My Brother Always Told Me He Was a Black Man

My parents were promised three things if they signed away their parental rights, making my brother a ward of the state of Ohio. They would thereby agree to have their youngest child sent to live under the State’s care, within an institution for people with mental retardation, as it was called back then. First, he would receive an education denied to him by public schools. Secondly, he would learn a vocational trade. Finally, most importantly, Mark would be safe from the violent bullying he was suffering in the community, living as he would be, among people “of his own kind”, as my parents were told in those words.

Based on those promises, our parents signed the papers. A few weeks later they received a phone call informing them that a “bed” had come available in an institution 150 miles away. They were given only three days to decide. If they turned that offer down, his case would be closed and there would not be another offer. A snap decision was required. With heavy hearts they agreed. Ohio’s State institutions were under the control of the Bureau of Corrections, in other words managed by the prison authority. My parents’ income was assessed, and they were given a monthly rate they were required to pay for Mark’s “care”. My mother worked as a secretary for General Electric and her entire salary was paid to Ohio every month. We were middle class, but without my mother’s income we did not enjoy any discretionary income to afford vacations. Mark Smith Moyer was remanded to the Columbus State Institution for Morons, Imbeciles, and Idiots as the large concrete sign at its entrance declared, on January 14, 1963. My parents dropped him off and Mark became a ward of the state of Ohio. Ohio became responsible for every aspect of his care. Mark was only 8 years old. He was thrown into a ward of fifty wild boys confined to two large rooms. One cavernous room held 50 sagging cast-iron prison beds crowded together. The other room contained 50 benches and chairs, bolted to the floor. Facing their attendant was a black and white television mounted high on the wall. There was no door into the restroom, which also had no partitions dividing the line of toilets which had no toilet seats. That’s right, commodes without seats. Open showers faced the toilets. The single mean-spirited attendant in white scrubs sat at a metal desk and meaded out punishments that included making inmates lie face down on the floor under their beds, restraining them via canvas straps secured to the wall, making them sit on benches for days at a time, and forcing them to stand in cold-water in stress positions. Solitary confinement was accomplished in a side room, through inmates being forced into a cramped one-man iron cage without enough room to sit down. A separate prison building was used for long term punishment in black-out cells or confinement in even more restrictive aggregate settings. There were forty such wards, three floors high, euphemistically called cottages and given picturesque names like Broadview and Lawnview. The horror of that place was so stark – so jarring. To see my little brother dressed in state-issued ill-fitting rags when we arrived, and then to hear him scream as he was restrained behind the heavy locked door as we left after our monthly visits, tore the scabs off our broken hearts every time. The general public spoke of people like Mark being “cared for” in “state homes”. All inmates were injected with Thorazine to control behavior, yet constant bullying and fights among inmates, and violent physical abuse by attendants, was unending. As a result of his sedation, my brother seemed drugged – dull, and always looked like he was healing from four different fights by the discolored fading bruises and scabs on his face, neck, and arms. I was told that, when Mark entered puberty, he masturbated in inappropriate places. Masturbating is normal teenage behavior. I am certain he wasn’t the only one. And yet, there were obviously no private places in that fully open institutional prison. Perhaps that excuse was invented by those who had never seen a “cottage”. In any case, to address what they considered to be Mark’s problem, the doctors injected him with female hormones.

I was 17 after that happened. I lived and worked in Columbus that summer and was able to visit him every week. I would take my guitar and perform concerts on the weedy lawn for Mark’s ward, one of the several cottages of inmates that would be out at the same time for their daily airing, and then take him for a greasy hamburger in the institution’s commissary. I got to know the talkative attendant during those visits, and he told me, surreptitiously, about the female hormone injections. Mark’s body reacted in several alarming ways: he lost all of the body hair on his arms and legs. His nipples became engorged, swollen, and dark purple. His facial hair grew in thin and patchy, unlike our family’s heavy beard pattern. His body was forever changed. I observed his purple nipples and hairless arms and legs when our parents visited, and I held him as Mark, and I swam in the hotel’s pool. Nothing was ever spoken about concerning Mark’s body between my parents and me. Shortly after Mark moved to Columbus, when he was around ten years old, he became addicted to Cigarettes, which were given to all residents as a means of behavior control.

The slow decades ground on, and sluggish institutional reforms finally began. Thanks to a lucky break, after 19 years, when Mark was 27, he was moved to a different smaller living arrangement within what had been staff housing at a similar institution near Cleveland, our hometown. Mark lived there for 11 years. After a decade of advocacy, during which I helped move Mark into smaller group homes, in 1995, I was successful in pulling Mark out of those hell holes and into my own neighborhood. He moved into a regular little house, which I furnished and managed, through a new arrangement called supported living.

Mark lived out his last 18 years bonding with a slow parade of caregivers, many of whom worked with him for years. Mark told me one day that his new, friendly, young, black female aid had told him he wasn’t a white man, he was a black man. Despite my correction, he insisted it was true. I tried to convince him that we were white men. However, I could not alter his rock-ribbed conviction of being black. Mark Moyer could shake his groove-thing with the best of them. He just loved to dance. For about ten years, Mark was supported by a middle-aged, motherly black woman who, on Sundays, would take him into her world of Baptist gospel services and church potluck dinners. Sometimes, out of the blue, Mark would call out “Amen Jesus” with evangelical fervor. Mark was joyful and raucous in his occasional eruptions of faux black dialect. His “acting black” might have been seen as inappropriate, were it not for the obvious purity of his heart and his simple joy. Mark effortlessly moved from a white man’s outlook to a black man’s with his smiling, religious outbursts. However, regardless of his constant attempts to convince me otherwise, I consistently instructed him that he was not black. Mark would quietly end the debate with a firm, “I’m a black man.” Our vexing low-grade conflict was never resolved. After several months of undiagnosed lung cancer, we finally received a proper diagnosis just two months before he died. Mark died at a beautiful hospice facility on the shores of Lake Erie of metastasized lung cancer at age 59.

The state of Ohio, and all states, owe a genuine, blanket apology to every helpless soul who became addicted to nicotine at their hands within institutions and suffered and died of tobacco-related illnesses.

Standard hospice procedures required dressing residents who had passed in a fresh diaper and a clean hospital gown prior to their body’s transfer to community mortuaries. I had asked to be allowed to bathe Mark following his passing. The nurse allowed us to prepare his body, and so it was, as a final expression of our love, we shaved him, brushed his hair, gave him a sponge bath, and dressed him according to their standard practice.

Suddenly my wife Cristi grabbed my arm and said, “My God, Mark’s genitals are black.” My heart stopped and I realized in that moment with horror that he had been telling me the truth for years. He had been seeking my understanding. Those sons of bitches who changed my brothers’ body in such a grotesque way. His black genitals must have been the source of much ridicule and abuse by other residents as he lived for those 33 years in large aggregate settings with shared toilets and showers. Those sons of bitches. I would like to have a meeting with the very doctors who ordered those estrogen injections as a hideous medical experiment, confront them with the results, and wait for their stammered apology.

Mark, you were a black man. I’m sorry I didn’t understand.

After the period when pharmaceutical companies introduced formulas such as Thorazine for sedation and reduction of aggression, those in the white coats had the power of gods. Thorazine was a heavy-handed, vile solution “effective for crowd control, not psychiatric treatment, ” as the psychiatrist at Mark’s institution had sadly told me. However, it came with many negative side-effects that would manifest over time. But their casual experiments with female hormones, to address the benign behavior of masturbation, was a cynical overreach, and must be seen as a reprehensible misuse of power. What had begun as an attempt to cause Mark’s chemical castration, was in fact, a reckless attack on that little boy’s very body and resulted in a life sentence of physical deformity. I have been saving this final, ghastly story as a testament to what you suffered, my brother. In spite of it, I thank you for your gentleness and good nature. I was without useful detailed vision throughout those decades, and I couldn’t see your naked body, as I prepared you for showers at my home over scores of visits. Had I known, I would have agreed with you – about your blackness – and affirmed you. I would never have denied it, I would have acknowledged the way you were – and your black genitals would have been a bond between us – a reminder of what you lived through. Your strange and altered body was brought upon you in our name by the State of Ohio. In your quiet wisdom, I know you found forgiveness. Please, I humble myself Mark, and ask for you to forgive us anyway. But oh – those sons of bitches…