It’s not often that a small-town paper in Wisconsin breaks a national scandal. That’s probably why nobody much noticed this headline in the Pierce County Herald‘s May 26, 1999, issue: “Unethical Research: Stuttering Study Is Subject of Halvorson’s New Book.” It dutifully reported that Jerry Halvorson, a nearly retired University of Wisconsin, Falls River, professor of speech pathology, had published an exposé of . . . well, a curious sort.
Halvorson had long heard mutterings about the University of Iowa’s “Monster Study,” a 1939 project that disrupted speech in orphanage children by misleading them into believing that they were stutterers. Having seemingly induced stuttering in healthy children, UI graduate student Mary Tudor subsequently discovered she couldn’t undo the damage. Her resulting thesis, overseen by the respected speech pathologist professor Wendell Johnson, had been hushed up by colleagues concerned with its disturbing parallels to Nazi experimentation.
Wait, you ask—wasn’t this Monster Study exposed two years later by Jim Dyer of the San Jose Mercury News?
Indeed it was, and Dyer’s 2001 articles were the stuff that Pulitzers are made of. National media leapt upon his disclosures, and surviving orphans—some of whom were unaware of the experiment until Dyer called them—are now suing the state and the University of Iowa. (Disclosure: I recently taught a course for Iowa’s nonfiction MFA program.) In October the Iowa Supreme Court allowed their lawsuit to proceed by dismissing a state challenge to it.
But Dyer never got his whack at the Pulitzer piñata. It emerged that the orphans’ names were in an archive off-limits to journalists, and Dyer gained access by identifying himself as a grad student. The resulting ethics flap cost Dyer his job. Tracking the orphans down this way was not permissible —and that was why, unmentioned or unnoticed by Dyer, two years earlier Professor Jerry Halvorson hit upon a most unusual way to give a detailed account of the Monster Study: He wrote a novel.
Abandoned: Now Stutter My Orphan— that is indeed its title—was self-published by the author’s sideline business, Halvorson Farms of Wisconsin, Inc. A speech pathology novel coming from a business known for having bred an Appaloosa named Rock My World turns out to be the least of the book’s idiosyncrasies. Like all jaw-droppingly strange art, Abandoned seems blissfully unaware of its own weirdness. Its plot is built upon a series of coincidences bearing longer odds than a Powerball jackpot. The protagonist, Frank, is a young Iowa orphan with a stutter. Oh, but he’s not just any orphan— he’s really the secret love child of a senato! Then he’s living next door to a woman who . . . is really his mother in disguise! Who works in a store where she sells him a book by . . . Wendell Johnson! And when he’s inspired to go work for Johnson as a grad student, he discovers the Monster Study that was conducted years earlier in . . . his very orphanage! Did I mention that Frank has a stutter? It’s a very important plot point!
There’s more: Freudian regression therapy, the Rabelaisian orphanage director Miss Grundy, and an offhanded revelation that—yes!—Frank has a long-lost identical twin. Nor is the monumental oddness of Halvorson’s book limited to its plot. He freely mixes diary entries, interviews, academic citations, and boldface type to indicate maximum drama. (“Frank cleared his throat with an unpracticed, ‘haak, haak’ that jerked his Adam’s Apple up and down his neck. His index finger extended to press the doorbell .”) And there is something priceless in this dialogue death match
between a “German” doctor and a stutterer:
“Plees tel me vhy joo stutter zo much . . . ”
“I . . . . . . . . guess my t . . . . . . . . ongue . . . ”
What makes Abandoned perversely intriguing is its guileless mash-up of fact and fiction. The protagonist is an amalgam of actual orphans and Professor Franklin Silverman, author of a brief 1988 Journal of Fluency Disorders article cited in the book as the earliest public disclosure of the Monster Study. (Silverman himself helpfully provided Abandoned‘s foreword, and gave Halvorson a childhood picture that appears on the book jacket.) University of Iowa personnel appear as characters under their actual names; there are even direct quotes from Tudor’s thesis. In fact, when Frank travels to California late in the book to interview the retired Mary Tudor, Halvorson interrupts the narration and prefaces the chapter thus: “Warning to the Reader! The author of the book you are reading, Jerry Halvorson, interviewed Mary Tudor on April 11 and 12, 1996. Following are the actual words of Mary Tudor. . . . ”
This interview is the book’s great payoff, not least because of its timing. By Dyer’s 2001 report a rattled Tudor expressed doubts over what she had done— “I wouldn’t do it [again],” she says, “now that I’m a mother and a grandmother.” But Halvorson’s 1996 interview shows Tudor, not yet subject to scrutiny, still proud of her handiwork. Would she do it again? Indeed she would, though she allows that she’d do things differently now. Oh? “I’d probably do the writing on a computer.”
And the choice of Mary Tudor? That turns out to be appallingly easy to explain: Johnson noticed that children trusted her.
Surprisingly, the dedication in Abandoned: Now Stutter My Orphan is made out to Tudor; Halvorson is so speech-path old-school that he believes Tudor’s work was heroic in its way. Her study, after all, underpinned Johnson’s once influential “diagnosogenic” theory that stuttering originates in parents making children self-conscious about speech. Still, there’s a moment that should have troubled Tudor and Halvorson alike—something that, despite its mind-boggling eccentricities, should make Halvorson’s book Exhibit A for academic wrongdoing as the orphan lawsuit goes to trial. When Halvorson asks whether she would have performed the experiment on her own children, Tudor pauses uneasily to consider her answer.
“No,” she says.
Paul Collins is the author of The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine (Bloomsbury).