Archives for August 2012

A movie surprise

As a former journalist, I’m always drawn to movies about reporters. And that’s why I just watched “Alleged,” a 2011 film about a young man who covered the Scopes Monkey Trial.

This was the sensational 1925 trial of John Scopes, who was accused of teaching evolution in Tennessee public schools — a violation of state law. He was defended by the famed attorney Clarence Darrow and prosecuted by William Jennings Bryan, a three-time candidate for U.S. President.

As portrayed in the film, the trial was basically a show — a war of words between those who accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution and those who believed in the biblical story of creation. There were many scenes in which Darrow, played by Brian Dennehy, and Bryan, played by Fred Thompson, argued the merits of the two sides.

But what struck me about the movie was a side narrative about social Darwinism, the belief that survival of the fittest applies to humans not only in the biological sense, but also in social and political realms. Social Darwinism, which was a strongly held belief at the time of the Scopes trial, holds that superior people will survive and inferior people will not.

In “Alleged,” the lead female character has a sister who is believed to be inferior — she is half-black and half-white and lives in a home for epileptics. Her racial makeup and her epilepsy made her a candidate for sterilization, social Darwinism’s answer to ridding society of defective people. Many believed if this girl wasn’t sterilized, she would give birth to more racially mixed children with epilepsy and they would be a drain on society.

The same belief system was applied to criminals, poor people and individuals with disabilities. It was widely accepted that criminal behavior, poverty and intellectual and physical disabilities were hereditary. The obvious remedy during the eugenics movement that swept the country in the early 20th century was sterilization.

In all, 27 states passed laws allowing compulsory sterilization of supposedly “defective” people. The girl in the movie was saved from the sterilization knife at the last minute, but tens of thousands of people in this country were not. Estimates are that around 50,000 people — most of them in institutions — were sterilized as a result of sterilization laws that remained in effect until the 1960s.

This little-known, little-discussed aspect of American history plays an important role in the story of my Uncle Melrose, who had an intellectual disability and was born in 1921 at the height of the eugenics movement. He and his family (which included my Dad, his brother) and thousands of others like them endured shame, fear and guilt — all magnified because of widespread misconceptions about heredity and the causes of disabilities.

My hat’s off to Fred Foote, who wrote and produced “Alleged,” for bringing attention to this extremely important episode in American history.

The door that could not be ignored

“I bought the place because it had the door in the patio, the one I’ve painted so often.” — Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe is one of my favorite artists, and not just because I like her paintings. I admire her as a person. She lived in a time when women were expected to fulfill certain roles — as wives and mothers — and she charted her own path. She did marry, but she spent a good deal of time away from her husband, painting in her beloved New Mexico.

In the early 1930s, she discovered a house in remote Abiquiu, N.M., and was drawn to it because of its door. It took her more than ten years to buy the property from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe, but she finally moved there in 1945. In the surrounding desert and mountains of New Mexico she painted some of her most famous landscapes.

My door

I like the image of the door that captivates. For me, there is a similar door, but it is a metaphorical one. It is a door that beckons me to pursue a story that must be told.

I opened that door three years ago when I began writing a memoir about my uncle, who had an intellectual disability. I didn’t know he existed until I was a teenager, and I didn’t meet him until I was in my 40’s.

He was a tiny man. I’m not sure how tall he was, because he was doubled over with scoliosis. But he weighed only 122 pounds. His head was misshapen because of microcephaly and his eyes were crossed. He could say only a few words — his favorite was “No!” — and he needed help with almost everything.

But he didn’t need help with friendship. He and I became buddies. We went for walks and drives and to get hamburgers. We sat next to each other on the porch and watched the cars go by. He had a profound impact on me and helped me find healing for some of my deepest personal wounds.

My father’s eyes

One of the most remarkable things about Uncle Melrose was that he had my father’s eyes. He and Dad were brothers, and when they were growing up in San Antonio, Dad took care of his younger sibling. The two of them didn’t really look much alike, but if you saw their eyes, you knew they were related.

I’ve never seen blue eyes like theirs in anyone else — they were like gleaming pale blue crystals. There was something honest and without pretense in them.

Originally, I intended to write Uncle Melrose’s biography. But there was so little information available about his life. Dad would never talk about him and most of his family had passed away. The state institution where he lived most of his life claimed his records no longer existed.

Eventually, it became clear that the story about Uncle Melrose was as much about me as it was about him. It has been hard to write this tale — it’s the hardest project I’ve ever undertaken. But it’s a door that beckoned me and would not let me walk away. Like Georgia O’Keeffe, I saw that door and knew I had to walk through it.