In preparing for my role as LENNIE in John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, Of Mice and Men, I’m often reminded of many people with whom I worked in graduate school and with the State of Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities in the 1980’s, 90’s, and 00’s. While studying for my Master’s Degree, I worked with children and adults with disabilities in a physical activities program at Kent State University. After graduation, I began my career for the State of Ohio as a Recreation Director for over 300 men and women with intellectual, physical, and emotional disabilities. I didn’t know it then, but this really was the beginning of developing my interpretation of LENNIE.
He is a real person with lovable qualities that make him endearing. Through his eyes, I see the world through the men and women I served for 15 years as they often times struggled to find inner peace and a zest for living after they were dropped off at the State Hospital’s doorstep when they were as young as eight years-old. “Hospital” is a hopeful term, but in most cases, their world was never the case. If you ever saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, that’s how life was for many of the people when they were children and young adults who would become my friends. By the time I arrived, the old wards were turned into more attractive living areas, but the brick and mortar breathed memories reminding us of the more frequent, unpleasant times in their formative years.
Steinbeck refers to George and others “socking” LENNIE, playing jokes on him, and having fun at LENNIE’s expense. It should come to know surprise that, even today, people with disabilities are 10 times more likely to be abused than those in the non-disabled population. While LENNIE is a fictional character, I can easily imagine him being the target of abuse from family, friends, and other social deviant predators. The memories that he has (I believe) are the memories of gentlemen I knew who were subjected to some of the worst conditions that humanity had to offer (all under the guise of “treatment.)” Yet, through it all, my friends (like LENNIE) had and still have their dreams of a better place.
For the guys I served, their “better places” were as unique to each of them. One thing was common – they all wanted to escape the entrapment of the institution. In essence, those dreams are like LENNIE’s – having a little place with a house, a garden, some pigeons, a cow and rabbits, a place where he and his best friend can live off the fat of the land. And if LENNIE and GEORGE didn’t want to go to work, they wouldn’t, but it would be their own. The American Dream is in each of us and is allusive to all of us. But, by God, nobody has the right to take away our dreams.
One of my favorite memories as my agency’s Recreation Director occurred with six guys who I accompanied on an overnight biking trip. After arriving, setting up camp, playing football, and enjoying a meal cooked over the campfire, we all laughed, joked, and enjoyed talking about stories from childhood to present day. At one point where there was an awkward moment of silence around the campfire, one of the guys leaned back, stretched, sighed, and said, “You know, Matt, this is the life.” That moment stands out in my mind as a lesson that it is the simple pleasures that count. That single moment mirrors the opening scene as GEORGE and LENNIE are lying under the stars, before reporting to work the next morning, living free – without a care in the world. These men understood that. LENNIE understands that, and no matter what our picture of the American Dream is, it’s sharing the simple pleasures with each other that really matter in the end. Life is meant to be shared with others who care about us and about whom we care.
People often ask me what my favorite role is that I have played. By far, LENNIE holds a special place in my heart because of the many extraordinary people in my life who taught me what is really important.