“What was at stake in the war on feeblemindedness, he insisted, was nothing less than ‘the future welfare of the race’.”
“Oh you wise men, take up the burden
And make this your loudest creed,
Sterilize the misfits promptly –
All not fit to breed.”
“By sterilizing and releasing many women…his model would lead to many more women being sterilized, relieving the state of an ‘enormous financial burden’.”
“annihilate the hideous serpent of hopelessly vicious protoplasm.”
“The ‘lowest ten percent of the human stock are so meagerly endowed by Nature that their perpetuation would constitute a social menace’.”
It’s easy for these quotes to conjure images of Nazi Germany. But this was an American experiment.
You can only know where you’re going if you know where you’ve been. –James Burke
Does it take a heat-gun to remove the layers and layers of airbrushing we learned?
…doing color-by-number pictures of cartoon Indians, and
…filling in crossword puzzles with answers like “Lexington” and “Bald Eagle.”
Adam Cohen in Imbeciles reviews the haunting history of Eugenics (literally meaning, good-genes) in the US.
OK, so the book focuses on the major participants of the Eugenics movement around say 1890s to 1930s: doctors in hospitals and colonies, lawyers, influential expert eugenics agents, Supreme Court justices, and of course, Carrie Buck, the women at the center of the Supreme Court case that upheld Virginia’s sterilization law.
Cohen skillfully weaves the specific tale around a larger theme: how “haves” manipulate “have-nots.”
Further, he brings to life the tension in the psyche during that period in America: for example, xenophobia, racism, misogyny, and a paradoxical desire to control people.
Cohen does reference the opposition to the eugenics movement; how various groups and thoughtful people fought against “muddleheaded and prejudiced men.”
But overall, we are led to see injustice; if “the purpose of law is to ensure that the strong do not harm the weak,” in this case, again, it has been violated.
I found the storytelling drew me to the personal biographies and the major issues (ie, legal, historical, sociological, etc.)…beyond the interest in mental illness/health.
This is a definite Dragonslayer recommendation.
Cohen, A. (2016). Imbeciles: The supreme court, American eugenics, and the sterilization of Carrie Buck. Penguin Press: New York.
What’s your favorite book that stripped away the airbrushing of where we’ve been?