New York Times columnist Dan Barry’s new book The Boys in the Bunkhouse tells the incredible true story of the abuse and exploitation of a group of forgotten men in a small town in the American heartland. For 30 years dozens of intellectually disabled “boys” as they were called were exploited as cheap labor, eviscerating turkeys in return for food, lodging and just $65 a month cash. Barry tells Cahir O'Doherty about a story that changed him, one he found that he had to tell in his new book.
In 2009 a woman visiting her intellectually disabled brother in a run down shelter in Iowa discovered that he had worked for 30 years in the local turkey farm and had only made $86 for his trouble.
Enraged by the squalor that she found him living in, a falling-down shelter known locally as the Bunkhouse in the small town of Atalissa, Iowa, she called state agencies and the newspapers. The men were rescued and the story blew up.
First it was a state-wide embarrassment filling people with outrage, but then this Dickensian tale hypnotized the nation. When New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Dan Barry, 57, read the first account in The Des Moines Register, he was as riveted as anyone else.
“I was nosing around some websites for my Times column when I saw a small article that had several phrases that blew the top of my head off,” Barry, who writes a recurring column in the Times called “This Land,” tells the Irish Voice. “Thirty-two men with intellectual disabilities all living in an old school house, working in a turkey plant for 30 odd years, eviscerating turkeys and getting paid $65 a month.”
The new report had been written in relation to an ongoing lawsuit that was launched after their discovery.
“I don't know what it was, but I said I have to write about this. I called the federal lawyer who was representing the men and I told him I wanted to write about it but I had to talk to the men first,” Barry said.
The lawyer told Barry that no reporters had ever talked to them. When Barry asked why not he was told that no one had ever asked.
“That kind of spooked me about the separation between the non-disabled and the disabled worlds,” he says.
Initially Barry imagined going to Atalissa and talking to a dozen of the men for a 1,500 word column. But the deeper he got into it, the more he realized here was a much broader story. It got it hooks into him.
First Barry presented the men's tale as an acclaimed long form feature in the Times. “But for me it was more of an outline than the full telling of their story, so I was able to finagle a book contract from that and slow the story down even further and get to know the men more intimately and dig into documents and places as different as Goldthwaite, Texas and Iowa. I just felt this overwhelming need to tell the story, quite frankly.”
“We tend to imagine that the government will look out for people in these situations but the lesson here is that it did not,” Barry explains.
Many of the men now have PTSD, further complicated by emotional issues. “The challenge was to integrate them back into the society from which they had been excluded for so long. And the truth is many of these men could have been living independent lives for decades, but they had to wait so long in a crappy bunkhouse.”
Working full-time at a local turkey processing plant for one-third the pay of their able-bodied counterparts, they were roused at 3 a.m. every weekday morning and sent to work for a fraction of the pay of non-disabled workers.
A commitment to social justice quietly animates every page of Barry's book, as does a deep humanity, but first and foremost he's a journalist and he knows this story is remarkable.
“I don't fancy myself as a champion of all vulnerable people. I don't think of myself that way although I am who I am and I was raised in a certain way,” says Barry.
“My father grew up very poor during the Depression in New York and I hear his voice, his raging against the system, still. My mother was from Galway and was orphaned by the time she was 15. The two of them imbued in me a recognition of the need to give voice to the voiceless, the people we ignore or don't see.”
But Barry is also interested in a good story.
“How American can this be? From Texas to the heartland of Iowa, it's about the people who work to provide the food that we eat, about whom we rarely give much thought,” he says.
“The inability even today to see people at risk or people who are neglected, even though they are among us, it speaks to all that. It's a challenge to all of us to see what is going on all around us.”
The Boys in the Bunkhouse is a luminous story, and often a sad one, with an unexpectedly satisfying and often happy ending, and it some ways it echoes lessons culled from Barry's own life.
“My father had it really rough. At one point he was sent to an orphanage himself out on Long Island. Years later when he met and married my mother – they met in Brooklyn – they moved out to Long Island like so many other people,” Barry offers.
“As they were taking the train out my father started crying because he had passed this orphanage or institution at Farmingdale that he had pretty much put out of his mind and not thought about for many years.”
Barry's mother's mother died when she was 10 and her father died when she was about 15. Her family scraped the money together to send her to Brooklyn. She came to America from Galway in about 1952.
“A fifteen year old girl from rural Ireland who grew up on a farm, suddenly she's in Brooklyn. That stuns me to this day,” her son says.
Both of Barry’s parent founds ways to translate their pain and their experience into story telling, and he followed in their footsteps.
“They didn't go to counseling, maybe they should have. But they processed it through story telling and being interested in the stories of others. That's one of the gifts they gave me.”
After studying journalism at college, Barry went back to digging ditches on Long Island, putting in lawn sprinklers.
“I kept flooding places with resumes hoping someone would pay attention. I got hired by a small newspaper in Connecticut, then a mid-level one in Rhode Island, The Providence Journal, a great paper. Over the years I would apply to The New York Times and I think they would laugh at the resume.”
His nadir came in the early 1980s when Barry got a chance to become a clerk at the Times. It paid more than what his father was making at the height of his career.
Called in for an interview, Barry wore his father's jacket, belt and tie. “The only thing that was mine were my underpants I think,” he laughs.
Getting off at Penn Station on Eighth Avenue early in the morning, Barry was approached by a distressed man who was drinking from a bottle in a paper bag. Standing face to face, the man whirled about and hit Barry on the chest with a bottle of Colt 45 beer.
“It went all over my jacket. This was about 10 minutes before my interview. I shook the malt liquor off my jacket and I went into the building smelling like I had just come out of McCann's,” he recalls.
Barry could tell that the interviewer thought he was just another Irishman who needed to stiffen himself up with a morning drink, Barry says.
“It was a mortifying experience. Usually when you go for an interview they will send you a letter announcing the position has been filled. Nothing. It was as though it never happened. I used to imagine for years after my photo was at the security guard desk.”
It was fellow writer Colum McCann who dared Barry to complete his new book.
“We take these walks and we discuss what's vexing us at the moment. I was telling him about having gone to Iowa and hearing the stories of these men,” Barry says.
“He gave me something like a dare along that walk. We stopped for a glass of wine. He said, ‘Are you going to write that f***ing story? If you don't write it I'm going to.’ I was already inclined to figure it out but that definitely got my attention.
“If I don't do it this brilliant writer is going to turn it into something magical and unforgettable. I better try my own hand now before he gets there.”
Asked what he wants people to know about his new book Barry replied, “I don't want them to think it's so sad they can't pick it up. I mean, I understand that and I cried when I was writing it but I want people to know there's also light. There are heroes in this story.”
One of the heroes is Barry himself, although he'd bristle at the suggestion, for recording every luminous detail of the long, loveless lives of these abandoned men, in an act of spiritual reclamation that is a joy in itself.