One decision in my writing and publication of A People of Two Kingdoms II, Stories of Kansas Mennonites in Politics (2016) was whether to include the story of Arlen and Linda Kaufman. In 2005 the Kaufmans, who ran a home in Newton, Kansas, for the mentally ill, were convicted and imprisoned for Medicare fraud, mail fraud, and forcing their patients to work in the nude and to conduct sexual acts on each other. Linda died in 2019 after being released from prison on compassionate grounds in 2016. Arlen recently died in federal custody (January 18, 2021).
Although the Kaufman case was not “political behavior” in a narrow sense, I might have included their story under my broader definition of politics to include matters of civic identity and consequence. Also, I was personally connected with Arlen. His father (Menno Kaufman) and my paternal grandmother (Alvina Kaufman Juhnke) were brother and sister. Our fathers were both Kansas Mennonite wheat farmers and educators. I well remember family visits when Menno was principal of Inman High School and my father, William Juhnke, was principal of Lehigh Rural High School. On one such visit, when I was a high school freshman, Arlen, with an annoying sense of superiority, instructed me about the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr and let me know that God was “infinite reality” and not a bearded man up in the sky.
Some members of Kaufman’s family believed that Arlen and Linda in 2005 were victims of an unjust legal system that refused to consider the good intentions of their care for the mentally ill. As repulsive as the filming of patient sexual activity, and forcing patients to watch the films, may seem to the average person, there is a tradition and a literature that argues that such activity can be therapeutic. Was Arlen and Linda Kaufman’s treatment of patients defensible as therapy?
I thought of the potentially competing narratives of the Kaufman case when reading the recent book by Sean Patterson, Makhno and Memory: Anarchist and Mennonite Narratives of Ukraine’s Civil War, 1917-1921 (2020). After World War I, Mennonites in the Ukraine suffered horribly at the hands of violent anarchists led by Nestor Makhno. Entire villages were wiped out. The Mennonite image of the Makhno is one of unqualified evil. That is the way I taught the story in my decades of teaching Mennonite history at Bethel College. But Sean Patterson’s book now tells me there is an alternative narrative in which Makhno’s behavior has its own defensible rationale. Anarchism was an ideology with its own self-serving justification. There is more than one way to tell the story of Nestor Makhno.
Now that the Arlen and Linda Kaufman are dead and gone, I do not propose to retell their story in a way that justifies the way they treated mentally ill patients. That would be a major research project for which I do not have the time and energy. As it is, I find the behavior for which they spent many years in prison to be embarrassing and shameful. But there remains a small hesitation in my mind. Would there be any point in retelling this story from the viewpoint of Arlen Kaufman?