The day was June 4, 1924. A dark-haired girl, just 17 years old, was admitted to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. She became colony inmate 1692. The superintendent of the colony examined her. He declared her healthy, free of syphilis, able to read, write, and keep herself tidy. And then he classified her as "feeble-minded of the lowest grade, moron class."
With that designation, this young woman, who'd already lost more than many people could bear in a lifetime, was set on a path she didn't choose. And what happened to her laid the foundation for one of the most tragic social experiments in American history.
This is the story of Carrie Buck, and three generations of her very small family: Emma, Carrie and Vivian. A grandmother, a mother and a child who, by virtue of their poverty and some very bad luck, became the test case for forced sterilizations in the United States.
"Three generations of imbeciles are enough," wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in his official opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court case, known as Buck v. Bell. The 1927 case reaffirmed the right of individual states to forcibly sterilize anyone "afflicted with an hereditary form of insanity or imbecility." It was considered an achievement for the growing eugenics movement, the "science" of improving humanity through better breeding. Among other things, eugenics called for restricting the reproduction of those deemed unfit. In practice, forced sterilization efforts largely targeted the least-powerful people: minority women, immigrants, the physically and mentally ill, and the poor.
Carrie was just 21 years old when she received the state-ordered operation, which cut her fallopian tubes and prevented her from having another child after Vivian.
"Were you very sad?" NPR reporter Wendy Blair asked Carrie in 1980.
"Yeah, I was sad," she said. "Cause see, I wanted to have children."
You can find more information on the Buck v. Bell case at the website of our guest Paul Lombardo, author of Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court and Buck v. Bell. It includes the young Vivian Buck's gradebook, showing mostly A's and B's, and a 1910 document on "fit and unfit matings" by eugenicist Charles Davenport.
This week's episode was produced by Jennifer Schmidt and Thomas Lu, and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, and Laura Kwerel. Special thanks to Paul Lombardo for research assistance.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:
This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam.
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VEDANTAM: On June 4, 1924, a girl was admitted to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. She was white, dark-haired and 17 years old. She became colony inmate 1692. The medical superintendent of the colony examined her. He declared her healthy, free of syphilis, able to read, write and keep herself tidy. And then he classified her as feebleminded of the lowest grade, moron class. With that designation, this young woman, who'd already lost more than many people could bear in a lifetime, was set on a path she didn't choose. What happened next laid the foundation for one of the most tragic social experiments in American history - the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of people. This story has resonance even today. It's about how science and the law - tools that we have created to help improve our lives - can easily become instruments of prejudice and oppression. It's a story of hubris and about good intentions gone awry. Eugenics and the science of better breeding - this week on HIDDEN BRAIN.
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WENDY BLAIR, BYLINE: First of all, please tell me your name.
CARRIE BUCK: Carrie Elizabeth Detamore.
VEDANTAM: In 1980, an NPR reporter, Wendy Blair, took a trip to a one-room shack outside Charlottesville, Va. She'd come to interview a 78-year-old woman. Her married name was Detamore, but her given name was Carrie Buck.
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BUCK: You see, I was adopted when I was a little girl. I was adopted by the Dobbses here in Charlottesville.
VEDANTAM: This interview was one of the few that Carrie Buck ever gave. By this point, she had little to say. It was left to others to reconstruct her story. One of those who took up the task was historian and lawyer Paul Lombardo. He's the author of the book "Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, The Supreme Court, And Buck V. Bell." Paul says the story of Carrie Buck really begins in the 19th century. Francis Galton was a cousin of Charles Darwin, who came up with the theory of evolution. Francis Galton was interested in evolution, but he was more interested in what he saw as the applications of this science.
PAUL LOMBARDO: His passion, really, his driving force was to measure things and try to calculate how the future was going to play out in human behavior. I think the thing we know him for the most now are his coinage of the term eugenics but also his real foundation of what we think of as modern statistical theory.
VEDANTAM: When Galton introduced the idea of eugenics, what was his thinking? What was he aiming to do?
LOMBARDO: Well, as I said, he was looking a great deal at patterns of behavior and trying to figure out why it was that genius, the ability to think productively and other abilities - how these clustered in families. And so we see him very early in his career suggesting that maybe there's a way of understanding this clustering of ability - and, for that matter, disability - in certain families. There must be something that is biological about it, something that's inherent to the organism. And he proposes that this thing is really something you can think of as eugenics, which is a way of organizing people that will encourage the people who are prosperous and who are healthy and who are productive to marry other people of similar talents and then pass on their abilities to children and at the same time discourage people who are not successful and not productive, perhaps are poor, perhaps unwell. And over time, the negative ones will fall out of the population.
VEDANTAM: To be fair, lots of people pair up with others who are similar in education and social class. But Francis Galton, writing in the early 20th century, wanted the state to get involved.
KEVIN BEESLEY, BYLINE: (As Francis Galton, reading) I cannot doubt that our democracy will ultimately refuse consent to that liberty of propagating children which is now allowed to the undesirable classes. But the populace has yet to be taught the true state of things. A democracy cannot endure unless it be composed of able citizens. Therefore, it must, in self-defense, withstand the free introduction of degenerate stock.
VEDANTAM: These ideas coincided with a new movement in the United States. The progressive movement was an effort by social reformers to address the problems caused by industrialization. Progressives believed that education, science and social institutions could solve society's greatest problems. They launched anti-corruption efforts, a drive for women's suffrage. They also started the colony movement - institutions to care for and to detain people whom they viewed as disabled or deranged.
LOMBARDO: The primary motive was compassion. People who ran institutions realized that with a growing population, they had more and more people who were in need of care. So the colony movement begins as a movement out into the country and then later starts to take on the new ideas of eugenics, those ideas saying that people who are unfit, people who have mental or physical disabilities, people who are - to use the language of the time - feebleminded or morons or imbeciles, should be separated and segregated from the general population not only because they can't survive in the city, but also because that will keep them from reproducing.
VEDANTAM: In 1911, Virginia opened its first colony just outside the small city of Lynchburg. Initially, the colony only took in people with epilepsy, but soon, new buildings went up to house people with mental, physical, even moral defects.
LOMBARDO: Women were often taken to colonies in the early years of the colony movement because they appeared to be sexually promiscuous or there were concerns that they were so unable to control themselves and so weak of mind and disposition that they needed to be protected and that the rest of the population needed to be protected from them.
VEDANTAM: I reached out to Virginia historian Lynn Rainville. She says it's impossible to disentangle the eugenics movement from the long history of men trying to regulate the behavior and bodies of women.
LYNN RAINVILLE: This was an attack against women. It's men making a plan of attack to deal with an issue that they have defined and targeting women, just the way birth control discussion is today. It's always assumed that it's the woman's responsibility, and that if something goes wrong, it's the woman's fault, and that if we have to control something, we've got to control women.
VEDANTAM: When the Virginia colony first opened, demand for admission was high. At the time, people suffering from mental and physical disabilities were often shunted off to the poorhouse or to a local jail. The colony seemed like a far more humane option. Paul Lombardo says the superintendent of the colony, Dr. Albert Priddy, took his mission seriously.
LOMBARDO: Dr. Priddy believed that it was his prerogative as a physician - and especially a physician paid by the state - to take care of the social problems that were generated by the individuals who came to the Virginia colony. And Dr. Priddy thought the best way to do that was, first of all, by segregating them away from society and away from each other. They couldn't have children if they couldn't have sex. But secondly and more radically, he was one of the early people to propose surgical sterilization.
VEDANTAM: The idea of forced sterilizations sounds shocking today. It was also shocking to many people in the early 20th century. Dissenters fought eugenics on religious and legal grounds. But it also appealed to many ordinary citizens.
LOMBARDO: The majority of people in the country, at least up until 1920, had grown up on farms, and everybody thought they understood how generation worked. You know, the birds, and the bees, and the bulls, and the cows and all the animals on the farm all reproduced, as did all the crops. And people who lived on farms understood that you culled the herd of the weaker members. You got rid of the plant that was rotting in the field. You weeded your garden so as to get rid of the kinds of organisms that would ruin the whole plot.
VEDANTAM: Gradually, states began enacting eugenics laws. In 1907, Indiana passed the country's first compulsory sterilization law. It applied to institutionalized criminals, rapists, idiots and imbeciles. Thirty-one states followed with their own laws. Diseases that might qualify a person for sterilization included syphilis, alcoholism, moral or sexual perversion and feeblemindedness. Virginia was not one of the early states to pass a eugenics law. Nonetheless, around 1915, Dr. Albert Priddy began to sterilize some of his patients. He felt he had the authority based on a number of Virginia laws.
LOMBARDO: ...Which had fairly vague language in them giving the directive to physicians who worked in state institutions the power to do whatever was necessary for the medical health of a patient. He sterilized quite a number of them, over a dozen. And then he was suddenly met with a lawsuit by a family of a man from the eastern part of Virginia whose wife and two daughters had been taken to the colony while he was out of town.
VEDANTAM: The man bringing the lawsuit was George Mallory.
LOMBARDO: George was working on a sawmill in a little town outside of Richmond and was gone from home for several weeks at a time. He had a fairly large family with several daughters and a wife. And when he came back from work one weekend, he saw that most of his family was gone. Some of his children had been sent to foster care, and his wife and two of his daughters had been taken to the Virginia colony. Turns out that the social workers and the police had been watching their home, and they made the allegation that the Mallory family was running a house of ill repute or a brothel. And that's why they broke the family up while George was gone. George went and found a local lawyer, told him his story, and that lawyer brought a case against Dr. Priddy.
VEDANTAM: Albert Priddy was furious. Here he was, a man of science and reason, being challenged by someone who was not his social or intellectual equal.
LOMBARDO: He never quite got over the fact that he'd been dragged into the court by this poor man when he thought he was doing the best thing, both for the state and for those women whom he sterilized.
VEDANTAM: A jury refused to award damages to George Mallory, but the trial judge sternly warned the doctor to stop what he was doing. Current Virginia law, the judge said, was not in the superintendent's favor. Eugenics was still illegal in Virginia. Albert Priddy's response - he decided to change that. He began to campaign for a Virginia law that would explicitly allow for the sterilization of defective people. Among other things, he argued such a law could save taxpayer money. Instead of confining people to the colony, sterilized people could be sent back to communities. In 1924, his efforts paid off. Virginia passed a broad sterilization law. It gave eugenicists the green light.
But Albert Priddy and others feared that even this wasn't enough. What if someone challenged the law, tried to overturn it? They wanted something watertight. They wanted not just a law, but a law that was sure to survive legal challenge. So they came up with an unusual strategy. They decided to find a test case that they were absolutely sure to win - a case where, in effect, they would get to play both prosecution and defense. How to find such a case? Dr. Albert Priddy had just the person in mind. Her name was Carrie Buck. Stay with us.
Carrie Buck must have realized from the time she was just a child that she didn't have much power or say about what happened to her. She was born in 1906 to Emma Buck, a woman who fell on hard times.
LOMBARDO: Someone who from time to time was homeless, someone who was suspected of being a drug abuser.
VEDANTAM: When Carrie was about 4, local authorities removed her from Emma's care and placed her in a foster home.
LOMBARDO: The family that became her foster parents were the Dobbs. And the Dobbs were also a very modest crew. They took her in, partially because she could provide services as a household worker and also because they got a bit of a supplement from the state for taking care of her.
VEDANTAM: Carrie lived with John and Alice Dobbs for more than a decade. She attended school, and school records show she was good at her lessons.
LOMBARDO: But she left school after the sixth grade, and she spent her time as a domestic servant there in the Dobbs family.
VEDANTAM: At 16, Carrie became pregnant. Her account of what happened never wavered. She says Alice Dobbs had left town to care for a sick relative.
LOMBARDO: And at that point, a young man named Clarence Garland appeared.
VEDANTAM: He was a nephew of Alice Dobbs.
LOMBARDO: Carrie said, Clarence took advantage of me. He promised me he would marry me. He forced himself on me, and then he left.
VEDANTAM: It was a huge scandal. Alice Dobbs knew that having an unmarried pregnant girl in the house looked very bad. It would jeopardize the family's chances of getting other foster placements. So she set about finding a way to have Carrie removed.
LOMBARDO: And she asked the local social worker and the nurse and some doctors if they could have her committed to the Virginia colony for the epileptic and the feebleminded because that's often where girls like Carrie who were in trouble went. The moral overlay in the late 19th and early 20th century having to do with sex is just impossible to escape. The people who set up the colonies who thought that they could isolate people who were sexually promiscuous or, for that matter, who were somehow sexually unorthodox in other ways - they really focused on the necessity of getting those people out of society.
VEDANTAM: Carrie was allowed to remain in Charlottesville until she gave birth. Alice and John Dobbs agreed to take in the baby, a little girl named Vivian. Carrie was taken to the colony. Now, this is the point in the story where the plot takes a very strange turn. You see, Carrie's mother was already living at the same colony. Emma had been brought there a few years earlier. The stage was set for the tragedy that was about to unfold.
LOMBARDO: Well, when Carrie arrived at the colony, Dr. Priddy was quite excited because he had the records of Carrie's analysis and an examination by a Red Cross nurse who was living in Charlottesville. And he knew the records of Carrie's mother, Emma. And so all of the cluster of problems that Emma exhibited fit into Dr. Priddy's idea of the kinds of traits - the kind of negative traits that were hereditary. A woman who was sexually promiscuous, who had problems with her own inhibitions, who couldn't control her intake of things like alcohol and drugs and who didn't take care of her children - he thought that these were characteristics that were likely to be passed down. So when Carrie appeared as a new resident of the colony and he connected the two people, it seemed to him that there might be good evidence here of a hereditary connection.
VEDANTAM: Albert Priddy knew that two generations with genetic flaws presented a strong case for sterilization. But three generations - that would seal the deal. The third generation was Carrie's daughter, Vivian, whom he automatically assumed was feebleminded. The eugenicists had their case. They ignored facts that didn't fit, like Carrie's normal school record. Carrie was given a rudimentary IQ test, which came back suspiciously low.
LOMBARDO: The mental age they assigned to her - the mental - the number, I should say, the IQ number they assigned to her was something in the 50s. If 70 is the cutoff for someone we would call developmentally disabled or they might call a moron, she was 20 points below that.
VEDANTAM: For Albert Priddy, the path was obvious. The first step under the new Virginia law was to petition the colony board for authorization to sterilize Carrie. He argued that she was incurable, had a mental age of a 9-year-old and had given birth to a child born out of wedlock who was, quote, "mentally defective." The board agreed that sterilizing Carrie was the right course. The next step to building a watertight case for sterilization was to have the board's decision challenged in the courts. The idea was to mount a legal challenge against eugenics where the eugenicists could play both attack and defense. They would defeat the challenge and thus establish a legal precedent. So Albert Priddy recruited a friendly lawyer, a personal confidante who would sue him on Carrie's behalf. The lawyer was himself a proponent of eugenics. He filed the appeal in Carrie's name but never really represented her. She was just a prop.
LOMBARDO: We really have no contemporaneous record of Carrie's thoughts. We have a picture of her taken the day before her trial, which tells us a little bit. It tells us that she was a 17-year-old girl who seemed to be fairly uncomfortable and clearly in distress. She'd had a baby taken from her only a few months earlier. She was taken out of her home and sent away to a place she'd never been. She was surrounded by doctors and lawyers and other people who were prodding her and questioning her. So one would expect that a small-town Virginia girl without a whole lot of education, with no one to protect her would probably be afraid and distressed. And that's what she looks like in that picture.
VEDANTAM: During the first trial, at the Amherst County Courthouse, the Buck family was excoriated. Emma Buck was accused of living in the worst neighborhoods and functioning like a 12-year-old. A welfare worker who'd never met Carrie testified that she didn't seem to be a bright girl. Another social worker offered her assessment of Carrie's 7-month-old daughter, Vivian. She said, there's a look about it that's not quite normal, but just what it is, I can't tell. Finally, Albert Priddy testified that sterilizing women like Carrie might, quote, "tame them down." The trial took less than five hours. The county court upheld the sterilization order. But it wasn't enough for the eugenicists. Carrie Buck's lawyer appealed the case. While the case was still in the lower courts, Albert Priddy died of Hodgkin's disease. A new doctor, John Bell, took over as superintendent of the colony. His name replaced his predecessor in the lawsuit. At every step, courts upheld the decision to sterilize Carrie. Finally, in 1926, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted the case for review.
LOMBARDO: This was a very important step because if the Supreme Court didn't endorse sterilization, then it was still possible for someone to challenge the lower court law. And so they ended up in 1926 filing papers in the United States Supreme Court on behalf of Carrie, challenging the case and allowing the Supreme Court to take a look at all the evidence that had been gathered at the steps below.
VEDANTAM: On May 2, 1927, in an 8-1 decision, the court ruled the Carrie Buck could be sterilized. The opinion was written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
LOMBARDO: He described the Buck family, this family with cascading problems generation to generation, a series of people who've had illegitimate children, a series of people who seemed to be mentally compromised and morally degraded - mother, child and then grandchild all somehow touched with mental defect. And Holmes wraps this all up into one package and says, it's better for all the world if, instead of waiting for degenerate offspring to die from starvation or for criminals to be executed for their crimes, that we stop this line before it goes on - better that those people not be born at all. And he describes the Buck family in his opinion and draws a line under it and says, here we have three people, three generations, a whole household full of defect. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
VEDANTAM: Three generations of imbeciles are enough. This phrase was to become the rallying cry of the eugenics movement. On October 19, 1927, Carrie Buck was taken from her room at the Virginia colony and brought to the infirmary. Dr. John Bell was waiting for her. Carrie received anesthesia and drugs to keep her from vomiting. When reporter Wendy Blair interviewed Carrie in 1980, she asked her about that day and whether her doctor had told her what was happening.
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BUCK: Well, he only said that if I wanted to live, said that I would have to go through the operation. But I didn't want the operation. I kicked against it.
VEDANTAM: But it was useless. Everyone - the state, the country, even the Supreme Court - said Carrie's opinion about what happened to her own body mattered less than the opinions of doctors, politicians and judges.
LOMBARDO: Dr. Bell, having prepared Carrie for surgery, makes an incision in her abdomen which exposes her fallopian tubes. He then cuts the tubes, ties them together and sews her up. It takes several days for her to recover because this is, after all, major surgery. When she's recovered, she realizes that she's had the surgical operation that would make her sterile.
VEDANTAM: Carrie was 21 years old.
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BLAIR: Do you remember how you felt?
BUCK: I didn't feel too good over it.
BLAIR: Were you very sad?
BUCK: Yeah. I was sad. 'Cause see, I wanted to have children.
VEDANTAM: Carrie was released from the Virginia colony soon after her sterilization. She married twice. Her first marriage lasted 25 years until her husband died. She was still married to her second husband and living in a nursing facility when Paul Lombardo finally spoke with her in December 1982.
LOMBARDO: She was quite near death. It wasn't clear that she was going to die, but she did, about three weeks later. She was very weak, and she wasn't very talkative. So we really didn't talk about the details of her surgery. We did talk about her recollection of the time. And she made it obvious to me that she felt that she had been wronged because the young man who had forced himself upon her, as she said, disappeared. She was left alone. No one protected her, and no one defended her.
VEDANTAM: No one protected Carrie Buck's younger sister, either. Her name was Doris. She'd also been brought to the colony on grounds that, quote, "sooner or later, she will become the mother of illegitimate children." She was 12. She was registered as inmate 1968. Doris was sterilized about a year and a half later. Medical staff only told the child that she needed to have her appendix removed. NPR's Wendy Blair tracked down Doris and her husband, Matthew Figgins, for her report. Doris said that for decades she hadn't understood what had been done to her.
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DORIS HIGGINS: I just loved children, and I wanted one.
MATTHEW HIGGINS: We wanted children so bad.
BLAIR: Doris said Matthew Figgins, who tried all their married life to have children, are both in their 60s now living in the country in western Virginia. They visited many doctors before one told them, not very clearly, that Doris probably couldn't have a child.
M. HIGGINS: Dr. Hansbury (ph) had found scar tissue that she wouldn't be able to have a child. He didn't say that she had been sterile, or anything.
BLAIR: And today the Figgins still feel their disappointment.
D. HIGGINS: I just felt empty. That's all.
VEDANTAM: It wasn't until 1979 that Doris learned that she had been sterilized. The person who told her the news was the director of the colony at the time. His name was K. Ray Nelson.
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K. RAY NELSON: I felt that she had a right to know. And, basically, that was my motive. She had a right to know.
BLAIR: What is your understanding now about why they did that to you back then in 1928?
BUCK: I couldn't tell you. I don't know why they were experimenting on us, or what. Guinea pigs.
VEDANTAM: And what of Vivian, Carrie's daughter? She'd been adopted by John and Alice Dobbs. According to the Supreme Court, she was the third generation of imbeciles in the Buck family.
LOMBARDO: Vivian went to school. She went to the first grade and did passably well. She went to the second grade. That summer, she got the measles, apparently developed some kind of secondary infection, and died when she was only 8 years old. So her story was pretty much buried for the better part of 50 years, until the larger story of Buck v. Bell became public.
VEDANTAM: Before she died, Vivian, the child who was deemed to be not quite normal, had been on the honor roll. After the Supreme Court decision, the nation embraced forced sterilizations for decades. The last of the country's eugenics laws were repealed only in the 1970s. By then some 65,000 Americans had been sterilized. The targets were almost always the least powerful - Native American and African-American women, immigrants, the physically and mentally ill, and, of course, the poor. As Paul puts it, if you want to know who was going to get sterilized during the reign of the eugenicists, you just had to look at the social ladder and see who was at the bottom. When we come back, we consider the painful legacy of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded and how far we've really come.
MOLLY MCCULLY BROWN: People would come up to my parents and they would say, what happened to her? They would say, can she talk? They would say, what's wrong with her?
VEDANTAM: Stay with us.
The Virginia State Colony was built on a vast tract of farmland overlooking the James River. It's a beautiful spot in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It's the kind of country that imprints itself on a person, becomes part of who you are. Molly McCully Brown grew up just 15 miles from the Virginia colony.
BROWN: I had a lovely childhood. I really - I have wonderful family, wonderful parents. And I really loved that place, and I really like still. And I think I still benefit from being someone who really feels like they're from some place, who feels really profoundly attached to a part of the world. I can tell - if I'm driving, I can always tell the minute I hit that part of Virginia. Sort of, no matter if I can see a sign or not, the landscape starts to look familiar, and my heartbeat settles down and I feel like this is what the world is supposed to look like. And that's a really nice artifact, I think, of having been raised someplace, of knowing where I'm from.
VEDANTAM: The Virginia colony was part of the landscape of her childhood. Molly says that when she and her mother would drive past it on their way to shop at Lynchburg, she would press her nose to the window and stare at the red brick buildings. They looked haunted.
BROWN: I knew that it had this complicated history tangled up with Appalachia and the Great Depression and people with disabilities. And I knew that it was still a residential facility for adults with really severe disabilities, but I didn't know much else beyond that.
VEDANTAM: In time, she learned about the institution's troubled history. For Molly, the story of Carrie and Doris Buck came with a special kind of pain. When she looked at her own body, when she thought of the way strangers looked at her, she knew deep down the colony was meant to house people just like her. Molly has cerebral palsy.
BROWN: I have impaired balance, and I walk with a kind of crouched gait.
VEDANTAM: She often uses a wheelchair. Molly has lived all her life knowing what it's like to be viewed, as Albert Priddy might say, as unfit.
BROWN: People would come up to my parents and they would say, what happened to her? They would say, can she talk? They would say, what's wrong with her? And I think mostly - mostly those questions didn't come out of any kind of malice. They came out of discomfort and curiosity and a lack of understanding. But I understood, because of things like that, from a very early age I understood my body as something strange and othered and defective, and that people were encountering it in that way and then assuming that I was othered and defective and strange.
VEDANTAM: Defective and strange, words so similar to those once used to describe the residents of the colony. Molly felt the connection, and one summer, when she was home on college break, she decided to visit the colony grounds.
BROWN: When I was there, I was just really struck by the place. I drove to the cemetery, you know, which had gravestones from the very early 1900s up to, you know, just a few years prior to when I was there. And I drove through the facility itself, which because it was built on an enormous amount of land, still had standing on it all of the buildings that were the original colony buildings that had just been sort of abandoned and moved out of. And then beside them, there were these newer, functional buildings that fit the current facility. And that combination of this place which was both a functioning residential facility and also a kind of ghost town of everything that it had been was really evocative for me. And there's a little plaque kind of at the entrance of the colony that talks a little bit about its history. And, again, standing in a cemetery, I just remember thinking if I'd been born in this same part of the world even six years earlier, like, I might well have been a prime candidate to be a colony patient. And that is a kind of amazing - that was an amazing realization for me.
VEDANTAM: Slowly, the idea for a book emerged, a book of poems. She called it "The Virginia Colony For Epileptics And Feebleminded." Here's Molly reading the first poem in the collection inspired by those drives she took as a child.
BROWN: (Reading) Whatever it is, home or hospital, graveyard or asylum, government facility or a great tract of land slowly seeding itself back to dust, its church is a low-slung brick box with a single window, a white piece of plywood, labeled, chapel, and a locked door. Whatever it is, my mother and I ride along its red roads in February with the windows down. This place looks lived in. That one has stiff, gray curtains in the window, a roof caving in. We see a small group moving in the channel between one building and the next, bowing in an absent wind. He's in a wheelchair. She is stumbling, pushing a pram from decades ago, coal-black and wrong. There is no way it holds a baby. Behind them, a few more shuffling bodies in coats. I am my own kind of damaged there, looking out the right-hand window - spastic, palsied and off-balance. I'm taking crooked notes about this place. It is the land where he is buried, the place she spent her whole life, the room where they made it impossible for her to have children. It is the colony where he did not learn to read but did paint every single slat of fence you see that shade of yellow, the place she didn't want to leave when she finally could because she'd lived there 50 years and couldn't drive a car or remember the outside or trust anyone to touch her gently. And by some accident of luck or grace, some window less than half a century wide, it is my backyard, but not what happened to my body.
VEDANTAM: Most of the poems in Molly's collection are written from the point of view of patients, but a few are written in the voices of colony staff. In a section of the book called "The Infirmary," Molly writes from the perspective of a colony doctor.
BROWN: "A Dictionary Of Hereditary Defects" - (reading) it is shocking, really, how many ways a being can go wrong before they're even born into the world. Cretinism - you are caught between human and animal, heavy and flat-faced. You have hoofs for hands, a cow's wide tongue. Epilepsy - you are destroying yourself from the inside out. Feeblemindedness - I could shout into the cavern of your mouth and hear my own words echo back off the high walls of your head, over all the blank space of your brain. This is the most useful noise that you will ever make. Idiocy - you cannot even reproduce my echo. You are living, yet already, your body has started to decay. It knows you are not for this world. You go limp or spastic, turn to stone or slime. At home, I drown the smallest kitten in the litter, hold its head under the water for a minute. I feel its heart stop with my thumb. It's done. You are not for this world. It would be cruel to let you replicate yourself and make another creature fated to crawl around feeble and stunted, yowling for absent milk.
VEDANTAM: I asked Molly why she wanted to feature the voices of colony staff.
BROWN: It is easy from the present moment always to look back at what feel like the kind of atrocities or injustices of our past and think, oh, OK, the people who perpetrated that were monstrous. They were nothing like me. They were evil. They were nothing like my family. They belonged to a world that is entirely unlike the world around us - and to think, oh, we're at a comfortable, far-removed distance from that time or from doing something like that.
And I think one of the things I wanted to do by having poems in the voices of colony staff, of the doctors, and religious leaders, and nurses and attendants who worked in this place was to say, no, these people were, in fact, quite human, were motivated by fear, were motivated by misunderstanding, were motivated by anxiety, by visceral disgust, by all kinds of things that we still feel and that, in fact, this wasn't a sort of atrocity undertaken by monsters. It was a campaign undertaken by deeply flawed human beings.
VEDANTAM: While campaigns of mass sterilization are in our past, the ideas that inspired those campaigns live on. Dozens of women were sterilized without their consent in the California prison system between 2005 and 2011. In 2017, a judge in Tennessee offered reduced jail time to inmates who agreed to be sterilized in order to, quote, "break a vicious cycle of repeat drug offenders with children." The eugenicists were utopians convinced that they were doing hard but necessary things. As much as we might like to relegate their actions to the history books, it's important to pay attention, to make sure we are not carrying their ideas with us in a new edition, freshly-bound, shining with the possibility of a brighter future.
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VEDANTAM: Today's show was produced by Jenny Schmidt and Thomas Lu with fact-checking by Laura Kwerel. It was edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Rhaina Cohen and Parth Shah. Kevin Beesley did voice-overs of Francis Galton. Our unsung hero this week is Wendy Blair, whose reporting 38 years ago ensured that Carrie Buck's voice was not erased from her own story. Thank you, Wendy.
For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can find us on Facebook and Twitter, and listen for my stories on your local public radio station. You can also listen for our radio show, which is carried on many stations around the country. If you liked this episode, please write a review on iTunes or whichever platform you listen to podcasts on. It really helps other people find our show. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.