By Tyrell Jordan
Daniel Tomasulo is a man of many degrees, from his MFA in creative writing—which helped him write his way through his forthcoming memoir, American Snake Pit —to his work in the field of positive psychology.
But while his knowledge and experiece are captivating, it’s the stories of his patients that show the true value of his work.
I was nervous at the start of our phone call, but the tone of Tomasulo’s voice is friendly and warm, and my feeling quickly changed. He is, after all, a psychologist by trade. His job involves setting people at ease.
American Snake Pit is the story of the disregarded souls who ended up in his care after Staten Island's Willowbrook State School for people with intellectual disabilities closed its doors for good in 1987. The book details his struggle to give voices to those who could not advocate for themselves.
Tomasulo’s voice is friendly and warm... He is, after all, a psychologist by trade. His job involves setting people at ease.
I was curious about who he would like to meet with again, if he had the chance.
"Jake," he answered easily.
Jake was an austistic savant, who Tomasulo worked with during his time at Walden House, an experimental, community-based home for the intellectually and mentally handicapped that he helped established in the 1980s, and one of the first of its kind. Jake's ability to memorize information systems—most notably the Manhattan phone book—and recall it from memory at will made his intellectual disabilities difficult for the state to classify.
“He was fascinating person," Tomasulo told me. "He had many abilities, as well as disabilities."
The way he described Jake made it seem like his disabilities, while handicaps, were also the underlying foundation for his remarkable abilities.
Tomasulo’s purpose for writing this book is something I haven’t encountered with other authors: “I’d like [people] to have more compassion for [those] with disabilities… and to have more hope in their own lives,” he said. “I’d want people to realize that despite the situation, the people of Willowbrook have lived meaningful lives. They are exemplars of hope—and inspiration for us all.”
This compassion and understanding is the driving force behind his work—giving a voice to those who otherwise did not have the ability to tell their stories.
“Unlike the Women's Liberation Movement, or the Vietnam War, or the Civil Rights Movement, this group didn’t have an author," he said. "This became my mission—to help tell their story.”
Unlike the Women's Liberation Movement, or the Vietnam War, or the Civil Rights Movement, this group didn’t have an author. This became my mission —
to help tell their story.
But Tomasulo couldn’t tell his patients’ stories without first telling his own. While Walden House helped save many living with severe handicaps from a life of institutionalization, in many ways, it also saved Tomasulo, giving his early life as a psychologist its focus.
As a writer myself, I have chapters of my novel that I enjoyed writing, and those that were difficult for me to write. This was true for Tomasulo, as well.
“The chapter on my moving into the boarding house was difficult because it was the end of my relationship and I had run out of money—a very low spot in my life,” he said. “But maybe because of the difficulty, it was also the chapter that had the most humor.”
It took him the better part of ten years to write his reflection on his time at Walden House, but while some of it was painful, much of his writing is infused with humor. “The chapter back with Jake was really fun to write because I was able to recall all of his antics,” Tomasulo said.
He acknowledges that helping people communicate beyond their disabilities takes a certain resilience of spirit, and he hopes that’s something more people will understand by reading his memoir.
“I’d like [people] to have more compassion for people with disabilities—especially with intellectual and psychological disabilities,” he told me.
Thirty years after the closure of Willowbrook State School, there is still much the general public doesn’t understand about the treatment of those with severe intellectual disabilities, but Tomasulo’s American Snake Pit is a step in the right direction.