The Fate of Human Beings

Directed by Heather Cassano

In Waltham, Massachusetts there is a cemetery where 310 unidentified people are buried. Graves are marked only with a letter and a number. “C” stands for Catholic and “P” for Protestant, the number indicating the order in which they were buried. The cemetery, known as the Metfern Cemetery, served as a burial site for patients housed within the walls of nearby mental institutions - The Fernald School for “feeble-minded” children and The Metropolitan State Hospital. Hidden among the trees of Beaver Brook Reservation, Metfern Cemetery is only accessible by hiking trails. 310 lives suspended in anonymity.

Massachusetts has a sordid history of improperly interning and mistreating its citizens who fall within the definition of “mentally inadequate,” but the history of the Metfern Cemetery is largely unknown even to those who live next door. Today, many residents in Waltham are surprised to learn of the cemetery’s existence. The feature-length documentary The Fate of Human Beings seeks to uncover the history behind the Metfern Cemetery, telling the stories of the people buried there.

The Metropolitan State Hospital, The Fernald School, and the Metfern Cemetery are uniquely positioned within the community of Waltham. Many people pass these abandoned structures as they walk their dogs, unaware of the atrocities committed within their walls. Those who remember The Fernald School in operation have constructed a narrative of “good doctors and bad doctors.” Waltham residents who worked inside these institutions maintain that they never engaged in abuse or experimentation on residents in their care. The Fate of Human Beings attempts to unpack this collective myth through a marriage of interviews and archival material. The filmmaker, in collaboration with local historians, will compare the collective memory of Waltham residents to the reality of their institutionalized neighbors.

In 1954, scientists from Harvard Medical School and MIT injected radioactive calcium into nine boys and one adult at The Fernald School. In what would later become known as the “radioactive oatmeal experiment,” these institutionalized children were convinced to join a “science club.” Bribed with extra meals and trips to Red Sox games, the children were unknowingly signing up to become test subjects. It is unclear if the one adult subjected to this test was capable of understanding what was being done to him. The experiment’s report “The Fate of Intravenously Injected Radiocalcium in Human Beings” describes the man as having a “mental age of 10” and “spastic.” In today’s terms, he would have been diagnosed with autism.

Although the experimentation on disabled people is only a small part of the history of these institutions, it is a crucial element to understanding the way disabled people were (and continue to be) viewed by those who care for them. Drawing from her previous work and experience with her severely autistic brother Brian, the filmmaker aims to dismantle this depersonalized view of disabled people, lending a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves.

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