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

Cohen, Adam (Adam Seth) Book - 2016 344 Co 1 On Shelf No requests on this item Community Rating: 3.7 out of 5

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Carrie Buck -- Albert Priddy -- Harry Langhlin -- Aubrey Strode -- Oliver Wendell Holmes -- Carrie Buck.
ln 1927, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling so disturbing, ignorant, and cruel that it stands as one of the great injustices in American history. Here, Adam Cohen exposes the court's decision to allow the sterilization of a young woman it wrongly thought to be "feebleminded" and to champion the mass eugenic sterilization of undesirables for the greater good of the country. The 8-1 ruling was signed by some of the most revered figures in American law-- including Chief Justice William Howard Taft, and Louis Brandeis, a progressive icon. Oliver Wendell Holmes, considered by many the greatest Supreme Court justice in history, wrote the majority opinion, including the court's famous declaration "'Three generations of imbeciles are enough." Imbeciles is the shocking story of Buck v. Bell, a legal case that challenges our faith in American justice. This gripping courtroom drama pits a helpless young woman against powerful scientists, lawyers, and judges who believed that eugenic measures were necessary to save the nation from being "swamped with incompetence." At the center was Carrie Buck, born into a poor family in Charlottesville, Virginia, and taken in by a foster family, until she became pregnant out of wedlock. She was then declared "feebleminded" and shipped off to the Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded. Buck v. Bell unfolded against the backdrop of a nation in the thrall of eugenics, which many Americans thought would uplift the human race. Congress embraced this fervor, enacting the first laws designed to prevent immigration by Italians, Jews, and other groups thought to be genetically inferior. Cohen shows how Buck arrived at the Colony at just the wrong time, when influential scientists and politicians were looking for a "test case." A cabal of powerful men lined up against her, and no one stood up for her--not even her lawyer, who, it is now clear, was in collusion with those who wanted her sterilized. In the end, Buck's case was heard by the Supreme Court, the institution established to ensure that justice would prevail. The court could have seen through the false claim that Buck was a threat to the gene pool, or it could have found that forced sterilization was a violation of her rights. Instead, Holmes, a scion of several prominent Boston Brahmin families, raised to believe in the superiority of his own bloodlines, wrote a vicious, haunting decision upholding Buck's sterilization and imploring the nation to sterilize many more. Before the madness ended, some sixty to seventy thousand Americans were sterilized. Cohen overturns cherished myths and demolishes lauded figures in relentless pursuit of the truth. With intellectual force and passion, Imbeciles is an ardent indictment of our champions of justice and our optimistic faith in progress.--Adapted from dust jacket.


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Important history generally well told submitted by Susan4Pax -prev. sueij- on July 21, 2018, 4:10pm This is a deeply fascinating and important book about a little known chapter of American history. In the early 1900’s eugenics, or state-sanctioned sterilization based on who/what society deemed “undesireable,” was not only culturally popular but written into law and approved all the way through to the Supreme Court. The challenge of Buck vs. Bell allowed Virginia to sterilize state inmates of colonies for the “feebleminded and epileptic”… AND THAT RULING STILL STANDS.

_Imbeciles_ tells the story of the US at that time, eugenics, who the most important movers and shakers were, why Carrie Buck ended up in the crosshairs, and how justice was never served in her case. It addresses how scientific understanding first led to and then disavowed eugenics and where racial prejudice fit in (eugenics was primarily targeted toward White citizens… other tools were used toward “undesirables” of other races, which is why there were immigration quotas in place that kept Jewish people out of this country right as WWII reached its peak). I was fascinated (and disgusted) to read about how eugenics in the US inspired and supported Nazi Germany. As a social worker, the history of intelligence testing and the Vineland School was particularly intriguing, though I was appalled at the role social workers played in finding and pushing clients into the colonies and into sterilization.

The downfall of this book is that it needed closer editing. There is too much that is repetitive, and it needs to be pulled in so that the reader is respected. We should be told something once, well, and trusted to remember it. For example, we hear at least twice why the Virginia colony was located at a particular site, and many many many times that Carrie could not have a mental age of nine because she successfully completed 6th grade. The author needs just to tell the story.

But that aside, I thought that _Imbeciles_ did a good job of giving both broad social and intensely personal context about eugenics and the core individuals in the most important legal case on the issue in the United States. It also broadened that social context into the future, looking at how eugenics stretched forward into WWII era. Since the legal precedent is still on the books, it would be great to know how it still has an effect on law, but it is apparently meant to be a history book more than a current events reflection. A lost opportunity, but still very much a book worth reading.

Cover image for Imbeciles : : the Supreme Court, American eugenics, and the sterilization of Carrie Buck

New York, New York : Penguin Press, 2016.
Year Published: 2016
Description: 402 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm.
Language: English
Format: Book


Buck, Carrie, -- 1906-1983 -- Trials, litigation, etc.
Involuntary sterilization -- Law and legislation.
Eugenics -- Law and legislation.
Involuntary sterilization -- Law and legislation -- Virginia.