The Men of Atalissa: Watch the Documentary & Go Behind the Story with Journalists from The New York Times
In 2013, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission won a $240-million judgment against Henry’s Turkey Service, which had exploited a group of men with intellectual disability who lived and worked together in a small town in Iowa. The Men of Atalissa explains what happened to these men in a documentary and in an article based on court and company documents, archived photographs and first-time interviews.
The Men of Atalissa marks the first in a series of collaborations with The New York Times. We talked with Times columnist Dan Barry and video journalist Kassie Bracken about the making of the multimedia report.
POV: The Henry’s Turkey Service program seemingly started out with good intentions. What was the point where things started to go wrong?
Dan Barry: I think that the program may have been well intentioned, but flawed from the start. Even back in the 1970’s, there were programs for assisted living and movements towards the right to choose. [The men] moved to Atalissa in 1974 in the late summer, but by December of 1974, a social worker in Muscatine County is saying this is obscene, these men have no choice in where they live, who they live with, what kind of job they have.
Also, part of the program was discipline. If the men didn’t work hard enough, they would be punished. They wouldn’t be allowed to watch television, to go to the minimart and buy themselves a Mountain Dew. That’s not choice, that’s not how any adult wants to be treated.
The law they were operating under that allowed them to pay these men minimum wage is a complex and now very controversial law. So even then, however well intentioned, this is problematic.
POV: This was a huge case for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but would you say that it was a victory for them? Or a failure, in the sense that it took so long for the rescue and trial to happen?
Dan Barry: I don’t think the EEOC was aware of the case until the rescue in 2009, so I think the EEOC believes that it exacted justice. It told the men’s story through the trial. The attorney, Robert Canino, convinced a jury — as they often say, a jury of non-disabled people, in Iowa — to say this is a communal outrage and we’re going to hit you hard with a hammer of $240 million. The EEOC thinks this struck a blow against the exploitation of people who are vulnerable in our society.
Now, separate from that, is whether government was late to the dance, and I’d say there’s no question that time and time again, as The Des Moines Register pointed out as early as 1979, this is a problem, and government never properly responded.
POV: Around the time of the jury verdict, it seems that (Henry’s Turkey Service company president) Kenneth Henry was hesitant to speak about the case.
Dan Barry: You know, I called him up and I said, “Hey, I think I’m going to be in Goldthwaite, Texas. Do you mind if I stop by?” And he was very gracious. He met me on the road in a pick-up, led me to where I needed to be, and then spent two or three hours recounting his experiences and expressing pride in what Henry’s Turkey Service had done.
He does feel that way. Yes, it went bad towards the end, he feels bad about some of it, but overall, no one else cared about these “boys.” That’s what he would say: “These were the forgotten boys and we took them in.” And he wanted to tell his story.
Kassie Bracken: I also spoke with him on the phone and said, similarly, “I’m going to be close by in Austin, would you mind if I came by? Let me just meet you and introduce myself.” I told him, “I think it’s important that I hear your side of the story on camera. We’ve shot some other interviews and I’d love to include yours, and if at any point you want me to turn off the camera, I will.” I could tell he was very hesitant and there were a few times he did ask me to turn off the camera, but it was honestly when he was starting to get emotional about it.
Dan Barry: I think his emotion is captured in moments where his voice wavers or his eyes redden, you do get the sense that he’s emotionally invested in this case and these boys — “boys” I use advisably — and what they were trying to do.
POV: The title of the story is “The Men of Atalissa,” but there’s emphasis on using the word “boys” (in the Atalissa community) to describe these men.
Dan Barry: I could have easily chosen the “Boys of Atalissa,” but to me, “Men of Atalissa” was much more ennobling and a way of saying, you know what, these guys are men, in the full understanding of that word. Working hard, of age, getting it done and enduring. It’s like the Faulkner line, “They endured.” I wanted to say “The Men of Atalissa” as sort of a denunciation of so many years of being called boys.
POV: Was it difficult to negotiate that you’d actually be able to speak with the men?
Dan Barry: Yes. First, I called up the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawyer who represented the men and he told me no one had ever spoken to them. You can understand that they want to be protective, so I asked if I could at least meet them and get a sense of them. We made an agreement that I could speak with them and meet them, but without cameras or videotaping.
Kassie Bracken: I’ve worked with Dan many times on his stories, and I told the [the lawyer] a little bit about my personal interest in this one, that I see this as a way to restore some of the dignity from the experience – that’s where I’m coming from. There was a period where I said I’d just like to go down, I don’t have to even have a camera, let’s just see if this is a comfortable situation for me to be part of this. I think that sort of approach made the lawyer rethink things. That happens a lot – no cameras, no videotaping — and then it’s about explaining where you’re coming from and what you hope to gain from bringing a camera into the story.
Dan Barry: The whole point of the story is really about empowerment and having choice in life, and we didn’t want a situation where we were talking around then men about their choices in life, we wanted to give them a choice. If the men didn’t want to do it, the whole deal was off.
We knew that we’d need access to the men themselves. Rather than talking around the subjects, we needed to speak to the men. That’s what convinced Kassie and me to go forward, because we had access to these men and we got to know them, we got to understand what they’d gone through.
POV: Were the families of the men involved in negotiating interviews, and were they present when you were filming and reporting?
Dan Barry: Most of these [men] no longer have families. Many of them really were dropped off at state schools in Texas when they were young boys and in many cases, if not most cases, that pretty much ended their relationship with their families. Some men continued to have relationships with their mother or a brother, but most of them didn’t. These men are now in their 60s, many of their parents are dead, so there was really no one else to check in with. The people who help them in their every day life really are, for lack of a better word, their guardians and their protectors. I did speak with some of the family members who were still around and I can’t say that they’d really been in touch with the men.
POV: How did you collaborate, in terms of having a reporter, a videographer and a photographer (Nicole Bengiveno of The Times) all working at the same time?
Dan Barry: What Kassie and I have done, along with Nicole, is figure out how to give one another time to do we need to do. I’ve been yelled at many times not to get in the way of a shot. We mostly do only the one interview. I may be the one asking the questions, and Kassie is shooting, but if I don’t phrase something quite the right way or if I miss something, Kassie will chime in.
Kassie Bracken: In this case, Dan had already met the men and we just wanted to make sure they were comfortable, and I was another new person, so that was another reason it made sense to do it together. Once they got to know me, I could start asking them questions. But we just wanted to be cognizant of that as well.
POV: Was it hard to get the women of the Atalissa Betterment Committee and city councilman Dennis Hepker to speak with you and be so forthcoming?
Kassie Bracken: I was a bit apprehensive, because obviously this is a small community and a fair amount of the people there felt that they’d been maligned by the immediate coverage after the rescue, so you don’t know what you’re walking into. It didn’t necessarily seem like it would be the most hospitable situation, but I was very surprised. People were pretty open to us. Nicole Bengiveno, who was with us, would just go up to someone on a lawn and start talking and they’d introduce us – and one by one you’d meet another person and you know, everyone there knows everyone. I met one woman from the ABC who said, well, we’re having our last meeting, and I asked if I could show up. Nicole and I went over, and I spoke to the ladies and asked if it would be OK if we spoke about what happened and how they felt about it now.
That was essential to so much of the story, that five years later, even from behind the camera, I could see that it’s still so present. It was really interesting to see that mix of maybe denial, maybe defensiveness, but also, some regret. Honestly, with everyone we spoke to there was a real affection. And that wasn’t made up. The details they shared — it’s obvious there was a real relationship there.
Dan Barry: They were part of the community, they were accepted and integral to the church services at the Lutheran church. And so, I think that they’d wanted to tell their story and we were lucky enough that they still wanted to tell it. That’s what you see in the documentary.
POV: Where are the men now?
Dan Barry: The first men who retired went down to Texas, and those men have wound up in not-a-very-nice nursing home. It’s a different kind of institution… Other men are in group homes, where it’s six or seven people, 24-hour staff, and there’s a veneer of institutionalization there as well.
Then, there are a couple of men who live independently. They live in their own apartments, do their own laundry and cooking, and that speaks to what was denied to them for 35 years. They could have lived independently for 35 years with a little help here and there. And there are the men in Waterloo (Iowa), sharing houses with two or three other men, using public transit, going to work only if they want to work. So, the guys who went south to Texas did not fare as well as the guys who went north to Waterloo, and that’s kind of tragic. I know that it bothers the lawyer who represented them for the EEOC.
Kassie Bracken: Susan Seehase (Exceptional Persons, Inc.), who is working with the men in Waterloo, said it’s almost like they’re aging in reverse. They’ve recaptured some youth. One of the men was dying his hair cherry red when I was there, and it’s very visual even just the color in their rooms. You can see it. As a videographer, it was great to see them in their quality of life.
POV: Is there any update in the status of the settlement?
Dan Barry: No money has been collected through the court verdict or any of the fines, but that is still making its way through the courts. The Department of Justice, on behalf of the EEOC, is doing its best to go after the assets of Henry’s Turkey Service to see what they can get to give the men, but it’s not a short process. They may not wind up with anything but it’s still an active pursuit.
POV: This is something that could be happening in other places, and we just don’t know about it. Since the trial, have any other cases been looked into or discovered of similar situation or magnitude?
Dan Barry: Disability rights advocates tell me yes. We’ve been so focused on this case that we really haven’t broadened our scope but I’m told the Henry’s case has prompted the Department of Justice to crack down on abuses of Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which basically allows employers to pay a sub-minimum wage to people with disabilities. Because of this case, the DOJ is going after these things and they have presented two cases, in Rhode Island and in Oregon, where they’re raising questions about sheltered workshops and whether people are being paid properly or being exploited.
POV: Did you take anything away about how we, as a society, we can pay more attention to things like this?
Kassie Bracken: That, to me, is the big question: How do we make sure we’re seeing all that’s in front of us? While working on this, I got off the subway and was walking down the street and there was a guy who was probably talking to himself and dressed a little funny… and this is New York, you know, you just look away. And all of a sudden felt just stupid and awful at the same time. That’s what it’s about. It might not be the analogous situation, but that’s what it’s about. For me, it started right there in that minute. You know, I thought, I can’t believe this is exactly what I’m working on, and I’m doing the exact same thing.