In 1971, Dr. Matthew Israel founded the Behavior Research Institute in Canton. Its name was later changed to the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center to honor the jurist who upheld Israel's controversial methods in court.
At Harvard in the 1950s, Israel was a student of B. F. Skinner, founder of behavioral psychology and author of "Walden Two," a utopian novel whose heroes try to build a perfect society through behavioral conditioning. In "Walden Two," people are encouraged by a system of rewards and punishments to live simple, frugal lives, to express themselves through art and classical music, and to trust the wisdom of their leaders.
After college, Israel formed the Association of Social Design, a Skinner-esque utopian community in Boston. The community failed, and Israel went on to start what became the Rotenberg school.
In 1994, Matthew Israel and David Marsh obtained a patent for an "apparatus for administering electrical aversive stimulus." (An image from the patent is shown here.) They dubbed the device a Graduated Electronic Decelerator, or GED, its purpose being to "decelerate" a patient engaged in inappropriate behavior by administering an electric shock.
In the GEDs used at the Rotenberg Center, battery and receiver are bundled into a backpack, with electrodes routed through the straps to make contact with the patient's skin. Guards carry remote control devices with patients' photos emblazoned on them.
In filing his patent, Israel followed the example of Skinner. Among Skinner's best-known inventions was the operant conditioning box, or Skinner Box, a cage designed to allow researchers to administer rewards (food) and punishments (electric shocks) to lab animals without having to interact directly with the animal. Skinner also invented the "air crib," a box for taking care of infants without having to swaddle or diaper them. Among his most controversial inventions, it was also jokingly called an "heir conditioner."
"The method of treatment of this invention," according to the patent, consists in "securing a remotely activated apparatus for administering electrical aversive stimulus to a patient to be treated. The patient is then observed for signs of undesired behavior."
The patent specifies self-injury as the sort of behavior to be deterred. But, according to a January article in the Globe, therapists at the Rotenberg Center have been accused of being more liberal in their definition of "undesired behavior," delivering shocks for offenses such as swearing or shouting.
In August of last year, therapists at the school received a call from a disgruntled patient posing as a staff member, who ordered them to administer multiple shocks (in one case, as many as 77) to two students with whom he was having a dispute. The shocks were administered before the hoax was discovered.
In Skinner's "Walden Two" the founder explains that children in the community are taught to control their impulses "[b]y having the children 'take' a more and more painful shock" because, he explains, "[s]ome of us learn [self-]control, more or less by accident. The rest of us go all our lives not even understanding how it is possible, and blaming our failure on being born the wrong way." The problem with utopian solutions in real-life communities like the Rotenberg Center, of course, is that not only the children need to learn self-control; self-control is also required of those with their fingers on the shock button.
Matthew Battles is a freelance writer in Jamaica Plain and the author of "Library: An Unquiet History."