Friday, October 28, 2016

Book review: Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen (audio)

When this book was longlisted for the National Book Award, I perked up in interest. When I lived in North Carolina, I was horrified to learn that the many people who were forcibly sterilized, sometimes against their knowledge, not just without permission, had never been compensated. It only stopped in 1976 (in NC. Other states it stopped much later. I'm looking at you California.) In 2014 a class action lawsuit was settled and the 8000 people NC sterilized should have each gotten $20,000. But because the state lost (or never created) the paperwork, many were denied the compensation, a second insult. Horrifying.

And so, what the heck the people behind this 1919 law were thinking has always bothered me. Mr. Cohen in this excellent book fairly and evenly lays everything out. From the lawyer who advised the drafting of laws to Carrie Buck herself, to the eminent Oliver Wendell Holmes (whose esteem has plummeted in my eyes), to apparently masses of paperwork (in this case at least), he was able to trace not just the sterilization program but the whole impetus for eugenics in America. A few years ago I was horrified to learn that that the Nazis' eugenics notions had been based on a book by an American. Naturally he come sup quite a bit here. And while racial issues obviously were the Nazi's primary concern, what surprised me here was how much it didn't come into the story, after the initial set up. It seems the eugenicists were only concerned with keeping the white race pure, and weren't as concerned with other races (not to mention other races weren't as likely to be eligible for state hospitals in this era, a mixed blessing.) I know in later years this trend reversed, but in the nineteen-teens, it was more about making sure the whites were the best possible whites they could be, ideally Nordic and without any criminal or lazy tendencies. What was the most ridiculous is that if these people had even a 4th grader's basic grasp of heredity, they'd have easily seen that unless they could genetically test for people who were carrying these traits they didn't want (feeble-mindedness and criminality), sterilizing all of them would only make a small dent in those traits being passed down. After all, my brown-haired brown-eyed parents produced my blond-haired blue-eyed sister.

And wow, I don't know why Holmes is so respected. I think just because he had a gift for an aphorism. But he was self-professed to want to know nothing about the news and what was going on in the world, and he wanted to know next to nothing about cases, and was a rampant racist.

The most egregious part of Carrie's story is that her lawyer in the case was paid for by the hospital and not only didn't help her at all, but helped the defense's case throughout all the trials. She was of average intelligence, was not promiscuous (her child was the result of a rape), and had two long-lasting happy marriages and worked very hard. She didn't want a large family she once said, just a couple of children. Her half-sister wasn't even told she was being sterilized—for years and she her husband desperately tried to get pregnant (she'd been told she had an appendectomy.) And I didn't know that higher courts 100% rely on the evidence submitted in the original case. So if the evidence isn't presented there, then it isn't considered in an appeal. That was news to me.

This eye-opening book was well-written, easy to follow despite being potentially complicated material, and I really liked the narrator who sounded a bit like Casey Kasem in the lower registers. It's a long-overlooked disgraceful era in our past, that we need to understand and remember, so that it's never repeated.

I downloaded this audiobook from Overdrive via my library.

No comments: