Dorothy Faye Burdette was born February 18, 1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression. She tells a story of growing up in utter poverty. Her father was a mechanic who could not hold a job; her mother did odd jobs to bring in some money. By her own telling, Dorothy was a slow learner and was prone to behavioral outbursts that sounded like fits of fear and rage.
“My Daddy and Mother used to take me to the carnival on the fair grounds. There was something about that carnival music that really scared me. I would try to get out of my daddy’s arms. I would get scared and nearly wring my daddy’s arm off. If I got loose I’d break and run. My mother took me on the Ferris wheel. We would get way up to the top and I would rock that seat back and forth – my mother had to make me stop. I guess I was born with some kind of hysteria.”
“I was real hysterical back then. I would break and run and my mother couldn’t hardly catch me. Sometimes I would look at the boards on the porch, with some of them bucking up – for some reason that would scare me. I would run up under the porch – that’s really how hysterical I was. I remember I went running out onto the porch and I wasn’t paying no mind, I just ran off the end of the porch and knocked the breath out of myself.”
“Sometimes I would grab my mother by the legs and she couldn’t get me off of her, She would have to pry me off her legs and get me up to where the light was. I don’t know what it was, and I would get scared of the dark and everything, and I’d wake her up crying, 'Light the lamp! Light the lamp!’ And I’d try to climb the headboard of the bed – it was an old iron bed.”
Her behavior must have been a source of distress for her parents. There were few parenting resources available at that time in the rural South. Spanking and extended family were about the only resources, especially among the poor. Dorothy told me about a time when her parents appealed to a Higher Power in their desperation for help:
“There was a colored preacher and he told my mother – and I can just barely remember him tellin’ her – that he could pray for me and whatever that was would go off of me and it would never come back over me. Well, it did, but I was still pretty scared sometimes. Now that I’m older I’ve got where I’m not so seized or scared.”
Dorothy also shared some other experiences she had with religion when she was a child:
“Going to church, sometimes we went to them old tent meetings they used to have. One time we went to this church and they didn’t have no piano or nothin’ and they used to beat on buckets and sing. Then at our house there was a man and his wife – he worked in a shoe store in Sylacauga – and they were Holiness. They lived on one side of the duplex and we lived in the other.”
On future visits with Dorothy, she would tell me about her experiences in public school and the difficulties that arose both from her lack of ability to learn at the same pace as the others and from her difficulty fitting in socially. Living with developmental disabilities can present multi-layered difficulties. All too often those with the least coping skills are asked to navigate themselves through a complicated and often cruel world.