Carrie Buck — victim and pawn

Today, October 19, is an extremely important day in the history of intellectual disabilities in this country. Today is the 85th anniversary of the sterilization of Carrie Buck, a young Virginia woman who was deemed mentally deficient and who had given birth to an illegitimate daughter.

Carrie Buck*

Carrie, who was 17, had been committed to the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded after her foster parents learned she was pregnant. Seeking to avoid the shame of her condition, they sent her to the institution where her mother lived.

Officials at the Virginia Colony claimed that both Carrie and her mother Emma were mentally deficient and because of their feeblemindedness, were likely to be promiscuous. They claimed that Carrie was illegitimate and she was passing on the trait by having her own out-of-wedlock daughter. After little Vivian was born, she was taken from her mother and sent to live with Carrie’s former foster parents.

Carrie Buck was a test case

The Colony’s leaders decided that Carrie Buck’s case was a perfect one to test the legality of a new sterilization law that had been passed by the Virginia General Assembly.  Doctors at the colony had been secretly sterilizing residents before passage of the law and they reasoned that a court case would give them stronger legal backing. And so the infamous case of Buck v. Bell was established.

It wasn’t much of a fight. Carrie was represented by Irving Whitehead, a former board member of the colony. He put on no defense for his client. The case was prosecuted by Aubrey Strode, who wrote Virginia’s sterilization law.

During the trial, Carrie and her mother were described as part of the “shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.”  Witnesses said Emma Buck had syphilis because she was a moral degenerate. One of Carrie’s teachers testified that she sent flirtatious notes to schoolboys, evidence that she was just as promiscuous as her mother. And Carrie’s baby was described by a nurse who examined her as having a look “that is not quite normal.”

U.S. Supreme Court weighs in

Predictably, the court gave the go-ahead for Carrie’s sterilization. But the case was appealed up the line to the U.S. Supreme Court.  In upholding the law in the majority opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the famous words:  “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

And so, on Oct. 19, 1927, Carrie Buck was sterilized at the Virginia Colony and later released. In the decades since, some hidden truths have emerged about her case.

The truth

First, Carrie was not illegitimate; her mother was legally married to Carrie’s father. Their marriage certificate was produced after the case concluded.

Second, neither Emma, Carrie nor Vivian was intellectually disabled. Carrie made satisfactory grades in school and Vivian made the honor roll. Emma was sent to the colony because she was a widow and had no one to take care of her.

And finally, Carrie became pregnant because she was raped by a member of her foster parents’ family.

A total of 33 states passed sterilization laws and because of the Supreme Court ruling on Buck v. Bell, more than 60,000 people were involuntarily sterilized nationwide. Most of them were living in institutions.

After World War II, revelations of the Nazi racial purification programs emerged, as did news that they were based on eugenical sterilization laws drafted in the United States. As a result, enthusiasm for forced sterilization declined in the U.S. Although Buck v. Bell has never been overturned, most states have either repealed their sterilization laws or the practice has ceased.

*Photo courtesy of the Journal of Heredity

Silence doesn’t always mean secrecy

I have often pondered the secrecy that seemed to surround the existence of my Uncle Melrose, who had a profound intellectual disability. No one in my family ever talked about him – not my Dad or my other aunt and uncles or my grandfather.

As I have learned in the past few years, my family was not unique. The same veil of silence seemed to affect many other families who had a member with a disability in the early to mid-20th century.

Surely, I thought, a certain amount of shame was behind the attitude of my father and his relatives. And that was understandable, given that Uncle Melrose was born in an era when people like him were considered a menace to society. It was generally accepted that people with intellectual limitations were born of bad stock and would either be a societal leach, a criminal or a prostitute.

Out of sight, out of mind

It was widely believed that people with intellectual disabilities were a danger to society and vice versa. Steps must be taken to protect one group from the other. That’s why institutions were built in remote areas – to remove the disabled from the mainstream.

To keep the population of the “feebleminded” under control, there was widespread support for the eugenics movement. Sterilization laws were passed in many states and tens of thousands of people – most of them in institutions – were rendered incapable of reproducing.

Many people – including the highly educated – believed that if a person was born with an intellectual disability, it was retribution for some sin by the parents.  Perhaps the father was a womanizer or the mother had taken to drink.

No other options

When I consider these things, I think it’s a miracle that Dad’s family kept Uncle Melrose at home until he was 15 years old. It was only when the family couldn’t handle my uncle’s explosive outbursts of frustration any longer that they placed him in a state school in Texas.

That must have been unbelievably painful for all of them, including Melrose. I know it was for my dad, who expressed outrage to his parents for their decision.

Help from Pearl Buck

Pearl Buck

When you look at the whole story, it is easy to see why my uncle seemed to be a family secret. But there is one other factor that I had overlooked until I read The Child Who Never Grew, by Pearl Buck. When the book was published in 1950, Buck revealed that she had a daughter with an intellectual disability.

Her daughter Carol was someone she had not been able to acknowledge even though she had raised her for several years before placing her in an institution. When Buck’s  award-winning novel The Good Earth was published, the public was naturally curious about the author. But Mrs. Buck could not talk about Carol. The reason, she said, was “not shame at all but something private and sacred, as sorrow must be. I am sore to the touch there and I cannot endure even the touch of sympathy.

“Silence is best and far the easiest for me. I suppose this is because I am not resigned and never can be. I endure it because I must, but I am not resigned.”

Perhaps it was the same for my father.  Thoughts of his brother made him sore to the touch. He knew he must endure the pain, but he could never resign himself to his brother’s condition or to his institutionalization. And so, as it was for Pearl Buck, silence was the easiest thing for him.

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.