The Cloak of Competence: Revised and Updated.


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Edgerton, Robert B. The Cloak of Competence: Revised and Updated. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993. xxvi + 247 pp. Paperback $15.00.Between 1949 and 1958, 110 adult patients with mild and borderline mental retardation successfully graduated from the vocational training program of the Pacific State Hospital, California. Mostly young adults, they were discharged into the community without additional supports. In 1960, Edgerton began a lifetime work: locating and interviewing these people over the course of over 30 years. He and his colleagues have reported the progress of this cohort and discussed their methodology during these 30 years. The current volume is a revision and updating of the original book that coined the term Cloak of Competence. It complies all the earlier followups reported previously in the literature and also contains further follow-up from as late as 1992, when the participants were seniors.An anthropologist by training, Edgerton used a participant observation approach to collecting data. Former patients, family members, and friends were contracted and interviewed in a friendly fashion. An important part of the methodology was trips to the grocery store, participation in house-work, and meals out with the participants in order to understand their lifestyles. The data are typically presented in narrative forms as portraits of the adaptation of cohort members to life in the community after living in a state hospital.Edgerton's key concepts were passing and denial-attempting to present oneself as a “normal” person-and the benevolent conspiracy between the former patient and a benevolent benefactor, such as spouse, family member, or neighbor to assist him or her without explicitly acknowledging the mental retardation. In the late follow-ups, the issues associated with being institutionalized in early life have largely faded as life progresses and gives people new challenges.Whenever I have read Edgerton's work I have been struck by the similarity of the lives of adults with mild and borderline mental retardation and other people who have limited personal and economic resources. Some people's lives are tragic and terrible; others are noble and heroic. Some are a catalog of physical and mental problems; others are easygoing tales of social success. The longitudinal nature of Edgerton's work-probably unique in the literature-gives us a portrait of the adult participant's entire life span. Their lives go through hard patches; people recover from apparently unsurmountable tragedy through luck or immense striving; some people seem blessed. A second feature of Edgerton's work that has also always struck me has been the humanity, sympathy, and honesty with which he portrays these lives.This volume is a must read. It is suitable for undergraduates, postgraduates, and professionals from many different professions. It is written in a readable style that also contains insights and subtleties from which we all can learn. This single volume contains the background, reviews of earlier research from the first part of this century that formed the basis for this study, the methodology, all the follow-up data, and Edgerton's own discussion of all of these studies. Thus, it provides a comprehensive overview of the entire enterprise.I recommend it without hesitation.Peter Sturmey, Ph.D.

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