This month for the Skepchick Book Club, we read Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen. The book covered the tale of Carrie Buck, a woman who had been diagnosed as “feebleminded,” who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Through no fault of her own, she became the “perfect test case” for a group of men who wanted to push through pro-eugenics legislation allowing doctors to sterilize people that were diagnosed as unwanted members of society.
Buck’s first crime was the fact that she was born to a poor family, and her father died when she was young. Shortly after, her mother, Emma, was convicted of prostitution and committed at an institution for other “feebleminded” individuals, and her children were sent away to other families. Buck was adopted as a toddler by the Dobbs family, who made sure that she knew that she was not an equal member of the family but rather an unpaid servant. After the fifth grade, her foster parents took her out of school (where her performance had been just fine) so that she could focus solely on housework, and at times they would hire her out to other families. When she was 17 years old, she was raped by a visiting nephew of the Dobbs, and unfortunately she got pregnant, so Mrs. Dobbs sent her away to an institution for having “loose morals.” The only good thing that came of this was that Buck was reunited with her mother at the same institution (the Colony for Epileptics). After her daughter, Vivian, was born, the baby was sent away to the Dobbs (who made it clear that they would return her if she was determined to be “feebleminded” like her mother), although Carrie was allowed to visit her occasionally.
Carrie Buck was picked by the pro-eugenics people as their perfect test case because of her multiple undesirable qualities: she was a poor woman with a “feebleminded” mother, she was herself “feebleminded,” she had a child out of wedlock (who would later be declared “feebleminded” as a baby), and the doctors also remarked on her “ugly” facial features (phrenology). Thus, she was the perfect person to be sterilized, and she was put through a farce of a trial where nobody was on her side and a lot of the men in charge bent the truth in order to achieve their final goal.
Even though the book is about Buck’s case, it goes into great depth on the background of the white men in charge of her fate:
- Albert Priddy – a pro-eugenics doctor who was strongly in favor of mass sterilization, who also favored progressive reforms in mental care; at the time of the case, he was the superintendent of the Colony for Epileptics and kept up a lifelong correspondence with Buck.
- Irving Whitehead – Buck’s lawyer who was supposed to defend her side but who was good friends with Dr. Priddy and the prosecuting lawyer, Mr. Strode. He did not put up any defense for Buck and it’s unclear what exactly he did besides agree with the prosecutor.
- Harry Laughlin – the leader of the Eugenics Record Office who taught pro-eugenics classes on the side. He is notable not only for his positions on eugenics and sterilizations but also because he was diagnosed with epilepsy in his 40’s (at the time, epilepsy was derided by the pro-eugenics crowd as an offense worthy of sterilization). Irony!
- Aubrey Strode – an ardent trial lawyer and dedicated advocate to his clients who defended the pro-sterilization side of Buck’s case. He was also hugely racist (what an unforseen coincidence!) and insisted upon adhering to the Jim Crow rules of manners (which include never addressing a black man as “mister”). It’s questionable whether he really supported sterilization, but if not, he did nothing to stand in its way.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes – a Supreme Court Justice who somehow had a reputation as some sort of Liberal Lion even though he was a curmudgeonly racist fellow who was against the common man and highly pro-eugenics.
At the time (early 20th century), science was undergoing a revolution, spurred by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (particularly the “survival of the fittest” mantra) and Mendel’s work on heredity and green/yellow peas and thus the discovery of dominant vs recessive genetic traits. Eugenicists used these new scientific theories to their advantage to push their agenda that undesirable people should not be allowed to bear children lest they muddy the gene pool for white people (of English or Scandinavian descent). I got the impression from this book that the pro-eugenics people thought that mandatory sterilization was actually the more human option for those deemed feebleminded–because at the time, the only option was lifelong institutionalization, whereas with sterilization these people could be returned to society without the risk of having children.
I know a lot of people get compared to Hitler, but these are literally the ideas that Hitler used when he came up with his own eugenics program. And in fact, eugenics was one of the reasons that the US turned away so many Jewish refugees during WWII.
One of the notable things about Buck’s case was that nobody ever made a case for why she should not be sterilized. The courts made sure to go through the proper legal motions, but nobody ever made sure that she knew what was happening. She was convinced that there were people looking out for her, when there were none. After she was sterilized, she was sent away to a couple of foster homes. Dr. Priddy tried to send her back to the Dobbs but they wouldn’t take her (even though they were raising her daughter). After a time, Buck was emancipated and allowed to live on her own and get married. By all accounts, she lived a quiet life, and she kept trying to be reunited with her family (mom, daughter, and sister Doris). People who knew her said that they had no idea why she had been committed. And in fact, her daughter, who had been declared feebleminded as a 6-month old baby, had no problems with learning at school and was an average student (although she tragically died of measles at age 9). When she was asked about the trial and sterilization years later, she commented, “They done me wrong. They done us all wrong.”
After the ruling on Buck’s case, thousands of people were sterilized, before the law was finally contested. One of those people was Carrie’s sister Doris, who hadn’t been told about her sterilization until much later in life when a doctor accidentally revealed it to her during a check-up. He mentioned the fact that she had been sterilized years earlier, and when he looked up, she was in tears because she and her husband had tried to have a baby for years. She had been told that the scar on her abdomen was from an appendectomy. And in fact, the sterilization procedure became so common in the South that it was nicknamed the “Mississippi Appendectomy.”
Next Month’s Book: Station Eleven
Next month, we’ll be reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, and I’ll be putting up a post on Sunday, May 29th. See you then!