When the Lovatt family determines that their idyllic family life is threatened by Ben’s violent behaviors, they decide to commit Ben to an institution despite his not having a diagnosis that warrants such an action. Harriet and David know that surrendering Ben to such a place means he will be mistreated, and so Harriet resists this option, but David insists. He would rather put Ben out of mind and focus on the well-being of his four other children than adjust his idealistic vision of family life to include Ben. The institution, then, represents the way “others” are shunned by society when the way their behavior differs from what’s expected of them. While David goes to trouble not to see what is being done to Ben at the institution (both physically by staying home, and emotionally by trying to purge Ben from his thoughts), Harriet is unable to abandon her son in this way, even to the detriment of the other children. Harriet finds the institution where Ben is being held and abused, and brings him back home. Despite Ben returning home, Harriet is still unable to recognize Ben for what he is, trying to transform his personality into one that better matches what she observes in her older children. Harriet makes the mistake of thinking that her two options are either exiling her son or trying to incorporate him into her existing ideal of family life, rather than opening herself up to adjusting the dynamics of the family to embrace Ben’s personality, which is ultimately another form of refusing who he is and pushing him away.
The Institution Quotes in The Fifth Child
“The trouble is, you get used to hell,” said Harriet. “After a day with Ben I feel as if nothing exists but him. As if nothing has ever existed. I suddenly realize I haven’t remembered the others for hours. I forgot their supper yesterday. Dorothy went to the pictures, and I came down and found Helen cooking their supper.”
She thought it not without significance, as they say, that it was Frederick who said, “Now look here, Harriet, you’ve got to face it, he’s got to go into an institution.”
“Then we have to find a doctor who says he’s abnormal,” said Harriet. “Dr. Brett certainly won’t.”
“Shit,” said the young man, meaning her being there.
“Literally,” said Harriet as the door opened on a square room whose walls were of white shiny plastic that was buttoned here and there and looked like fake expensive leather upholstery. On the floor, on a green foam-rubber mattress, lay Ben. He was unconscious. He was naked, inside a strait-jacket. His pale yellow tongue protruded from his mouth. His flesh was dead white, greenish. Everything—walls, the floor, and Ben—was smeared with excrement. A pool of dark yellow urine oozed from the pallet, which was soaked.
She cried out, “Yes, but you didn’t see it, you didn’t see—!”
“I was careful not to see,” he said. “What did you suppose was going to happen? That they were going to turn him into some well-adjusted member of society and then everything would be lovely?” He was jeering at her, but it was because his throat was stiff with tears.
Now they looked at each other, long, hard, seeing everything about each other. She thought, All right, he was right, and I was wrong. But it’s done.
She said aloud, “All right, but it’s done.”
“That’s the mot juste, I think.”