This is one of those books like The Handmaid’s Tale that you probably shouldn’t read while angry. Because DAMN, I’m just gonna lead with the horror – Buck v. Bell HASN’T BEEN STRUCK DOWN.
This book follows the eugenics-led case to sterilize Carrie Bell because, in the words of presiding Supreme Court Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Except. Except. Except, you guys. She wasn’t. Her daughter wasn’t. Her mother wasn’t. She was inconvenient to her adoptive parents because she fell pregnant, so she was deemed “feebleminded” so she could be sent to a mental colony. It would be horrible enough even if she were in fact mentally deficient, except she wasn’t. It would be horrible enough even if she were promiscuous, another argument for her sterilization, but her daughter was a product of rape – her adoptive parents’ nephew raped her, and they needed to shuffle her out of the house to avoid questioning about how she became pregnant.
In the words of Buck herself: “‘oh yeah, I was angry’ she said. ‘They done me wrong. They done us all wrong.'”
And the law still stands. And is being used as precedent for coercing female prisoners into sterilization as recently as 2010. What. The. Actual. Fuck.
I’ll conclude the same way the book itself does, using the words of eugenicists’ favorite author, Charles Darwin.
“In The Descent of Man, he conceded there might well be practical advantages to abandoning ‘the weak and helpless.’ But doing so, he insisted, also brought with it ‘an overwhelming present evil.’ We must allow the weak to ‘survive and propagate their kind’ Darwin insisted. Doing anything less, he said, would mean abandoning not only the weak and the helpless but ‘the noblest part of our nature.'”
This is a good and necessary book. But I am so angry it had to exist.