Saturday, February 7, 2009

"Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes

Summary: A mentally retarded man, Charlie, undergoes an experiment which rapidly makes him a genius. Through personal diary-type entries entries, Charlie relays his feelings as he becomes aware, for the first time, of the personal abuse and discrimination he has faced. He finds his increased intelligence does not, however, help him be more accepted or less lonely.

Musings: The first thing that struck me in the book was the treatment of learning disabled people. Published over forty years ago, Flowers for Algernon certainly portrays the harsh reality for people living with mental disabilities in the 1960s. On a political level, we're much more sensitive to these issues today, and terms like "retarded" are no longer accepted in the scientific lexicon. However, although the official terms and academic understandings have changed significantly, many of the abuses Charlie faces at the hands of his mother and peers certainly have not. Just one day inside the classroom of my 14-year-olds shows me how cruel and uncaring teenagers can be. I can't imagine children and adults with mental disabilities have it much better today.

The book was sad and difficult to get through. Charlie is "happy" when he is mentally retarded, but only because he unaware that others use his naivete and desire to please to make fun and take advantage of him. When his intelligence increases, Charlie becomes aware of his mistreatment. He finds himself angry and equally as lonely as he was before the experiment--only this time, he's acutely aware of every injustice.

The book offers no answers. Intelligence does not bring Charlie happiness, but mental retardation isn't better either (after all, can ignorance be bliss?).

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