Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck

Book cover: Imbeciles by Adam CohenIn the 1920s, riding high on the pro-eugenics wave that had swept across the nation, key individuals in Virginia pushed hard to advocate for mass eugenic sterilization. Unlike other states that were moving their sterilization programs forward with zeal, however, Virginia took a somewhat more cautious approach. A law was passed that would give the state the power to sterilize the unfit members of society who had been institutionalized in state facilities. However, the state would not proceed until the law was tested before the Supreme Court. The unfortunate target of that test case was a young woman named Carrie Buck.

Carrie came from a poor family; her father died when she was young, and her mother, Emma, struggled to provide for her daughter. She occasionally lived with other men and received charity to make ends meet, but she ultimately gave Carrie up to John and Alice Dobbs in hopes that she’d have a better life. The Dobbses ended up treating Carrie as little more than a servant; she was pulled out of school and sometimes hired out to help neighbors with domestic work. When Carrie was fourteen, her mother was arrested and sent to live at the Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded for the rest of her life (she was neither epileptic or “feebleminded,” though she was labeled a “moron”).

A few years later, Carrie would face a similar fate. She was raped by Alice Dobbs’s nephew and got pregnant. The Dobbses wanted to get rid of Carrie and avoid scandal; they had her examined and found to be feebleminded, which conveniently explained her “promiscuity.” Once she gave birth, her baby, Vivian, was given to the Dobbses and Carrie was sent away to the same facility as her mother. She would be the perfect test case for eugenic sterilization: with Carrie and her mother both labeled feebleminded, the men behind Virginia’s eugenics program thought they could show how mental defectiveness was genetic. They envisioned breeding out such defectiveness in a few generations.

Carrie Buck suffered a gross miscarriage of justice from the beginning, and readers will be horrified to learn just how badly the system was stacked against her; even her own lawyer colluded against her. She never stood a chance before the prejudiced Supreme Court. Carrie v. Buck paved the way for tens of thousands of people to be sterilized without their consent, and the law still stands; it’s never been overturned.

But even with its important information and infuriating revelations, the struggle was real with this book. It suffers from numerous editing and organization problems that were impossible to overlook. Take, for instance, its chapter titles:

One: Carrie Buck
Two: Albert Priddy
Three: Albert Priddy
Four: Harry Laughlin
Five: Harry Laughlin
Six: Aubrey Strode
Seven: Aubrey Strode
Eight: Oliver Wendell Holmes
Nine: Oliver Wendell Holmes
Ten: Carrie Buck

If you think this setup begs for repetition…you are correct. I cannot for the life of me understand why the book was organized this way. I kept feeling extreme déjà vu until I realized that, no, I really had read that before. Entire biographical sketches of the men behind the court case were repeated and at times veered off into vaguely off-topic territory. And a drinking game could be made of the number of times Cohen wrote that, according the doctors’ own skewed scale, Carrie was not actually an imbecile but a moron. (For the record, he also makes it clear that she was neither; she actually had no discernable mental disabilities.)

Let’s just say that if one of my students had turned in a paper like this, they would’ve gotten it back marked up with REPETITIVE and MAKE CONCISE.

Carrie Buck’s history is important. This largely forgotten SCOTUS decision is important. I’m glad they were written about, and I’m glad that the book buzz is making people more aware of this chapter of American history. Imbeciles has good information that could have really shone with better editing. I wouldn’t not recommend the book, but I will admit that it was a struggle to get through.

Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck was released in March 2016 by Penguin Press.

Goodreads | Amazon
I read it as a(n): eBook
Source: Publisher
Pages: 416

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