Embracing the mentally wounded

JOHN REEVES December 1 1973

Embracing the mentally wounded

JOHN REEVES December 1 1973

Embracing the mentally wounded

JOHN REEVES

Late in the summer of 1964, beneath skies much given to greyness at Trosly-Breuil, a very small town in northern France, Jean Vanier, son of then Governor General George Vanier, moved into an old, deserted stone house named L’Arche, with two mentally handicapped men, to create a home.

In retrospect the setting was appropriate for his intentions. Trosly-Breuil, like Jean Vanier’s mentally injured friends, presents the indicators of decline and neglect. Great, centuries-old stone houses, monuments to the glories of the past, molder in neglect and are empty, slowly eroding in the near daily rains prevalent even in summer. The great and once richly endowed churches of the region are selling their presbyteries and seem barely able to fight a holding action against decay.

Overrun in World War II, the indigenous citizens of TroslyBreuil also bear the scars of a tragic history. For them the furies of internecine political struggle and terror by night are part of a living

communal memory. There is a lady of indeterminate but not great age who patrols the streets ceaselessly, carrying a heavy packsack and a flashlight to inspect strange license plates, haunted by the anticipation of a disaster that we, the ostensibly sane of the earth, can only hope never arrives in fulfillment of her absolute expectations. She will not be reassured.

Despite its close proximity to Paris and the dominant regional industrial centre of Compiègne, Trosly-Breuil and its close neighbors Cuisse-la-Motte and Pierrefonds have not been winners in France’s impressive postwar growth.

Jean Vanier might have self-consciously set forth to found a community committed to the care and healing of the mentally scarred in a place like Trosly-Breuil; however, such was not the case. Vanier, by the summer of 1964, was at loose ends. He had forsaken a naval career because of its incompatibility with his humanitarian sensibilities, and he was haunted by a feeling of dis-

At Work

Work at L’Arche isn’t just a therapeutic pastime. The mentally handicapped are encouraged to take part on an eight-hours-a-day basis in a variety of agricultural, industrial, craft and maintenance activities that contribute to the community’s support. An expanding complex of shops aim to produce workers who can perform at commercially acceptable standards. Part of the work at L’Arche is general administration and there is a weekly meeting chaired by chief administrator, Jean Vanier, but open to all concerned, including the community’s handicapped members. It is a reasonable system by which to live.

At Play

L’Arche treats its mentally handicapped according to their individual needs. Vigorous, inventive play or sensitive personal attention is available as indicated. Regimentation isn’t part of the L’Arche lifestyle. The handicapped residents can smoke, drink, dress as they wish and impose whatever personal touches (souvenirs, posters) they please on their accommodations. Visitors are made welcome at L’Arche (by Madame Vanier) and the welcome usually includes dinner — the high social point of the L’Arche day. L’Arche is not run as an institution; that is its importance; that is its excellence.

satisfaction with an academic life that wasn’t satisfying the dictates of an intensely held belief in service to society.

It was at this time that Vanier received an invitation to TroslyBreuil from an old friend and spiritual mentor, Père Thomas Phillipe. Père Thomas was already living in Trosly-Breuil, and was interested in renovating a small local chapel. It was during this sojourn with Père Thomas that the idea came to Vanier of making a home for, and sharing a life with some retarded men — people whose neglected, futureless, desperate and despairing circumstances seemed to present a focus for his profound Christian belief. From the initial period living in L’Arche, Vanier’s idea of a community conceived to embrace the handicapped just grew to its present scale with numerous residences in the Compiègne-Trosly region, and further establishments in Canada, England, India, Denmark and the U.S.

Recently Vanier’s mother has come to live with her son and share his life at Trosly-Breuil, and the activities at L’Arche. Madame Pauline Vanier, a woman still possessed of an astonishingly vigorous mind and body, a woman who had in some degree been the author of first her husband’s and then her children’s deep spirituality and conceptions of service to mankind, was drawn to L’Arche. It affords an outlet for her formidable talents — meeting, greeting, and dispensing hard won wisdom and diplomatic acumen — and she is at home again.

L’Arche is not, in the traditional sense, an institution where a small professional staff cares for a large population of physically and mentally handicapped, the whole event produced in a single building. L’Arche is a community where a more or less equal number of handicapped and unhandicapped people simply live and work together for the communal good. L’Arche’s physical structure is cellular rather than monolithic, with its members living in separate, relatively small home-scale circumstances. Though L’Arche is not in any real sense self-supporting, life there runs as though it were. The whole community participates to the greatest extent individually possible in all aspects of life there. L’Arche’s workshops subcontract industrial assembly operations from local industries. It

operates its own vegetable gardens, attends to its own building renovation and maintenance, runs a tailoring shop, and everyone helps with domestic chores — cooking, cleaning, dishwashing.

L’Arche further provides for a very real social life for those who live there. A country setting and proximity to a national forest lead to a whole range of such outdoor activities as hiking, camping and the national obsession, soccer. The small-town side of the L’Arche situation provides access to church and a steady procession cj>f musical evenings, birthday parties, visits to the local café and a profusion of spontaneous recreational and social happenings. All these on-going daily affairs at L’Arche are shared by handicapped and non-handicapped alike. They live and interact together. They eat the same food at the same table, sleep in the same accommodations, perform the same tasks.

This homogenizing of both handicapped and non-handicapped has a curious effect: while some of the handicapped have developed confident, engaging personalities, some of the non-handicapped possess fair degrees of neuroticism and personalities that are far from engaging. After a few days at L’Arche the who-is-andwho-isn’t game gets tricky to play.

There are many ironies visible at L’Arche, and one night I was given cause for some less than flattering self-scrutiny: after thoroughly enjoying an evening of unlabored and contagious gaiety — an evening fueled with a few francs worth of fruit juice and cookies — I felt called to account for the intelligence of a life that entails consuming from $25 to $50 a day in beef, burgundy and booze merely to produce the illusion of not feeling downright miserable.

L’Arche is not an institution, it is an idea for a community designed to embrace all its members rather than look after some of them. In some ways L’Arche is that incredibly obvious answer to a complex problem that somehow escaped testing because of its obviousness. Ask what can be done to help the mentally ill and the geneticist will tell you that in a few years he’ll see there aren’t any; ask the biochemist and he may say that in time he’ll have a pill to cure it. Ask the often desperately distressed and guilt-ridden parents of a mentally handicapped /

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child and they may say nothing at all or they may in some cases speak of mercy killing. But ask the question of Jean Vanier and his associates at L’Arche and they will answer: treat them to the greatest degree possible just like anybody else.

For having the courage to force this simple answer to the test Jean Vanier deserves much credit. Jean Vanier is an extraordinary and compelling individual. He stands six feet four inches tall and possesses the elongated proportions and general physique of a saint painted by El Greco; and further, he possesses an extraordinarily beautiful voice and a magnificent spoken verbal style in both French and English. It is easy for both press and public to spuriously sanctify and celebrate Vanier the man, thus neatly buying their way around confrontation with the central character of the man’s preoccupations. Vanier’s thoughts and acts should seek to make us care about those whom he calls “wounded brothers and sisters . . . wounded perhaps in the intelligence, or in the body, or in the heart . . .”

L’Arche is the concrete demonstration of an approach to embracing the lives of some of these wounded.

Vanier and his associates suggest that given appropriate social, medical and physical support at least half of L’Arche’s current handicapped population could be cared for in a home setting, and all but a tiny group whose grave physical and mental disabilities demand constant and extensive medical care could be provided for in group residential settings, again provided within their home communities.

By way of official endorsement, L’Arche’s major financial support comes from the French government, and L’Arche’s handicapped are referred there by mental hospitals glad to divest themselves of patients they have long despaired of helping, and from the courts who regard L’Arche as a good recipient of their mentally disabled wards, and by families who for various reasons are unable to cope with a growing, mentally handicapped person.

The Canadian Association for the Mentally Retarded strongly endorses the L’Arche approach. Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger, consultant to the National Institute on Mental Retardation, says of life at L’Arche that he found “an atmosphere in which persons who might otherwise present major problems to one another lived together in tolerance, love and charity toward each other.”

In March, 1973, the Ontario Provincial Secretary for Social Development, Robert Welch, issued a white paper outlining an approach to “community living for the mentally retarded in Ontario.” Last June, Vanier personally received an award from France’s presti-

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gious L’Institut de la Vie Scientifique for his work with the world’s handicapped and mentally retarded people.

One episode perhaps more than any other remains in my mind after my stay at L’Arche. Heavy rain on Bastille Day, the glorious Fourteenth of July, had by evening evolved into a brooding, starless misty darkness. I had been invited to attend an outdoor celebration at La Promesse, a L’Arche residence situated not in Trosly-Breuil but in the nearby town of Pierrefonds. La Promesse sits at the foot of a very steep hill and possesses a terraced garden that ascends in splendid steps until the huge hardwoods of the forest of Compiègne halt its upward progress with a phalanx of massive trunks and overhanging limbs. As I climbed the garden steps the sound of voices singing came to my ears and, reaching the top, the darkness gave way to the prospect of a roaring bonfire limning the faces of a group seated around the periphery of its ebullient glow.

Occasionally packets of firecrackers planted in the midst of the fire’s burning sticks erupted with loud reports and showers of gunpowder sparks, white constellations against the fiery orange flames. The crowd, led by a young guitar player, was lost in the gentle business of song. A firelit chorale, gently rendering hymns and popular ballads — Michael Row The Boat Ashore, Plaisir d’Amour and Rollin’ On The River sweetly lifting on the cool, damp night breeze.

After a time the guitarist gave way to a violinist, a bearded man of jovial aspect (he told me later he was a wicker weaver) and the crowd fell temporarily silent, entranced by the music lilting from his bow. Suddenly, out of the shadows, a powerfully built but tiny man whose facial structure bore those characteristics that would identify him as mongoloid, leaped into the open space between the seated crowd and the fire, and started to dance. The violinist fell into rhythm. The tempo quickened, the dancer’s feet following in rhythmic pursuit, a tiny man made large with the splendid skill and wild vitality of his dance, his flickering form a metaphor for the fire’s erupting, dark-destroying flames.

There’s a word that’s used a lot by the people of L’Arche. It is used to express satisfaction, approval, or just plain happiness. That word is hallelujahlM

For information about mental retardation and locally available services for the retarded in Canada, write to the National Institute on Mental Retardation, Kinsmen NI MR Building, 4700 Keele Street, Downsview, Ontario M3J 1P3. There are four L’Arche residences in Canada: Maison Allelulia House, Ottawa; Shalom, Edmonton; Friends of L’Arche, Stratford, Ont.; Daybreak, Richmond Hill, Ont.