Book Review – They Cage The Animals At Night

: The true story of an abandoned child’s struggle for emotional survival

By: Jennings Michael Burch

Disclaimer: This book review is my opinion of the book. If you have a different opinion of the book that is great. I know I have loved several movies and books that other reviewers have not liked and disliked movies and books that receive great reviews. I think we all have. If you would like to submit your own review, I may consider posting it. Otherwise feel free to share you reviews on the Forum. Thanks.

I can honestly tell you that this book was life changing for me.  I have been a houseparent for over ten years and before I read this book, I was seriously looking for the exit sign.  I was tired; I was frustrated and I was thinking there had to be an easier way to make a living. By the time I was halfway through the book, I didn’t want to put it down and realized there was no other thing I could possibly see myself doing besides caring for the children I care for.

The book is a true story about a child that suddenly finds himself in and out of orphanages, institutions, and fosters homes over about a four year period while his mother was in and out of hospitals battling physical and mental illness.  He has to deal with abandonment as well as a great amount of abuse at the hands of many of those charged with caring for him.  His resilience and strength, as well as the love and influence of a few key individuals, helps him to make it through the ordeal.

This all takes place during the early 1950’s, so the techniques and programs are very different from what you would find today and it makes me thankful I don’t do childcare in the BAD old days.  Reading this book will not give you any new techniques to help you be a better houseparent or childcare worker but it will help you to see the different kinds of people that work caring for children as houseparents and foster parents, and to recognize the kind of person you should want to be.  It did for me.  Though I am convinced that the level of abuse described in this book would never be tolerated today, I believe there are still many of the same kinds of people still doing the work.

The Bad

  • Sister Frances – is a gruff, rough and very direct type of worker.  She is very physical and expects good behavior for convenience (to make her job easier)  She seems to be one those “you have to break-em and then mold-em” kind of people.  She does care about children and at times, shows great compassion but does not appear to respect children.
  • Sister Barbara – appears to not like her work or the children.  She expects perfection from the children to make her job easier.  She rules with fear and is very abusive.
  • Mrs. Abbott – is even more despicable than Sister Barbara.  Not only does she hate her job, rule with fear and abuse children, she also degrades them in such a way that is more damaging than anything physical.

The Good

  • Sister Clair – appears to enjoy her work and working with children.  She is compassionate and respectful to the children.  She is concerned about the problems of the children and takes the time to explain the rules and expectations to the children and why they are needed.
  • Sister Ann Catherine – is much like Sister Clair but more affectionate.

He also lived with three very different sets of foster parents:

  • The Carpenter’s – are the type of foster parents that saw foster care as a business or job.  They are abusive to the children and had no concern for them.  They were only concerned with the money and were pretty good with faking it with social services.
  • The Frazier’s – are the type of foster parents that seemed generally concerned for children.  They felt good about helping a poor disadvantaged child and generally tried to meet his needs.  Though their house staff was very connected, they themselves did not seem to be very emotionally connected to Jennings.
  • The Daly’s – are the type of foster parents that are very concerned with the children.  They are concerned about their emotional as well as their physical needs.  The thing that stands out most about them is that they are willing to make a personal sacrifice to help a child they are caring for.

For those of you that don’t work caring for children, you should know that some of the greatest and most positive influences for Jennings were people he didn’t live with, like:  teachers, a bus driver, a night watchman, policemen, etc.  There were also those that didn’t have such a positive influence on him, like: teachers, social workers, policemen, etc.  You also need to know that things are very different in 2007 than they were in 1952.  We don’t put bars on the windows or barbed wire around the top of the fence to keep children in.  We don’t let one person supervise 30 kids, assign them numbers like prisoners, or make them live in dormitories with 30 or 40 other kids. 

I would recommend this book for any person that works in the foster care system, especially houseparents.  I also think it is a very good to read to get the perspective of a child that has been in the system.  Even though it is dated, I believe most of the children in care today experience many of the same feelings and fears that Jennings did over 50 years ago.  Feelings of loneliness, sorrow, fear, shame, abandonment, and depression are just as painful today as they were back then.  Finally, I also noticed that many of the people that had a positive influence on Jennings were never able to to see the results of their influence.  This is no different than how it is today.  When you are working with disadvantaged children and caring for other people’s children, you may never see the results of your labors.  Being able to see how it has worked for others should help you to keep doing it anyway.

The book is published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group, Inc., New York, NY.  Copyright 1984.  It is currently only available in paperback, but hardcover copies can be found used on Amazon and other places.  It is 293 pages long. 

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