Wednesday, July 6, 2016

"Idiots, Morons, Imbeciles"

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

Don Carpenter, Hard Rain Falling (a novel)

That's Carrie on the left, with her mother, Vivian, both institutionalized at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feeble-Minded. Carrie, as the world knows, was sterilized via salpingectomy by Dr. John Bell. Here is Adam's Cohen's account of the crime against Carrie Buck:

"The first legal sterilization in Virginia began promptly on that Wednesday morning [October 19, 1927]. Carrie, who was now twenty-one years old, was taken to the infirmary in the colony's Halsey-Jennings Building at 9:30 a.m. The surgeon who would be performing the operation was no stranger to the patient: it was Dr. John Bell, who had conducted Carrie's physical examination on her arrival at the colony, and had given his name to the Supreme Court case. Carrie was anesthetized, and the operation began. Dr. Bell, working with another surgeon, removed an inch from each of Carrie's fallopian tubes. Her tubes were then ligated, or brought together, and the ends cauterized using carbolic acid followed by alcohol." (p. 283)

At the Nuremberg trial of the Nazi war criminal Otto Hoffmann, head of the SS Race and Settlement Office, the defense was based in part on Hoffmann's citation of the notorious opinion of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in Buck versus Bell ("Three generations of imbeciles are enough"). The Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt der SS was responsible for "safeguarding the Racial Purity of the Reich." Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., whose mustachioed visage appeared on the cover of Time Magazine on the occasion of his 85th birthday, was considered "the greatest jurist in American history" by none other than Walter Lippmann. He was also, as Cohen's painstakingly researched book shows, a racist and eugenicist, a not unusual combination of views among America's educated classes during the Progressive period. Progress meant purity and the dissemination of American bourgeois values by every means possible, through settlement houses, education, war, and eugenics. The irony of Cohen's title--one can't miss it--is that the "imbeciles" weren't Carrie and Vivian Buck--Carrie was a normal girl who had been raped while working as a virtual slave in the household of the family that had taken her from her birth mother--but Drs. Holmes, Buck, Albert Priddy, and the rest of the cast of eugenicists whose delusions of racial purity based on pseudo-science and social prejudice antedated and inspired the Nazi campaign to rid the world of "undesirables." Hitler, praised by the American eugenicist Clarence Campbell in 1935 ("that great leader"), was moved by America's example in pursuing his own mad dreams of Aryan race hygiene. Even the horrors of the Holocaust didn't deter American eugenicists: as late as 1958 Virginia hospitals were sterilizing inmates against their will--"deviates, criminals, idiots, morons, and imbeciles."


What explains this obsession with racial purity? Carrie Buck did well in school, but she wasn't allowed to continue beyond sixth-grade. Her family was poor and powerless; as a result she was "adopted" by the Dobbs family when she was a toddler. "Less a daughter and more a housemaid," Carrie was raped by a cousin of John Dobbs when she was seventeen. Pregnant, unmarried, and therefore immoral, Dobbs had her committed to the Virginia Colony. The moral of this tale isn't difficult to discover: at a time when American society was changing dramatically under the twin pressures of industrial capitalism and immigration, traditional "white" and Protestant Americans discovered in "scientific racism" a defense of their values,  of Anglo-Saxonism, race hygiene, and Christian sexual mores.  Carrie wasn't sterilized for being feeble-minded--she was an average, but poor and friendless young woman--but for representing the caste of down-and-outs whose presence in the landscape of early twentieth-century America was troubling to those who make the rules--to academics, scientists, judges, ministers, and politicians (the only institutional opponent of forced sterilization was the Catholic Church, but not for the right reasons). The Supreme Court's decision in Buck versus Bell has never been overturned, although Virginia and a handful of other states have issued apologies for the practice of forced sterilization.*


David Goodis
We all know that Portland (above) is the coolest place in America, but in Don Carpenter's noir novel of 1964 Portland is a squalid town, full of grifters, hustlers, pool-sharks, gamblers, hookers, and thugs. Carpenter's novel, Hard Rain Falling is the bleak story of Jack Levitt, a brutish but introspective loser whose existence in the prosperous booster culture of post-War America was an affront to the dominant ethos, much as some white Americans today find the "browning" of American society deeply disturbing ("Make America White Again" is a slogan that showed up at the Trump rally here in majority-Hispanic Albuquerque). Levitt is the sort of kid who would have been sterilized had he born a decade earlier, the kind of person spawned by the thousands in a society of winners and losers, a nobody whose life comes to a inevitable nothing. This is a novel that is especially valuable for its sociological and historical insight into the lives of the poor and the incarcerated. Carpenter, who lived most of his life in Mill Valley, California, is among that group of largely unknown writers who drifted back and forth between Hollywood script work and writing serious books.  Thanks to  biographers and scholars, we know of Faulkner's catastrophic stint in Hollywood, but what of Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis, and Charles Williams--all writers of popular and, in some instances, excellent noir fiction who supplemented their income writing for (mostly B) films? All are writers worth reclaiming and reading.**

The power of these writers lies in their having glimpsed--reveled in--the darker side of American life. Their hard-boiled realism challenged the facade of mainstream culture, the happy endings, the preoccupation with the rich and famous, the moral posturing that dominates much of American popular fiction. Carpenter spares the reader no horror in peeling away the psychological torments endured by Jack Levitt as orphan, reform school kid, inmate at San Quentin, and parolee. Carpenter's description of Levitt's long sojourn in solitary confinement in reform school--three months spent naked, in utter darkness in a tiny concrete cell, subsisting on a single meal each day (food laced with soap designed to induce diarrhea) is a tour de force of naturalistic style. Carpenter's sharp prose, his ability to show Levitt transformed by his ordeal, reminded me of passages in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Dostoevsky's House of the Dead, the touchstone for the novel dissecting the psychological effects of imprisonment. As more Americans find themselves slipping from respectability into debt, marginality, and, for 2.2 million of our fellow citizens, prison, the insights of writers like Carpenter, a liminal figure himself, assume greater weight.

But Carpenter doesn't believe in the triumph of the human spirit, and Levitt isn't transformed into a saint by his ordeal.  He's a thoughtful and complex figure, but loutish--the offspring of a society that puts the highest premium on wealth and breeding while denying to most individuals the means of attaining either one. Levitt exists in a moral limbo: a world that has its own rules and rituals, but a world from which there is no escape, where following the rules keeps one alive but not much more. The rule of American naturalistic fiction is that one's genetic predispositions and socio-economic circumstances cannot be overcome through the exercise of will or through love, money, God, or anything else. As was the case with poor Carrie Buck, Jack Levitt is condemned by a society that has no use for his kind--no romantic outlaw, Levitt is among the many (many!) victims of the great American hustle.

Curt Gentry, Don Carpenter, Richard Brautigan, and Enrico at Enrico's Bar

Hard Rain Falling, with an introduction by my favorite crime novelist, George Pelecanos, is in the New York Review Classics Series.

Imbeciles, by Adam Cohen, is published by Penguin.

*See Stephan Jay Gould's classic The Mismeasure of Man for details of the means by which "intelligence," as a fixed and heritable quality of a person, was determined.
**I'm making my way through the novels of Goodis in the Library of America series right now--they're excellent.

George Ovitt (7/6/16)

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