stout, fastidious client. Roland chided him—“Grant!”—and made a token attempt to wriggle free, but this half-hearted resistance only intensified Grant’s fondling. As soon as the clients were allowed in the lunchroom, Grant ran into the adjacent bathroom to masturbate, stopping only after I knocked on the door repeatedly: “Other people need the bathroom too, Grant.”

Usually in the lunchroom there were four staff on duty–a mix of workfloor supervisors, teachers, and case managers. We watched out for a number of things: some clients had to be reminded to use the bathroom; others would forget to take their pills (about twenty clients took either antipsychotic or antiepileptic medications); some clients could have seizures at any time; a few needed help operating the Coke and candy machines; some clients would try to take advantage of others; and certain clients could explode at any moment. Also, the lunchroom allowed the clients to see the staff in a setting that was more relaxed and less structured than the workfloor and the classrooms. We did have our own lunch table, but clients were continually coming over to talk to us, and much of the time we were on our feet, helping with one thing or another.

To keep his harassment of clients to a minimum, Grant had to sit at his own small table, which he regarded as a special privilege. But today, after he jammed half a sandwich in his mouth, something on the other side of the room caught his eye. He paused in mid-chew, ran over to see what it was, then began wandering around the lunchroom with his mouth open, laughing and uhhh-ing at the howls and objections of other clients. Finally swallowing his food, he continued to hover over the clients—rubbing noses with one, mussing another’s hair, laughing at a third whom he pestered with questions. He breezed from table to table, leaving uproar in his wake.

From our table the staff, who were also trying to eat, told him to sit down, but to no avail. Grant’s behavior knew no bounds; there was no place for moderation or restraint in his all-or-nothing world. Eventually I walked over and asked him to go back to his seat: staff spent more time rounding Grant up and herding him back than we did for all other clients combined. Grant’s mood changed in an instant. Pointing his fist at me, he growled, “Your mouth!”—the words that always preceded his assaults. I gave him some breathing room—I didn’t walk away but didn’t crowd him, either—and Grant was again transformed within seconds. Smiling, he returned to his seat and finished his lunch. The only lingering sign of stress was in the faces of the staff, whose adrenaline continued to pump long after Grant had forgotten the encounter.

The amount of attention that Grant commanded was resented by many clients, who occasionally lashed out at him. A push from Brenda Sue, an annoyed wave of the hand from Leroy, a rebuke from Dave—any such act could send Grant out of control, as could a supervisor or teacher who wouldn’t let him run rampant. Sometimes the result was a Code 9.

Whenever we heard on the PA system, “Code 9 in the…” it meant there was an emergency, and from all parts of the building staff would come running. Occasionally a Code 9 occurred because one client was attacking another, but usually it occurred because a client was attacking a supervisor or teacher. After all, we were the people who were setting limits and making demands. This doesn’t mean that the clients as a whole were violent, or that we spent a lot of time responding to disturbances. We had maybe a dozen Code 9s per year, and most of these involved Grant.

Today, after eating, Grant settled back in his chair. He stuffed his hand down his pants for a few minutes, then pulled it out so he could suck his thumb—which, from years of hard use, had become gashed and bloated. Back and forth his hand went, crotch to mouth to crotch.

As he sat, quietly content, he looked around the room. When he noticed a supervisor kidding with some clients, he grinned and uhhh-ed, genuinely pleased at the sight of good cheer. Wanting to be part of the fun, he descended on the staff table. He came up to Cynthia, his case manager, who was flipping through a magazine, and pointed urgently at the page she was on.

“Yeah, Grant! That’s an ad for McDonald’s, isn’t it?”

With a big grin he asked, “Why?”

“Well, I don’t know why it’s an ad for McDonald’s; I guess it just is.”

Excited by Cynthia’s amusement, he began laughing, then repeated, “Why?”

“Well, I guess they wanted to advertise so they could sell more hamburgers.”

“Eeeeeeee!” he said. When Cynthia offered him the magazine, he ran back to his seat with it.

After looking at some of the pictures, he grasped one of the pages and began whacking it with his fingers in rapid-fire fashion. Grant’s paper-whacking was such a familiar background noise at the Center that we learned to tune it out, like Margo’s high-pitched laughter or the clattering of Becky’s walker.

Deciding that he wanted more reading material, Grant walked over to the lunchroom shelves. We asked clients to take only two magazines at a time, but Grant would accept no limits. Insisting on a thick stack, he lingered at the shelves, browsing and selecting. Gradually he drifted over to one of the lunch tables, and again he disrupted everyone’s meal. Craig, a workfloor supervisor (later a teacher), went over and told him to sit down. Grant extended his arm and held it rigid, pointing his fist at Craig. “Your mouth!” he shouted. Biting his other fist, he began to wail, “Aaah! Aaah! Aaah!” Suddenly he slapped this hand over his face, and a few moments later his voice exploded: “Shut up!! Your mouth!!” By this time staff were clearing the area, shooing the slow-moving clients away. Sometimes this space was enough to settle him down, but usually when it went this far, Grant could not regain control.

With his fist poised to strike, he edged toward Craig and grabbed his shirt. Instantly Grant and several staff members were on the floor—the staff trying to pin his arms and legs, and Grant biting, clutching, digging his strong fingers in, and wildly swinging his fists. Takedowns with Grant took place in every possible location at the Center: in the lunchroom, on the workfloor, in the classroom, in the lobby, on the ramp, and even outside. Grant’s 122 pounds were all muscle and his rage magnified his strength, but we had the advantage of numbers, as well as a system, and usually subdued him quickly.

After holding him down for a minute or two, we could feel the tension leaving his arms. In a pleading tone he said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, no fight.” Gradually we released his legs, then his arms. He remained limp for a moment, but suddenly he tried to seize any hand or arm within reach—anything he could crush with his fingers or teeth—while emitting a desperate, enraged “Uhhh! Uhhh! Uhhh!” After restraining him a second time, we naturally were leery of his pitiful cries of “No fight, no fight,” so we let him up more slowly.

Afterwards, when Cynthia told him that fighting was bad, Grant covered his face and snarled, “Your mouth!” He felt humiliated by the takedown, but his all-consuming quest for gratification allowed no recognition of social boundaries or the rights of others, and thus no sense of having done wrong. As soon as he was left alone for a minute, he perked up. Having gotten the frustrations and animosities out of his system, he was as cooperative as an altar boy the rest of the day.

Any time I was on duty during Grant’s lunch, the half hour always seemed too long and too tense, and I couldn’t wait to get back to work.

On the workfloor, Grant spent most of his time in the prevocational area. The prevocational program was designed for the eight or ten clients whose skills were so limited that it was hard to find jobs they could do. They spent much of their time in training, learning how to hammer a nail or put a sheet of paper in an envelope. They didn’t learn these tasks in a day or a week or a month; often it was years before a client achieved proficiency, and sometimes not even then. The mental ages of these clients were between two and four. Many had poor concentration, and others had severe physical disabilities. Some of our most violent clients worked here.

My first few months at the Center, Grant spent part of each day on my work crew in the Toy Department—mostly sanding, but also training with various tools. Sometimes in the morning he greeted me with a spirited, “Hi, man!” When he felt energetic, he could be demanding and inescapable. I’d check the board he was sanding, tell him he was doing good, keep it up. He’d sand for a few seconds, but as I walked to another work table, his hand would shoot back in the air: check this again, please. And just as he covered his lunch sack with scrawled versions of Grant, Grant C, and Grant Cole, so he wanted me to write his name on any board he was sanding or nailing. Then he’d ask me to say it, and spell it out loud, while he followed along.

His intolerance of any suggestions, no matter how positively they were expressed, made it hard to develop his skills. If I gently guided him toward an alternate way of, say, using a wrench, I’d be slapped with cries of “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” as he buried his face in his arms.

If Grant was running an errand for me, he was a dedicated helper, pleased by the thanks he received. But like Leroy he became easily bored by the repetitive work that constitutes the bulk of most jobs. When sanding a board, he often sat sleepily, his eyelids drooping; sometimes he’d have one thumb in his mouth while the other hand held the vibrating sander in his crotch. If I urged him to work harder, he’d yell, “No! Your mouth!” then push the board away.

Grant was the most demanding, most unmanageable, most explosive client at the Center, and was as egocentric as Leroy. But their aims were different. Grant wanted attention, while Leroy wanted obedience. Grant wanted unlimited freedom; Leroy, unlimited authority. Leroy recognized authority in others, even if he thought they didn’t deserve it. He balked at the rules and tried to skirt them, whereas Grant didn’t even acknowledge them. Leroy would work, but only after much fist-shaking; while Grant, if he didn’t feel like doing something, simply refused. Grant would fight for what he wanted, while Leroy was afraid of being hurt, and this accounts for much of the difference between them. Because of staff’s reluctance to engage in endless takedowns, Grant got away with much more, which in turn aroused Leroy’s envy: Grant did many of the things Leroy only wished he could do. Leroy was annoyed because the world didn’t revolve around him, whereas Grant was excited because the world did revolve around him.

To see other people having fun made Grant happy, Leroy envious. Grant always wanted to join in the festivities, and he could be warm and enthusiastic. On birthdays he’d sing “Happy Birthday to You”—over and over and over—and on special occasions he’d give his rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

Wherever he went, Grant brought his own party. Once, during the annual client-staff basketball game, when I was dribbling the ball downcourt, Grant decided he wanted it. Artlessly but doggedly he pursued me, as I kept the ball just out of his reach. Eventually, when my back was to him, he threw his arms around my waist, and held on tight as I tried to dribble away. There was no one I could pass to—the other supervisors were laughing too hard—so I flipped the ball back to him. Refusing to pass it to his screaming teammates, he double-dribbled up and down the court, finally planting himself under the basket, where he was allowed to shoot and shoot until the ball dropped in. He jumped up and down, laughing, then galloped to the far end of the court and back, applauding with glee.

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