The Tragedy of Carrie Buck: A Review of Imbeciles by Adam Cohen
by Mary Lou Bennett
In his 2016 book, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, Adam Cohen recounts one of America’s great miscarriages of justice—the Supreme Court’s 1927 ruling in Buck v. Bell. This dark moment in history upheld a statute instituting compulsory sterilization of those deemed unfit “for the protection and health of the state.” The ruling allowed for Carrie Buck, a perfectly normal young woman, to be sterilized.
The sad road that delivered her to this fate was strewn with influential men in positions of power who falsified information and continually conspired against her to meet their own agenda, be it to satisfy career goals or quench a growing desire to save the nation from what they perceived to be a growing threat posed by “defective people.” Whatever the case, their ugly efforts resulted in an 8-1 decision against Carrie; the lone dissenter was Judge Pierce Butler, a Catholic. Justice Oliver Wendell Homes Jr. coldly declared that Carrie should indeed be sterilized because “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
With painstaking detail Cohen acquaints the reader with the history of the eugenics movement and the large following it had with many notables of the time. Through five mini biographies, Cohen introduces Carrie herself and the multiple difficulties she faces throughout her life.
Cohen also introduces the respected, highly influential lawyers, doctors, and judges seeking to use her in their quest to make government sterilization of “undesirables” the accepted law of the land. In this way, Cohen gives the reader an honest, accurate portrayal of Carrie, while examining the motivation driving the men who want her sterilized.
Imbeciles is hard to put down once you begin reading it. This is especially true for someone like me, who admittedly, had little idea of the magnitude of the injustice brought about by the eugenics movement. It was thoroughly unnerving to learn that so many intelligent and highly regarded individuals could manipulate facts and tirelessly dedicate themselves to a cause that would strip a poor, unprivileged woman of her rights.
When Dr. Priddy, Director of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, wanted to determine if a new law authorizing the sterilization of the intellectually disabled for the purpose of eugenics would pass a legal challenge, he chose Carrie Buck as a suitable candidate to further his cause. But as Cohen gives biographies of the views of each man seeking to sterilize Carrie, it quickly becomes evident that those passionate about eugenics were not content with sterilizing a small number of people like Carrie. Rather, one leading eugenicist, Harry Laughlin, believed that to “save the nation from the threat posed by ‘defective’ people, there would need to be millions of sterilizations.” Indeed, various races and ethnicities were seen as inferior and there was a clear desire to diminish them from American society, along with any, like Carrie, who were considered “feebleminded.”
It made me shudder to learn that one of Laughlin’s friends, Madison Grant, a fellow American eugenicist, wrote theories about racial superiority and the need for dealing with the weak that greatly influenced the Nazis. One of Grant’s books was even found in Hitler’s personal library and Hitler is said to have written Grant a “fan letter.”
Imbeciles offers great insight into a troubling time in American history. It manages to successfully serve as an intellectual account of history, as well as an intimate case study of a young woman treated unjustly by those in a position to help her. It leaves the reader continuously asking how such events could have happened less than one hundred years ago and why more people didn’t vehemently speak out against such injustice. Ultimately, it is an excellent piece of literature and a must-read.
Cohen’s book will undoubtedly speak to the heart. Hopefully, people will read it, talk about it, and become resolute in their conviction to fight for the underprivileged that have no voice.
Additional comment from Carol Crossed:
Today, we are less likely to sterilize the poor or the insane or the criminal. We abort them. We try to convince them it’s their right. Graciela Olivarez, as a Carter appointee to the President’s Commission on Population and the American Future, said “The poor cry out for justice and we respond with legalized abortion.”
Additional comments from Rachel MacNair:
An older book on the Buck v. Bell case is Three Generations, No Imbeciles, by Paul A. Lombard, published in 2002. It also tells the tale well, emphasizing that the “three generations of imbeciles is enough” remark was not merely cruel, but in this case, inaccurate. This book in some spots relates the case to Roe v. Wade in what we would see as the wrong direction – Buck as an attack on reproductive rights and Roe as a defense of them. But it’s a good read for more thorough knowledge of the case, and also has some of the complete documents.
Carrie Buck was involuntarily institutionalized by her foster parents in order to cover up the fact that her pregnancy was caused by their nephew raping her. But the fact that she had had a baby made her a prime target for men who wanted a test case for their eugenic ideals. Adding to the tragedy, she was kept away from baby Vivian, whom she loved dearly, and who died of measles at the age of 8. Vivian was the only child Carrie was ever allowed to have.
Buck v. Bell has never been overturned. But Cohen’s book (and Lombard’s as well) are clear denunciations of it. And all of the reviews I’ve seen are sympathetic with the books’ point of view: that this is an exceedingly shameful chapter of history.
I hope that one day, Roe v. Wade will be put in the same category. So it’s a good idea to study the past to see what might work well for the future.