In Waltham, Massachusetts there is a cemetery where 310 unidentified people are buried. Graves are marked only with a letter and a number. “C” stands for Catholic and “P” for Protestant, the number indicating the order in which they were buried. The cemetery, known as the Metfern Cemetery, served as a burial site for patients housed within the walls of nearby mental institutions - The Fernald School for “feeble-minded” children and The Metropolitan State Hospital. Hidden among the trees of Beaver Brook Reservation, Metfern Cemetery is only accessible by hiking trails. 310 lives suspended in anonymity.

Massachusetts has a sordid history of improperly interning and mistreating its citizens who fall within the definition of “mentally inadequate,” but the history of the Metfern Cemetery is largely unknown even to those who live next door. Today, many residents in Waltham are surprised to learn of the cemetery’s existence. The feature-length documentary The Fate of Human Beings seeks to uncover the history behind the Metfern Cemetery, telling the stories of the people buried there.

The Metropolitan State Hospital, The Fernald School, and the Metfern Cemetery are uniquely positioned within the community of Waltham. Many people pass these abandoned structures as they walk their dogs, unaware of the atrocities committed within their walls. Those who remember The Fernald School in operation have constructed a narrative of “good doctors and bad doctors.” Waltham residents who worked inside these institutions maintain that they never engaged in abuse or experimentation on residents in their care. The Fate of Human Beings attempts to unpack this collective myth through a marriage of interviews and archival material. The filmmaker, in collaboration with local historians, will compare the collective memory of Waltham residents to the reality of their institutionalized neighbors.

In 1954, scientists from Harvard Medical School and MIT injected radioactive calcium into nine boys and one adult at The Fernald School. In what would later become known as the “radioactive oatmeal experiment,” these institutionalized children were convinced to join a “science club.” Bribed with extra meals and trips to Red Sox games, the children were unknowingly signing up to become test subjects. It is unclear if the one adult subjected to this test was capable of understanding what was being done to him. The experiment’s report “The Fate of Intravenously Injected Radiocalcium in Human Beings” describes the man as having a “mental age of 10” and “spastic.” In today’s terms, he would have been diagnosed with autism.

Although the experimentation on disabled people is only a small part of the history of these institutions, it is a crucial element to understanding the way disabled people were (and continue to be) viewed by those who care for them. Drawing from her previous work and experience with her severely autistic brother Brian, the filmmaker aims to dismantle this depersonalized view of disabled people, lending a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves.


THE FILMMAKERS:

Heather Cassano, Producer & Director is a documentary filmmaker living and working in the Greater Boston Area. Her films are reminiscent of the direct cinema movement, adopting a patient, invested approach with her subjects. Heather blends this observational style with deeply personal narratives, striving to tell authentic stories through her personal experiences.

In 2018, Heather premiered her first feature-length documentary The Limits of My World to a packed cinema at the Independent Film Festival Boston. The Limits of My World is an autistic coming of age story following Heather’s brother Brian as he transitions from the school system to his first semi-independent living environment. The film screened at numerous festivals across the United States and internationally, winning three Best Documentary awards and a Jury Prize. The Limits of My World will be released to the public in 2019.

Adrianne Parent, Editor is a graduate of Emerson College, Adrianne has been working professionally in the film/video industry for over 16 years.  She has enjoyed a successful career in both the Boston, MA and Austin, TX markets collaborating with ad agencies, corporations, non-profits, award-winning directors, and independent producers to bring their projects to life.

Adrianne is a highly skilled storyteller who excels at combing through countless hours of footage to find the heart and soul of the film.  She is passionate about her craft and is drawn to projects that positively impact society and those that give a voice to the disenfranchised.