She ate dirt

She ate dirt.  That’s what I remember about JP . She had dark hair. She wore a crumpled pale-colored dress, dark shoes and white socks. She was probably seven or eight years of age.  She lived in a ramshackle ranch house on a narrow dirt road behind other houses, off a nameless side street which was off of Speen Street, a heavily traveled two lane road in Natick.  We lived on Speen Street a third of a mile away from her house, in a house my father bought in 1948 for $13,000 (and lists for $496,000 today).

If memory serves me well, her house was adjacent to the on ramp onto busy Route 9. Rumor has it that she lived with her mother and younger sister, but no one really knew for sure. That’s because no one ever visited her.  No one dared be seen with her, play with her, get to know her, or be kind to her. She was shunned because she was different. We were told to stay away. I know I did.

I couldn’t get the memory out of my mind. Little girls, like JP ate dirt? I’d  heard of dogs eating dirt, but people?

Pregnant women and young children have been called out for eating soil and other substances with no significant nutritional value such as dirt and soap. There is a name for it in the diagnostic manual of mental disorders: “pica”, and more  specifically “geophagia”, the ingestion of dirt, clay, soil .  It’s possible that JP ate the dirt because she was intellectually or developmentally disabled, or she ate the dirt and ingested animal feces and accompanying parasites, and became disabled and disturbed.  Literature says the causes are inconclusive.  Someone must have done some research into the matter because there are dozens of subtypes of pica, each characterized by the substances eaten.  For example:

Acuphagia (sharp objects)

– Cautoppyreioohagia (burnt matches)

– Coprophagia (feces)

– Trichophagia (hair, wool, and other fibers)

– Xylophagia (wood, or derivatives of wood such as paper)

Mental illness according to Robert Spitzer “an eminent psychiatrist and a key architect of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) defined “behavior to be determined a psychiatric disorder ….had to be regularly accompanied by subjective distress and/or some generalized impairment in social effectiveness of functioning”. All of us in the neighborhood, who stayed away from JP, for whatever reason, I feel, on reflection, contributed to her dysfunction.

Modern medicine seeks to learn the biological cause of an illness, and eating dirt is certainly an illness. According to Jerome Groopman, MD, and a staff writer for The New Yorker writing in “Medicine in Mind” (May 27, 2019), says the cause and effect of something as common as peptic ulcers has changed over time. At one time it was thought to be caused strictly by emotional or mental stress. But in 1982, two Australian researchers determined that a bacterium was the source of ulcers, and now ulcers are healed with antibiotics. Pica’s origin and treatment is more sketchy though there are write-ups of it in WebMD and Mayo Clinic, two well-respected medical sites.

Thst being said, why memory of JP eating dirt came back to me, sixty years after the fact is puzzling. I hardly knew her but apparently she made an impression on me. Maybe it had less to do with who she was and more to do with the social psychology aspects.

JP In some way contributed to a growing interest of mine in human psychology, abnormal psychology,  motivation and decision making too.  Obviously, my family of origin, my parents and older brother had the greatest influence on me and my interests, but somehow neighborhood kids like JP had an impact too.

Because of this matter I looked into the history of special needs social services in Massachusetts.

If JP had been disabled, she probably would not have received any special social services because special education diagnostic and social services were not common in 1950s America. The American Disabilities Act (ADA), a civil rights law that prohibited discrimination based on disability was not enacted until 1990, nearly thirty years ago. Therefore there were no Individual Education Plans (IEP) provided by teachers for special needs students until decades later. ADA disabilities included both metal and physical medical conditions like deafness, blindness, intellectual disability (formerly termed mental retardation), autism, as well as mental ailments like major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The ADA helps level the  playing field so that the disabled could have more opportunities to congregate and participate in society. The ADA helped the disabled to come out of the shadows. That’s what JP’s life was like: she was marginalized, living in the shadows. The ADA helped millions of children come out of the shadows, to fit in.

My interest in psychology and motivation continued after grade school, into college, and upon graduation from college. Another memorable person (whose name I don’t remember) was a client of mine when I worked as a mental health worker at Butler Hospital, a private psychiatric hospital in Providence RI.  Working on the adolescent and adult psychiatric unit, this young married woman was admitted because she had attempted suicide and exhibited unusual behavior. She had swallowed a number of hair pins and paper clips.  (The paper clips were open up or extended making one end sharp. The sharp edge could puncture her stomach lining. I remember when asked why she did this very dangerous pica behavior, she said she felt like a “hunk of meat”, she was so depressed, abused and unhappy in her marriage. I can picture her in my mind, just as I can picture JP.

The mind is strange, as are some of the people  you encounter along the way. Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist wrote a number of books including  “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”, and an autobiography “On the Move”.  Read either or both if you’re interested in the strange ways our minds and brains function.  By studying dysfunctional fragments he aims to understand the whole. Fascinating reading as I reflect in my own life and where I’ve been and might be headed.

Are there people from your early years whom you remember today who had an influence on your personal development?  If so, I’d like to hear about your experiences and how they effected you. You know where to find me at “off the hook” or  .













dared be seen with her olaynwith her, get to know her

Published by Richard Halpern

Retired (but busy) after a lengthy career in business marketing, communications and research. Worked at four start-ups and one turnaround. Now volunteer doing prospect research for a climate activity and social advocacy non profit, amongst other things.

5 thoughts on “She ate dirt

  1. This is good. I like the way u tie things together. And it’s sufficiently offbeat to catch the reader’s attention.

    I wonder if there’s an overarching theme to all your pieces– some framework for thinking about all you’ve written so far and suggesting a focus for the future…?

    Sent from my iPad


  2. I always seem to find a personal connection to your blogs… I grew up in Framingham—Saxonville to be precise. Til I was 9, anyway.

    But no memories of anyone like JP, though I find that hard to believe.

    Of course I became that “different” person when my father died at 34—I was 8—living in the suburbs. But we moved to the big city of Brookline shortly thereafter where you were in the minority if your family wasn’t “broken”.


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