Sepia Saturday: A Child's Garden of Dysfunction
"Somewhere along the delicate axis of fact and fiction, one discovers that odd curiosity we choose to embrace as 'truth'."
-- Clarissa Bernstein Ben Zvi Dunlap
Third wife of Dr. Q. Nestor Ben Zvi
Though virtually forgotten today, in the late 19th century and early 20th century Q. Nestor Ben Zvi was one of the most widely read authors and most sought after speakers of the era, reputedly having more readers and having given lectures to cumulatively larger audiences than those of Dickens, Twain and Darwin combined.
Granted, he never wrote a single volume intended for a mass audience, but his tomes intended for the industrial and academic sectors are considered to have been a key bridge between the European industrial revolution and the rise of the American assembly line and mass manufacturing. He further forged some of the leading theories on child psychology that many authorities feel are still embedded in the collective American psyche like a deep, glaring scar.
Born in Banja Luka, Herzegovina, in 1873, little Nestor joined his family who immigrated first to Denmark when he was 18 months and then to Baltimore where they lived for three years before his father established a small ale house on Hester Street while young Nestor and his 16 siblings toiled in a button factory where much of his psychological theory evolved through personal toil and triumph. By the age of 14 he rose to a shift manager, overseeing children aged five to eight and was praised by the upper management for his ability to maximize productivity while minimizing complaints, injury and lost limbs. By the age of 16 he published the first of his many pamphlets and soon was much in demand by other factory owners as a speaker on how to get the most out of waif and ragamuffin workers.
So impressed were these captains of industry, that they invited him to take their on own children. In 1896 he was appointed the head of collective corrections at the Finger Lakes Institute for Juvenile Mental Hygiene in Mount Kisco, New York. The Institute was funded by a circle of the East Coast's leading millionaires who were eager for Nestor to "fix" their naughty children. One of the unexpected by-products of the Gilded Age was -- despite the advance of wealth, electricity and indoor plumbing -- what these blue bloods considered to be barbaric behavior among their wee ones. In an era where children were meant to be seen and not heard, these decidedly vocal heirs to the New World were sent to Mount Kisco to be muted and corrected. The registry of family names was kept top secret, but as one anonymous nurse observed, "The pedigrees are so prestigious and the children's behavior so heinous that these are clearly the children of the wealthiest of first cousins or worse."
It was here that Nestor (who earned a dubious doctorate from the Trinidad Academy of Cultured Pearl Contemplation and Psychological Studies at age 22) was now known as Dr. Ben Zvi and developed some of his breakthroughs on child misbehavior management. While originally the children were housed in the various dormitories regardless of their place of origin, he soon observed a direct link between geography and dysfunction. There were the Beacon Hill Booger Eaters. Then it was discovered that the Institute had a wing of the Manic Masturbators of the Philadelphia Mainline. From out West, there were the Persistent Pimple Poppers of Pacific Heights. When grouped by location and ailment, Dr. Ben Zvi discovered that he was able to treat these ailments with greater efficiency and speed, closely echoing Henry Ford's assembly line. (He would later try to cure the Ford children's strident anti-Semitism.)
All was going along swimmingly until a Harper's writer, posing as a distant Cabot cousin, descended on the Institute, questioning Dr. Ben Zvi's methods and daring to name the names of the gilded register at the front desk. Although a healthy "stipend" managed to suppress the story, Dr. Ben Zvi and his patients were forced to flee to an obscure hacienda outside of Montevideo where they could be observed without intervention or judgment.
It was here that Dr. Ben Zvi began writing his masterwork as he started also receiving the children of Europe's crowned heads of state, Latin American and African colonialists and the entire brood of the King of Siam.
Published in 1908 with the names changed, A Child's Garden of Dysfunction was as captivating as it was bizarre. Written in a loose, lilting verse with strange line drawing of his subjects, it featured entries like this:
Puffy Priscilla of Pompei
Ate 90 cream horns every day
Weighing in at 30 stone
There was a lot of blubber on her bones
Icky Heinrich from Düsseldorf
Chewed on hay just like a horse
When off to school he was called
He always came bucking from his stall
Wretched Rudolf from Monterery
Got great joy chewing razor blades
His bloody tongue and tortured jaw
Brought him looks of shock and awe
Though controversial and intended for a practitioner audience, the book was soon a huge hit, especially with children themselves who would memorize and sing the verses while playing ball or jumping rope. Dr. Ben Zvi was on his way back from a lecture tour of Europe when he perished on the Titanic in 1912. Ironically, he did not drown but was shot when caught trying to push his way to the front of a line of women and children trying to board a lifeboat.