When I saw The Boys in the Bunkhouse in the library and read on the back cover what it was about, I vaguely remembered having read about this in the paper a few years ago. I don’t know if it was in 2009 when the men’s plight was discovered, or in 2013 when a jury awarded them $240 million. I wonder now why it made so little impression on me that I have only the vaguest memory of having read about it at all.
I suppose the fact that it had happened only 25 miles from where I lived (since 2005, anyway) may have been the main reason I took notice of it to begin with. I’ve never been to Atalissa, but I’ve passed the I-80 exit for Atalissa enough times to know it was not all that far away. I know people who live in West Liberty, where the turkey processing plant is located where these mentally disabled men worked.
Perhaps I just read a brief article and expected to read more as the case unfolded. Perhaps I had personal issues occupying my mind at the time and didn’t give my full attention to the problems of people I had never met and was not likely to ever cross paths with. Perhaps I thought, “Well, it’s bad what was done to them, but now the situation is being taken care of,” and went on to another article.
Reading Dan Barry’s book about these dozens of men living for decades in deteriorating conditions and working long hours eviscerating turkeys for very little pay, one wonders how it could go on for so long without someone doing something about it. But there were people who tried to do something about it, and were ignored for various reasons – it wasn’t clear whose responsibility it was, the men’s living conditions initially looked pretty good to the people of Atalissa (as conditions deteriorated over the years, the bunkhouse became off-limits to townspeople), and once the issue had been reported, surely someone must be doing something about it.
I found myself wondering, as I read the book, what I would have done if I had had personal knowledge of the situation back when it was still going on. Would I have noticed signs of exploitation that so many people overlooked? Probably not. If I did notice, would I have taken the initiative to do something, or figured someone better suited to the task would surely be working on it? If I tried to do something and were ignored or rebuffed, would I keep pressing for action to be taken?
I’ve read recently that human trafficking is an ongoing problem in Iowa. It seems like such a nice, safe place to live and work and raise a family, but every time I put gas in the car, the “See me” posters on the gas tanks remind me of the darker side of life somewhere not very far away. Who knows how close I pass to people trapped in this modern slavery, as I go to and from work or do my shopping? If I don’t see it happening, is it because I really haven’t witnessed it, or because I don’t really want to see it?
The men who ran Henry’s Turkey Service and took a bunch of men from “state schools” in Texas and trained them to work with turkeys thought they were doing a good thing for the men, giving them a chance to do productive work and earn money instead of living in an institution. Perhaps with the right kind of facilities with trained staff, it could have been a good program. But whatever the good intentions at the start, making a profit seems to have overridden concerns for the men’s well-being, and over the years it just got worse.
How often does that kind of thing happen in our society? Something is started with the best of intentions but the outcome ends up hurting people. And people who warn of what could go wrong are criticized for their negativity. Other people see the situation from a distance and don’t notice what is really going on, because after all, we all have our own lives and our own problems. There is so much suffering out there, and only so much that one person can do. It’s easy to not look, because you know you can’t fix all the problems out there.
Dan Barry’s book is a good look at one problem that did finally get addressed. Not soon enough, but finally, and it got enough attention that a similar situation would probably get attention much sooner. It reveals not only what the men suffered, but also their personalities, their hopes and dreams, so that the reader cares about them not only because they were victims but because they are people, not the same as everyone else in some ways, but in the ways that matter most.
May it inspire us to notice the people around us who may be suffering in silence, and find something we can do to make a difference.