The story of a good man—Jean Vanier—and the new life he brings to the world’s least wanted “children”

DOUGLAS MARSHALL December 1 1967


The story of a good man—Jean Vanier—and the new life he brings to the world’s least wanted “children”

DOUGLAS MARSHALL December 1 1967


The story of a good man—Jean Vanier—and the new life he brings to the world’s least wanted “children”


IN A CLUTTERED workshed in northern France a couple of months ago a 20-year-old youth performed what was for him an extraordinary feat. The youth, mentally retarded and suffering from a nervous disease that made his hands tremble, was painfully piecing together a mosaic-tile tabletop. The basic design, a railway engine, was already mapped out for him. He finished it and then unexpectedly added a touch all his own — a simple floral pattern in the top left-hand corner. The flower was a gift, the best he could give, to the art teacher who was helping him.

It is moments like this, the moment the art teacher said, “Thank you,” and the retarded youth smiled, that Jean François Paul Vanier has devoted the rest of his life to making possible.

For the past three years Vanier, the third son of Canada’s late governor general, has presided over a village complex for retarded adults at Trosly-Breuil, some 50 miles north of Paris. His “boys” as he calls them, will number 72 by the beginning of the year. Most arc in their early 20s, but one is as young as 14 and others are in their 50s. They include idiots, epileptics and mongoloids with varying intelligence quotients, but none is so completely retarded as to be unable to dress or feed himself. Most of the boys will remain at Trosly until they die and Vanier, now 39, intends to grow old along with them — being both their father and, in the sense that the retarded are similar to the elderly and infirm, their son.

“These boys are refugees from homes where the unity of family has broken up,” says Vanier. “Because of their own handicaps or lack of understanding on the part of relatives, society outside would be hell for them. Here we’re trying to restructure their personalities.”

The restructuring process is partly medical. About one third of the boys are under continuous treatment with drugs. And Vanier works in close consultation with psychiatrists provided by the Department of L’Oise, the local provincial government that finances the project out of public funds and by billing relatives who can afford to pay. But the basic treatment Vanier provides is something that is seldom if ever found in the large, efficient but soulless state asylums to which adult retardates are normally consigned. Trosly offers these people a chance to live not as despised cripples isolated from life, but as “human beings who have the right to love and be loved.”

“Our aim,” explains Vanier, “is the fulfillment of all a boy’s spiritual and human possibilities. We are reasserting the primacy of self. People keep asking if any of the boys will ever recover and find a place in society. A few may, but that’s not the point. Just to have people happy in the world is enough.”

For Vanier, the great enemies of human happiness are the mercenary, materialistic values inherent in 20th-century society. When he folds his shaggy elongated frame into a chair and begins talking enthusiastically about his philosophy in / continued on page 73


continued from pape 24

a soft voice and with an ironic grin, he might he a man merely complaining about the rising cost of living. But there is deep anger behind his words and a resigned sadness about a world that worships wealth and power, that has made a fetish out of functionalism, that shuns the handicapped. retarded and aged as being useless and that, frequently, is cynically suspicious of the motives of men like himself.

In search of the prime values of joy and love and peace, Vanier has tried to restore the conditions of an age long gone by — the warm communion and simple faith that once existed in a medieval village. “It used to be that our mentally retarded lived in villages just as did the other inhabitants of the country. Why must we make them live separately now? The answer to that question is a condemnation of our society and of our morals."

Trosly is the perfect setting for Vanier's experimental retreat from the 20th century. It lies on the edge of the oak-pine Forest of Compiègne and was old when Versailles was new. Its cobbled streets have felt the rumble of the guillotine and the crunch of Prussian boots; its bricks and mortar have trembled under the heavy guns of two world wars. But Trosly slumbers on. a compact, still-medieval community indifferent to the anguish of history.

Once you know where it is, you can reach Trosly in an hour's drive up a modern expressway from the greedy clamor of metropolitan Paris. Vanier. however, took 14 years to find it. His search began in 1950 when he resigned his commission in the Royal Canadian Navy “for religious reasons.” He was then executive officer aboard the aircraft carrier HMCS Magnificent. His naval career had begun at 13 when his parents reluctantly allowed him to make the risky wartime Atlantic crossing to attend the Royal Navy’s training school in Dartmouth. He scoffs at Dartmouth's legendary reputation for Spartan toughness: “We were the most coddled adolescents in England. As future cannon-fodder, if that’s not too strong a word, we were the only children allowed to drink as much milk as we wanted.”

Vanier's turning point, he says, “was a realization of the value of the Gospels.” After he left the navy he began a peripatetic decade of religious meditation and intense theological study. First, he spent some time at the Dominican monastery of Le Saulchoir near Paris, but rejected the idea of taking holy orders (his eldest brother Georges, 42, is a Trappist monk at Oka in Quebec). Seeking a religious role that would involve him more in the world, his pilgrim’s progress took him from the Swiss Alps to Portugal’s Shrine of Fatima and culminated in his writing a 500-page thesis on Aristotelian morality for a doctorate from the Institut Catholique in Paris. Next, he spent a year lecturing in philosophy at St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto. (Vanier still returns to St. Miké’s once a year to give a monthlong lecture series.)

It was at this stage that Vanier



found Trosly, or, as he prefers to put it. “Trosly found me.” A psychiatrist friend told him about the plight of adult retardates in France and about a 30-bed permanent home for the retarded called Val Fleuri that was already established at Trosly. In 1964. using mostly his own money, Vanier bought a $10,000 house in the village, named it I.'Arche (The Ark) and moved in with two inmates from a nearby asylum. A few months later, after an administrative dispute at Val Fleuri, he took over the larger house as well. Now his 72 boys are scattered in five houses throughout the village.

Vanier plans to build several more houses and a chapel on the acre of ground that rolls out behind The Ark toward the forest. Eventually, the network will expand to include houses in surrounding villages, and ultimately he hopes to start similar village complexes in other parts of France. The need to expand is obvious. About two percent of the adult population in any Western country is mentally retarded and the places available in permanent homes such as those at Trosly are pitifully few.

Crocodile for a dentist

The small house, a home for six to eight boys and administered by one helper, is central to Vanier's concept of restoring human dignity to retardates. At The Ark, which is centrally heated and equipped with every modern convenience, seven boys sleep and eat in surroundings that are as warm and comfortable as those found in any well-to-do Canadian family home. In the mornings and afternoons the boys walk down the street to the workshops and vegetable gardens at Val Fleuri.

The workshops, for anybody expecting such dreary institutional activities as basket-weaving or mailbag-making, radiate usefulness and creative imagination. The boys are assigned the tasks with which they can best express themselves. In one well-lighted loft, the oak beams garlanded with flowers, three boys who are particularly neat and meticulous rebind books for local libraries in beautiful redor blue-cloth covers. In other sheds boys assemble TV aerials, weave tapestry cushions, expertly turn out cardboard filing boxes by the thousand, and mount sample sheets for a local ceramic factory. Other boys work in the expansive kitchen garden that provides most of the institution’s fresh vegetables.

Although all the operations turn a profit for the establishment, by far the most successful products are the mosaic tabletops. Exhibited in a Paris art gallery and marketed through department stores, they are immensely popular in France and fetch a high price. The designs range from religious tableaux to Walt Disney cartoon figures — particular favorites with the boys. One retardate, commissioned to do a tabletop for a dentist, produced a vividly green and toothsome crocodile.

A few of the boys are learning to read and write under the guidance of expert tutors, hut Vanier never pushes

formal education unless a boy specifically asks for it. He regards it as unimportant: “The ability to read and write is just one of the arbitrary standards society has set up to measure functional value. Yet there’s a continual state of frustration in a boy forced to read and write but never asked what he can do with his hands. If he is happier working with his hands, we leave him alone.”

If he has time. Vanier tours the entire establishment twice a day. greeting each boy by name with a smile and a handshake, consulting with his assistants, making decisions that grow increasingly more complicated as Trosly expands. A farmer wants to “borrow” some of the boys to help him harvest his potatoes. How many should go? Who should they be? One boy’s sister has just died, his only relative. How, and when, should they break the news to him? What does the psychiatrist advise?

Whatever the complications. Vanier normally tries to be on hand for the 15-minute afternoon tea break. The boys pour out of the workshops onto the sunny garden terraces of Val Fleuri to munch chunks of French bread spread with chocolate. In the middle of a throng stands Vanier — tweedy, towering, clearly the father figure. Dozens of boys at once seem to be embracing him, shaking his hand, talking to him. reassuring themselves. The spirit of affection is overwhelming. Even Vanier appears to be slightly embarrassed, at least in front of visitors, and eventually tries to detach himself.

During these breaks some of the boys kick a football around or play boules, the French version of bowls, on the gravel forecourt. Two are learning to play the guitar. They are helped by Carol Stewart, a 23-yearold graduate of St. Michael’s College, who comes from Hamilton. Ont. Carol, who plans to stay at Trosly for a year, has taught the boys to play and sing an old French-Canadian continued on pat>e 78


For 72 “boys,” 72 ways to help them

favorite, Chevaliers de la table ronde. With few exceptions, the boys seem to get a great kick out of popular music and several of them continuously carry transistor radios blaring out rock 'n' roll.

“These boys have the same diversity of interests as normal groups.” says Vanier. “They've organized all kinds of clubs to keep themselves occupied during the evening." What about sex? Vanier looks pained: “I think society has lost the fraternal relationship that used to exist between boys and girls, the relationship that allowed them to be good friends. We now have a society of sexology. At Trosly we are trying to reestablish the fraternal relationship. Many of the staff here are young girls and they help to create an atmosphere of friendliness and respect.

"Of course, things aren't always harmonious. There are boys here capable of going into epileptic rages, and when that happens we do everything we can to restore communications with him as quickly as possible. There is no set way of handling the situation. There are 72 different boys here and 72 different ways of dealing with them.”

Much of the atmosphere of friendliness, openness and purposefulness that permeates Trosly is the result of the communion established between the boys and the staff of more than 20. Almost all are volunteers and in-

clude helpers from Canada, the United States, Switzerland and India. Some come only for a few months to watch and learn; others intend to stay with Vanier for the rest of their lives.

Vanier believes it is fundamental that the helper, while remaining responsible. “ceases in his subconscious to have the attitude of a teacher or a superior.” A teacher, he says, continually demands progress. There is a risk he will grow disappointed if his protege fails to make that progress. For the pupil, the feeling of abandonment can be devastating.

"In contrast, the helper of a mentally retarded adult should above everything respect and love the handicapped person as he is: respect and love him with all his difficulties, his shortcomings and his crises."

Such a commitment requires an idealism, a generosity of heart and a patience that few ordinary men possess. Vanier is not an ordinary man. Like the medieval village he has reconstructed, he is an anachronism — a throwback to the age of faith. Part of his strength derives from his recognition that a retarded person is as much a child of God and destined for eternal life as any normal mortal. But a more important source of inspiration are the retarded themselves. “It is not the good I’ve been able to do for them that matters,” he says. “It’s the good they have been able to do for me.”

Retarded people, Vanier discovered, are like small children and primitive man in that belief in spiritual matters is virtually natural among them. Like children, retardates have a need for all-encompassing and universal knowledge. Although none of Vanier's boys are compelled to attend church, they all show a great attraction for religion. Their faith in God is absolute and unquestioning: they are not disturbed by the intellectual doubts and need for explanations that beset normal people. “The handicapped person." says Vanier. “often has a heart which is purer, more loving, simpler and closer to God than that of his helper."

Vanier says he has seen a fantastic transformation in his boys through faith. They have learned how to w'aste time happily, to talk to people easily and to play with each other in a way normal people don’t. Retardates have an astonishingly high degree of confidence in the basic values of life and show' little of what Vanier calls “the anguish of self-criticism." With this confidence they can sometimes perform services that normal people forget or ignore. At Trosly several of the boys have developed rich relationships with the lonely old people in the village. Vanier believes the day may yet come when retardates are allowed to fulfill themselves by being given the task of taking care of people who are bedridden or paralyzed.

Public attitude must change

Before that day can come, however, there will have to be a fundamental change in public attitude toward mental defectives. Partly out of aggressive self-interest and partly because of its rejection of anything abnormal. Western society has developed a fear and loathing for retardates. Vanier thinks that more open discussion and new attempts to make the public aware of the whole problem are far more essential today than increased government spending on institutions — the easy way out.

The experiment at Trosly indicates that most of society’s fears, particularly the dread that a mental defective may suddenly turn violent, are virtually groundless. In three years no boy has ever attacked anybody in the village and Vanier says the normal adolescents in the community are considerably more aggressive. Moreover, the people in the village have come to accept and even welcome the Trosly boys. Vanier frequently has open-house sessions so that the villagers can understand the problems involved, and relations improved even more when three village girls came to work at Val Fleuri. Says Vanier. “I think a survey would show that 95 percent of the village approves of the project and are happy to have us here.”

Could a Trosly be established in Canada? Vanier sees no reason why not. The only major drawback, he says, is that Canada has not got the French concept of the village. “There was some discussion about opening a permanent shelter for the retarded in the suburbs of Montreal, but 1 don’t * think it would work there. It would be much harder to educate an indifferent suburban housewife into

accepting retardates than it is a member of a close village community where everybody already knows each other."

Vanier makes no bones about how difficult it is for the average person to accept retardates. Such persons are usually, if not always, difficult to deal with. They arc generally unattractive because of such physical handicaps as twitches, deformities and ugliness. In temperament they can be egocentric, hypersensitive and belligerent.

“But in certain situations they will act with a generosity that is remarkable. even heroic. They will speak w'ords that display an astonishingly intuitive common sense. It is during these moments, moments that may be very rare, that one has the impression that these human beings are really being themselves — and being themselves are in contact with the eternal."

If Trosly seems in many ways to be a retreat from selfish 20th-century values toward an idealized past.

it can also be seen as an advance. In the work Vanier is doing there are disturbing echoes of something that modern society has lost but which we wall shortly have to find again if we are to retain our selfrespect. Vanier knows how hard the road back can be. He has made the trip himself. It would be tempting to describe him as a saint, but he is not. He is something at once more easy and more difficult. He is simply a good man. ★