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Isolated In America

On November 9, 2016, I woke up for my usual two am bathroom call and a snack. What was unusual that morning was my curiosity regarding the election results.

I recall watching the TV the night before as talking heads and pundits grew pale and nearly speechless as the election results came in. I admit it was fun watching those who like to tell us what to think and believe being confronted with their limitations and biases. Trump was leading but I was sure the results would change when all was said and done.

I turned on my iPhone and in the bright glow there were two headlines. One was from USA Today, the other from Bloomberg and both announced Trump’s win. I stood in our dark kitchen thinking surely it wasn’t true. My disbelief very quickly turned into anxiety. I had a hot flash followed by a slight turn of my stomach. I felt a tightness in my chest  –the sensation was fear. Why fear? I hadn’t felt fear in years! Why would a presidential election elicit such a visceral response? Maybe the answer could be found in my past.

My first career was working with severely emotionally disturbed children. After obtaining my master’s, I worked with institutionalized developmentally and intellectually impaired children and adults. I often witnessed the detrimental effects institutions had on human beings. At that time, my passion was deinstitutionalizing residents which meant finding them community services.

Now, some thirty plus years later, my new passion is researching and writing about a time in American history when civil rights were denied to nearly every disabled American. They were denied services and opportunities that intellectually and/or physically impaired people take for granted today.

In the early to middle part of the 20th century, forced institutionalization, sterilization, isolation, and even lobotomies were commonplace for hundreds of thousands of Americans. How did these horrible things come to be? The answer was a domino effect. One small abuse of their rights expanded to even more significant abuses. Ultimately, impaired people were believed to be a threat to our society.

Looking back, I wonder if my fear was the same fear Carrie Buck felt when she learned she had lost her Supreme Court case (Buck v Bell). The decision led to her mandatory sterilization. She was labeled as “feebleminded” and incapable of producing offspring that would be fit for society. The date was May 2, 1927. The ruling ushered in a whole new era of compulsory sterilization.

Standing in the early morning darkness, I wondered. Was this the same fear parents of mentally handicapped Germans experienced in 1940? In the 1930s they accepted mandatory sterilization of the genetically “unfit.” Then they accepted forced institutionalization. However, they were horrified to find in 1939 little children were being euthanized. Soon to follow were the teenagers, and finally the adult handicapped. By January 1940 World War II had just broken out and the first mass gassing of adults deemed racially or genetically unfit began at the now infamous 4 Tiergartenstrasse in Berlin. The dominos fell hard.

Perhaps my fear was the same fear a teenage Minnesota girl felt in 1933 as she waited for a judge’s word on whether she would be allowed to stay with the foster parents she loved. The answer was no, instead she was forced to live in a large state institution. I met this woman after she had been institutionalized for over forty years and against all odds, I found her to be normal in every respect. The story of her life became the material for my two novels.

America eventually found its moral compass with the expansion of services and rights for the disabled. Federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and IDEA demonstrate how far we’ve come. Still, there’s much left to do to ensure a disabled person gets the same treatment as their able-bodied neighbors.

I’m still afraid today; writing this essay makes me anxious. I fear for the erosion of disability rights. Like America in the early 20th century and Nazi Germany in the 1930s, will we see a gradual worsening of the quality of life for those who are least able to fight for themselves?

The whole country watched a campaigning Mr. Trump mock a disabled reporter. I believed this was a sign that he thought the reporter was less than an equal. Then came an onslaught of actions that leave me no room for optimism when it comes to the rights of those who need the most help. In ways I don’t totally understand, I have a core belief that the current political climate signals the return of harsh times and fewer services for intellectually or physically impaired citizens. I fear for a return to putting people in institutions.

I pray for some sign I’m worrying about nothing. So far, no luck. I’m still afraid the first domino will soon start to fall.


No inspiration here

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Isolated In America

Once in awhile, a quote stands out that expresses the belief of a whole generation. 

On page 14 of his book Humans of New York Stories, Brandan Stanton, author of the wonderful website Humans of New York captured the essence of INCLUSION. On that page you will find the picture of a pretty young lady in a wheelchair. After growing up in an ISOLATED world she explains what INCLUSION means to her. Here is what she said:

“I want to make life easier for people in China who have disabilities. I know what it’s like, because I lived in a Chinese orphanage until the age of ten, and I wasn’t able to go to school because I couldn’t walk. But that’s just a small part of who I am. I want to be a diplomat, and travel, and do all sorts of things that have nothing to do with being disabled. I don’t want people to pity me. I don’t want to be another ‘poor her.’ I don’t want to inspire people. ‘Inspiration’ is a word that disabled people hear a lot. And it’s a positive word to you. But to us, it’s patronizing. I’m not living a wonderful life for a disabled person. I’m living a wonderful life, period. This morning I got accepted into the London School of Economics. Now hold on, let me put on some lip gloss before you take the photo.”

She said it all. Right!




Lest We Forget: From Isolation to Inclusion

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Background / Isolated In America

I’m a relic of sorts. A throwback to the time when words like retarded and disabled were used professionally. In the late 1960’s I was a direct care giver for seriously emotionally disturbed children. Later, I oversaw professional services in a state hospital unit for the mentally retarded. In the late 1970’s I directed two facilities for severely mentally and physically handicapped children. The labels I used above were accepted at the time.  I was a specialist in programs where the people I was responsible for were excludedisolated from society. Like I said, I’m a relic.

My peers and I knew isolation and exclusion were the wrong approach. We worked hard to change the status quo. We tried to move people from living in institutions to residing in the community. That was called it de-institutionalization. Regardless of where an impaired person lived, we fought to upgrade their living conditions. We called that normalization. In school settings, we pushed and pleaded and forced our children into traditional classroom. That was mainstreaming.

The same work continues today only it’s called inclusion, as in giving impaired people the same rights, opportunities, and choices as any other person. As I read about and study the current state of affairs for emotionally, intellectually, or physically impaired people I am thrilled with some of what I see. It seems like everything has changed for the better. Yet after the thrill wears off, I realize impaired people still live in institutions. This time in small group homes, or individual residences hidden away in towns and cities across America. I believe people are still isolated, some excluded from work or educational opportunities. It makes me realize nothing has changed.

Today, my job is to write about the old days, when society believed some people were deviant and genetically passed along undesirable traits. They feared for a country over-run with idiots, morons, imbeciles and cripples. Their fears were unfounded of course. Yet before their mantra of exclusion had run its course, they damaged hundreds of thousands of Americans. I want current day readers to get a sense of how harsh and demeaning it was to live in an institution with its lack of care and stark horror. Why? To remind us all to push forward, expand the boundaries of civil rights. It is my opinion that accepting the status quo is tantamount to sliding back to the bad old days of exclusion and isolation.

I am currently writing a book called Girl On the Edge. The book will explain the forces that led to people being isolated in institutions. The heroine, Anna Olson, is a pretty young lady -isolated and excluded, eventually institutionalized. I’ve already completed one book, an historical novel, Isolated in America, (any publishers out there?) which describes how bad life was in the large institutions of the past. Here, we follow Anna as she fights to survive in one of the largest institutions in America. Hopefully, these two books will help people understand why we can’t give up the progress we’ve made. We have to push forward for more inclusion, less isolation.

Would it be wise to forget about the holocaust? No one would say yes. The old expression is still true, if we don’t know our past, we are bound to repeat it. Hence I think the little phrase “lest we forget” is applicable when it comes to how we treat our fellow human being who just happens to have a limitation or two. We all need to keep working -don’t go back!


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Isolated In America

Eugenics: A combination of the Greek words for well and born.

If the word Eugenics is new to you, join the club, most people don’t recognize it. Today it is seldom if ever used. Still, you know what it means, you know what its end game is; you simply don’t pair the results with the word.

Eugenics is a pseudo-social science started in the late 19th and wildly popular up through the 1930’s. Its’ foundations were based on genetic research by an Englishman named Galton. Although Galton later disassociated himself from the movement, his work was touted as proof the way to improve society was through purifying the gene pool.

Eugenics champions were convinced something must be done to stop the rapid growth of “deficient” people. Their concern was that unless the psychologically, intellectually and physically impaired were dealt with, their offspring would outnumber the good, hard-working, taxpaying, citizens.

They believed they had some solutions, ways to save their society. Institutions were built to isolate people with bad genes. Sterilization was encouraged and sometimes forced on people who had epilepsy, were mentally ill, and the “feebleminded”, to name a few.

In Europe, one individual was paying close attention to this American movement, Adolph Hitler. He saw it as a way to build the master race. You now recognize what Eugenics is and what it ultimately led to.

In my novels, Girl on the Edge, and Isolated in America, I write about Eugenics and what it was like to live in the United States during a time when society deemed many of its own were not fit to enjoy the same freedom the normal, good, white, Northern Europeans enjoyed. Eugenics became a well-accepted norm and we should know about the harm it can cause. Why? So we will be able to recognize it when it reappears. Here we are in 2014 and it is starting to make a comeback.

I will discuss examples of the new Eugenics in future posts.

One Can Never….

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Slow Motion Poetry

The inaugural Slow Motion Poem is;

One Can Never


One can never read enough good books.

One can never hear enough good music.

One can never show too much compassion.

One can never have enough green in springtime.



One can never share enough  joy.

One can never show too much love to your family.

One can never replace the years in a child’s life.

One can never measure the true strength of a family.



One can never eat enough chocolate.

One can never walk too long in a park.

One can never get enough exercise.

One can never play too much.



One can never see too many mountains.

One can never soak in too much solitude.

One can never comprehend the vast Great Plains.

One can never hear too many babbling brooks.




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Slow Motion Poetry

I know almost nothing about poetry.  I know it can take any number of forms.  Some are pretty darn interesting.  Take sonnets, haiku, rhyming, prose, and micro poetry for examples, although they may be interesting, their complexity scares me to death.  Yet I still wanted to write poetry.  Given my naiveté in this area, for me to write a poem, I need something simple and easy.  So I think I created another form, one I call Slow Motion Poetry, or SLOMOPOEMS.

Every time I tried to write a poem, things soon got awkward.  My mind froze up after a few lines and I would soon forget the whole thing.  Too bad, it sounded so wonderful in my mind.  As I mentioned above,  I think I found a solution for those of us with this problem.

I recently tweeted @kirbyvon “One can never read enough good books”.  I have no idea why I tweeted it.  Perhaps I was thinking I needed to start expounding something to my few, faithful followers.  A week later, I tweeted “One can never hear enough good music.”  The next week brought “One can never show too much compassion.”

The light-bulb flashed.  This might become a poem, one that avoided the pressure of immediately having to come up with another line, a rhyme, or something heady.  There is no need to hurry.  I could take a week to think about the next line.  Additionally, why not keep this type of poetry simple, start every line with the words “One can never”.  In this inaugural SLOMOPOEM the line would be finished by something that you can’t have too much of, something good.  No nasty crap, cheap hits on society and the like, the line has to be positive.

What do you think?

My next insight; why not invite writing friends and family, (sorry family, you are forced to put up with me, it’s an unwritten rule) to e-mail me a line?  I’ll add it to the poem when the time is right.  Would you join me in writing my new kind of poem?  Send me a few words to finish the phrase “One can never……”  I’ll add your line as time and space allow.

How long will this go on?  Why not try a year?  Symmetrical people would like 4 lines per month times 12 months.  This sounds good to me, so the inaugural poem will be 48 lines long.

The idea might be taken up by others who will start their own poems using a different theme and lasting for a different period of time.  Off the top of my head I can think of any number of them; rare things, two of a kind, emotional states, and the question why.  In my poem, there are only two rules; only one line per week, and the lines follow a theme.  Ok three rules, no cussing, or erotica, nothing hateful, nor personal.

I hope you enjoy writing your own SLOW MOTION POEM and if you write your own SLOMOPOEM, please share.  E-mail me at kirby.nielsen@gmail.com.


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Anna Olson

After completing the first draft of the story of Anna Olson in December of 2012, I had a huge document, almost 200,000 words long!  I’m not sure how many pages that translated to but those were a lot of words.  It was cumbersome and wordy and need to be trimmed down.  For one thing, I included un-needed material on Anna’s parents growing up in Norway, how they met, and why they came to the US.  One person commented the story was nice, but what about Anna Olson, my protagonist?  When was I going to get to her?

I cut, pasted, reorganized, removed sections, and divided the story into three major topics.  One section, approximately 85,000 words, described her institutionalized life.  I recognized this as the novel I first set out to write.  Isolated in America was born.  This book has been read by several readers and their comments and suggestions incorporated where appropriate.  I believe I’ve edited and revised Isolated in America to the best of my ability.  Now I begin the search for a publisher.

Another topic (about 60,000 words) described how Anna grew up, the eugenics movement, how society marginalizes people who are different, and why she ended up in an institution. This manuscript is my second novel and called Girl on the Edge.  Currently I am re-reading and editing Girl on the Edge and I hope to be ready to send it out to anyone who would like to read the draft sometime around first of July.

The third topic (approximately 50,000 words) told the story of her life after her discharge.  Right now, this book is known as Breaking Bonds.  After the shackles of institutionalization were broken, Anna was free to realize a potential beyond even her wildest dreams.  I believe the major framework is completed but the first complete draft will likely need to wait until late this year or early next. Be sure to check out the Novel tab on my website www.kirbynielsen.com and get a synopsis for each book.

Writing ups and downs

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Anna Olson

It’s been a great adventure, the last three years of writing. Writing was and is sometimes smooth and easy, with the story just pouring out of my head for days and weeks at a time. Sometimes it was a struggle and a few pages a day seemed almost impossible. For example, the entire first chapter in Isolated in America has been very difficult and I am still not sure I have it right. I spent hours and hours and hours on just this, the first sentence in the book: “Sometimes; ordinary tests have extraordinary results and then comes a cascade of questions.”

I have one additional insight to share with you. In the process of writing I became emotionally attached to some of the characters. I knew them so well, that when bad things happened to them, I almost choked up even though I knew full well I was creating fiction. I was sorry to have to put them through the pain they suffered. However, if they were real people, they would feel pain, and suffer. On the flip side, I also cheered Anna’s accomplishments, and was proud of her when she fought back at the institutional “system” in her own way.

A Sack of Spuds

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The Grab Bag

Who knew I would be brought to my ethical knees by a bag of potatoes? It is true though, a measly sack of spuds prompted me to disregard my moral compass.

I have always thought I had a pretty good sense of right and wrong, never taking what wasn’t mine, never cheating anyone, never knowingly doing harm. I’m not perfect mind you; we all do things that aren’t quite right based on some religious or ethical standard. But I always, always, always tried my best to be honest. Well OK, maybe there was a bit of an overstatement on mileage on my tax return back in 1989. But that was the IRS – I am talking about regular life, you know what I mean?

I am proud of the fact that I never misrepresented something to a client nor lied to make a buck. There was one time when I was presented with a situation that took all my strength. A $10,000 commission was on the line and I had the better product, but the client mentioned the other agent was going to re-bate part of the commission. Bam, it hit me hard, this was early in my career, and $10,000 was almost an impossible dream for one sale. I said “No, that is illegal”. There is a happy ending to the story however, the client kept me on for other matters and referred me to all his friends. I am sure I made many multiples of $10,000 from him and his referrals over the next 25 years, so I can tell you for sure that doing the right thing is rewarded.

Ah, I digress; here was this sack of potatoes underneath a cart in the grocery store parking lot. “Finders keepers” I thought as I snatched up the bag of potatoes and quickly put them in the back of the car.

To show you where I am at in my life, I was really excited about my find; “Cheryl, look, I found these potatoes, good Idaho baking potatoes no less.” Very sad—-I know.

“You’re going to take them to the customer services desk aren’t you?”

“No, someone left them, I found them, they are mine now.”

“But maybe they will come back for them” she said.

Now we are getting into the right and wrong thing, and I really struggled with it. How often do you find something good, and are able to keep it free and clear? Not very often.

“You have to take them back” she reaffirmed.

“I don’t know-I still think it is finders keepers.” I replied.

I know however, that if I keep the potatoes there are the Cheryl consequences. That happens when I stray off the correct way to behave, and she gets very quiet. I know that spells trouble for me for quite some time to come. Most of you men know what I am talking about here-admit it.

Just then, the cart boy comes by so I reluctantly jerk the potatoes out of the back of the car and give them to him.

“Would you please take these in to customer services?” He took the potatoes and gave me a snide look. The kind of look that said-“You got nailed stealing a bag of potatoes didn’t you.”

I didn’t say much to Cheryl when I got in the car, I guess I had to admit I had a temporary lapse in my moral character, and yes, she was right-again. But I will tell you this; if I find a box of Starbuck’s Caffe Verona dark roast K-cups under a cart, I am keeping it. A man can only take the honesty thing so far before breaking down.

Leave Me Alone #@%*)

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The Grab Bag

Below is an e-mail I sent to my brothers and a few friends who from time to time have been subjected to my own brand of humor.  It went out on election day-as a release from the …well you read it.

You may also want to read the post “No Way” to IO-way, it was my first election rant of a few years back.

Written November 5 and 6, 2012

Brothers and all,

Well, here we are, dragging ourselves over the finish line and into the polls.  First of all, let me assure that Cheryl and I are fine.  So far, no one has physically tried to drag us to the polls or threatened us harm unless we voted in a certain way, but they have done just about everything short of that.

If you are so fortunate to be living in a “swing state” like Ohio-well you may also be blessed with wall to wall information about our Presidential candidates, for example-did you know that Romney pinches little babies?  And that Obama hates old women living in nursing homes?  I didn’t.

On the TV

Non-stop negativity begins to get on your nerves by about 9 am.  I don’t mind TV ads, but literally several minutes of them back to back; first by Obama, then Romney, then ads by a PAC to preserve Freedom, then another PAC to preserve the Flag, another PAC for the Freedom to Be Free, one for Crisp Apples; and before you know it, everything that is pure and good about a man has been tossed out the window, tarnished with innuendo and lies.  Super PAC’s have been a gold mine for the advertisement business in Ohio-that’s one thing for sure, I’m not exactly sure what else they happen to be good for.

And Iowa?

But what about Iowa?  Brothers Mel and Norm are in harm’s way there as well, now that Iowa is labeled as “swing”.  PLUS, they have to put up with this caucus business.  Why it may come down to IO-WAY after all, casting the deciding vote.  I see where at least Obama has been back there, campaigning in Dubuque, and late yesterday in Des Moines.  Plus, I saw two excellent (and I am serious when I say this) TV shows on Dubuque and their politics, one on CNN and the other on public television.  Turns out Dubuque and Iowa are indeed hard to pin down, interesting.  Of course they are-I could have told them that.  Why people in Iowa actually think about issues, debate them, that sort of thing.  So maybe we should let IO WAY have a second caucus for all the marbles.

Phone Calls

Then, right about 9:00am they start calling, and by noon they have called twice-for me!  Usually it is the Republican National Committee, sometimes it is actually Mitt himself, or Ann.  One day, one of his sons called.  But the really scary thing is that they always and I mean always call when we take a nap.  So if you have tried to call our land line and found it unplugged-you know the reason why.  Oh they are all trying to be helpful, you know, inform me about how VITAL my vote is and how the world can’t possibly go on for another 4 years under the Obamanomic job robbing, highly regulating, economic stifling watch of Mr. Obama.  By days end, they might call as many as 5 times, all with essentially the same message.

About a week after Cheryl and I got our absentee ballots, the messages changed.  Now it was VITAL I (not Cheryl) return my ballot!  Like how did they know I got an absentee ballot?  And why was the Republican National Committee on MY case, hey-I’m on their side.  At one time, after so many calls, I figured I would vote for Obama just to spite them.  They were starting to really piss me off.

At the door

I’m glad I didn’t act on that because last week, in the middle of the day, Cheryl came to get me; she said there was a lady at the door wanting to talk to me, it looked like she was a Romney supporter and she insisted on talking with me.  Sure enough, they sent a nice young lady to our door to ask me if I had returned my absentee ballot, by golly, they wanted an accounting of what I had done with my ballot.  I paused for a moment-what business of hers if I did or didn’t?  But she looked like a nice young lady.  “Yes” I said, then came-“I assume you voted for Mr. Romney?”  I just had to laugh, “Yes, I did, can you make them stop now?” I asked.  She looks at me funny-so I explain: ”You know, stop calling me 5 times a day.”  She smiles and says no, she doesn’t have anything to do with that.  She is just a volunteer making sure every vote for Romney gets cast.

To me, this is remarkable, what an effort!  And the thing is, this young lady turns out to be a real zealot for Romney.  But wait!  It is more than just Romney:  “This is more than just about a new President-it is about the very future of our country.  I really believe that” she said.  I smile some more and listen as she explains more of what she believes, and she is hard core.  My response maybe was not what she was looking for but as I walked her down the sidewalk I comment-“Well, I certainly admire your willingness to work so hard for what you believe.”  Meanwhile I am thinking to myself, good grief, this girl isn’t old enough to know what she is talking-about-future of the country-indeed.  I wanted to school her a bit, tell her the country would actually survive another 4 years if Mr. Obama is elected, that history holds many lessons and what she is spouting isn’t one of them.  But I just let her get on to the next door, working for one more vote.  I didn’t think Romney had a chance in Ohio until I met that young lady.  Maybe now he does.


My only mistake I guess was that somehow along the way I got myself labeled as a Republican, hey I actually registered as one, I admit it.  But I think the real problem is the $100 I give to my Republican Congressman every year or so.  I like the guy, Cheryl and I have known him and have voted for him for the better part of 25 years, I used to insure his uncle for goodness sake, plus he is a descent soul, a family man with triplet daughters.  He has to go to Washington just to get away from home every now and then.  Right?

In any case, for some reason, this or something else I have done has put a target on my back.  And by God, whoever they are-they have been relentless, relentless like we have never seen before.  No wonder Romney lost, misplaced harassment, robo-calling beyond the limit, sending young ladies out to verify a vote.  As my grandson used to say “I am not happy”.

Meanwhile, my Obama supporting wife smiles in her peace and contentment.  Neither she nor we have received a call to support Obama.  She sorts the mail, but if we have gotten Obama or other Democratic mail, I haven’t heard about it.  Not one attempt to ask for our vote from the Dems, we were cut off-ignored.  Now I feel hurt, that I was blown off that they didn’t once ask me to consider a vote for Obama.

Cheryl is glad this is all over.  She is tired of hearing me talking on the phone to the recorded messages, and I am not always nice in my replies.  Other times, I just mimic their talking points-I know them all by heart by now.  Nobody has had anything new to say since maybe August as far as I am concerned.

Oh well, to be honest, I have become stoic about the whole thing.  I have even come to love it, in a perverse sort of way.  Thank goodness for the freedom to get these messages.  Thank God for the chance to vote for all 4 candidates for President that we had on our ballot here in Ohio.  Thank God for all the people who make democracy work, the polling place workers, the volunteers, and especially the candidates who sadly can’t answer a question honestly without fear of their entire lives being run through a shredder.  Yes, thank goodness for it all, it’s the American way.  And finally, good luck to Mr. Obama-congratulations-I guess.

PS  The sad thing is that the more we unplug the phone and put the TV on mute, the more ways they will develop to weasel their way into our life.  Here come political apps, algorithms, and all the software that will find out all about you and load your life full of the same messages I have been trying to avoid since last August.  They will ooze in with your e-mail, pop up when you shop online, and grate on your nerves when you want to watch a video.  I say good luck to us all.