Hazel McHaffie

sterilization

Eugenics: fact and fiction

QuestioningYou’ve probably already heard of the American Eugenics Sterilization Program, in operation in the late 19th, early 20th century. If not … a quick résumé by way of context for today’s post.

The ‘program’ was designed to preserve and improve the strongest and ‘best’ within the society, and it did so by preventing the birth of babies to men and women with mental and social problems: the ‘mentally defective‘, ‘morons‘, the ‘feeble-minded‘, those with epilepsy, families on ‘welfare‘ – the very language makes us cringe today, doesn’t it?  But sterilizing these unfortunate citizens was considered to be in the ‘public good‘. It was later judged – rightly – as a terrible violation of human rights, but it’s only in the last few years that any sense of justice or compensation has been offered.

Most states stopped this practice after World War II, uncomfortable with the comparison with the Nazi eugenic experiments in Germany, about which much more is known, but North Carolina continued, and is said to have carried out as many as 7600 such operations between 1929 and 1975. North Carolina was also the only state to give social workers the power to petition for the operation for specific individuals; elsewhere it was limited to those already in institutions.

It’s against this shameful period of American history that Diane Chamberlain Necessary Liessets her novel, Necessary Lies. As a former social worker herself, she’s probably got a certain edge when it comes to writing on this subject; she beautifully captures the ambivalence some professionals felt in determining what was in the best interests of their clients at a time when few choices existed; punitive views relating to sexual behaviour were prevalent; little was known about genetic inheritance; racial intolerance was rife; and class distinctions were very much the norm.

Jane Forrester is a young idealistic woman, newly married to a doctor, Robert, who disapproves of wives working. Jane unilaterally decides to postpone having children herself in order to become a social worker and help vulnerable families. When she encounters the Harts – two teenage girls, an illegitimate son, and an ageing grandmother – living in abject poverty, she simply cannot stand by while their rights are abused by well-meaning professionals. Before long she’s in deep trouble with her husband, her colleagues, and the police.

Chamberlain herself acknowledges that this was a research-heavy novel, but it doesn’t come across that way. The simplicity of the narrators’ voices, the un-sensationalised story line, the authentic emotions, combine to make this tale both challenging and gripping, heart-stopping and powerful. I’m not sure I’d have had the courage to be a Jane Forrester, but I’d definitely have wanted her on my side, deceptions and head lice notwithstanding! How about you?

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