Article Content

Abby Mann, the writer, director, and producer of socially conscious scripts for movies and television, died on March 28, 2008. He was 80 years old. Perhaps, his most notable script was Judgment at Nuremberg, which he produced in 1950 amongst great controversy. It was nominated for 11 Oscars; 2 were awarded, 1 to Maximilian Schell and the other to Mann. Accepting the award, Mann said to the audience, "I believe that a writer worth his salt at all has an obligation not only to entertain but to comment on the world in which he lives, not only to comment, but maybe have a shot at reshaping the world."1


It is this social conscience that led Mann to write the screenplay and then novel A Child Is Waiting,2 which became a movie by the same name. Filmed in 1963, it was his and Stanley Kramer's attempt to highlight the plight of developmentally disabled children. The history of the production of this film is a microcosm of the dichotomy present in the 1960s about how children who were developmentally disabled should be treated. It reveals society's struggle and parents' anguish over their inability to know what to do and remorse over their perceived failures and grief for the loss of their child to a life in an institution. The director, John Cassavetes, cast child residents of the Pacific State Hospital in Pomona, California, although "Kramer modeled the film's school on the Vineland Training School in New Jersey, an internationally renowned institution for their treatment of mentally retarded children."3 The film also reveals the struggles of the moviemakers themselves. One believed that the children should "live with their own kind" and be given the chance to learn and succeed within a nurturing environment of the institution. The other felt that the children should learn skills and socialization and live in society to the best of their capacity.4


In the film, Burt Lancaster plays the lead character, Dr Clark, director of Crowthorn Training School and a psychiatrist. Judy Garland is Jean Hansen, a pianist whose life has been one of loss, failure, and loneliness. She hopes to work with these children to assuage her loneliness, to give to them her untapped resources of kindness and love. She looks at this position as her last chance to make something of her life.


Dr Clark's philosophy of education centers upon methods that teach to the individual practical and living skills so that each child reaches her/his highest level of capability. He has begun designing plans for group homes for independent living in the community. He hires Ms Hansen against his better judgment because he feels that music is especially important for the children's education. He is wary of her lack of experience and desperate need for this position. A clash between Dr Clark and Ms Hansen occurs almost immediately. Ms Hansen is drawn to a 6-year-old boy, Reuben Widdecombe, who has been mute and unresponsive to staff and other children for nearly 2 years. She reaches out to him, and he responds to her kindness and attention. Problems arise then when Ms Hansen feels she has had a personal success, she feels needed. Her embraces and special attention to Reuben and his responses to her embolden her to write to his parents, demanding that they visit their child. The letter is against Dr Clark's orders.


It is evident in the film that education and support of families, which we know to be essential, were not always available then. Reuben's parents have been anguished over their inability to care for their son. They have not visited him since he entered the school. Certainly, one senses the primary reason for Reuben's stark solution for survival-he has been deserted by his mother and father and left with this stranger, Dr Clark. And Dr Clark and other adults insist that he socialize and partake in classes and craft projects, all of which he does not know how to do. He will not submit to engagement with anyone. He cannot verbalize his heartache, which is understandable because he lived virtually alone with his parents and away from other children and society before coming to the school.


Ms Hansen is astounded and duly overwrought when the parental visit results in Reuben running away from the school. She does not fully comprehend that her need to give unconditional love to this child endangered him and was counterproductive. Reuben is found and brought back to Crawthorne safely. Still, he has not been helped and only feels more bereft than before. In the ensuing confrontation between Clark and Hansen, she accuses him of not knowing how the children feel. He hotly reminds her that every person who works in the institution feels for the children. He challenges her to realize that she cannot weigh her feelings against theirs. "You want to take the falls for them! You want to coddle them. You want to suckle them at your breast."5(p116) Clark paused and then pushed on, "I haven't been able to do one thing for Reuben." He said fiercely. "Not one thing. He may never know one moment of happiness here. But I'd rather go down that way, fighting for one inch of his dignity, than to have him denatured by your feeling for him."5(p117)


Strong words from a man fighting for the dignity of children whose right to a full life has been thwarted by society's ignorance of that right. And isn't it true that as clinicians, we know that dignity is the most important possession of all?




1. King S. Nuremberg screenwriter Abby Mann dies. March 28, 2008. Los Angeles Times. Accessed March 28, 2008. [Context Link]


2. Cassavetes J, director; Kramer S, producer; Mann A, screenplay. A Child is Waiting. Hollywood: United Artists; 1963. [Context Link]


3. Turner Classics Movies (TCM). A child is waiting. Accessed February 27, 2008. [Context Link]


4. Turner Classics Movies (TCM). February 27, 2008:1. [Context Link]


5. Mann, Abby. A Child Is Waiting. New York, NY: Popular Library; 1963. [Context Link]