The Private Lives of Eugenicists

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3m 8sec

The Secret History of Forced
Sterilization and
America’s Quest for
Racial Purity.

By Harry Bruinius.
Knopf. 401 pp. $30

Is anything still a secret about America’s regrettable flirtation with eugenics in the early 20th century? In this new history, Harry Bruinius, a professor of journalism at Hunter College in New York, tackles the troubling story of the effort to sterilize Americans deemed to be of poor stock. He is far from the first to tell it: Many authors, most notably Daniel Kevles in his book In the Name of Eugenics (1985), have ably charted the lengths to which American eugenicists were able to go. Nor did the movement’s main proponents try to hide what they were doing. They lobbied state legislatures to get laws enacted that would allow for the medical sterilization of men and women who threatened to dilute the American gene pool.

Bruinius’s is a “secret” history in the sense that it concentrates on mostly unknown aspects of key eugenicists’ private lives. He offers detailed personal portraits of figures such as Charles Davenport, who introduced eugenics to the United States, and Harry Laughlin, a Davenport protégé who headed a large-scale project to identify “unfit” families throughout the country. The tone of these profiles is odd, gossipy, and almost malicious. Davenport’s daughter Millia married a Jew (Jews were considered poor stock by Davenport) and never had children; Laughlin had seizures, one of the conditions for which he and his colleagues advocated sterilizing others.

The author uses the lives and work of these men as a window through which to view our contemporary debate over genetic enhancement. He argues that eugenics and genetic tinkering have a particular appeal because conceptually they mesh with aspects of the American dream. It’s a provocative, if not highly original, claim. But Bruinius weakens his comparison of the past with the present by focusing on the personalities involved in eugenics, rather than on the social milieu in which their ideas took hold—a milieu marked by the new supremacy of science, a rising tide of immigration, and changing sexual mores.

He has greater success in his highly sympathetic portrayals of those personally affected by sterilization. The book starts with an excellent description of the notorious 1927 case Buck v. Bell, in which the Supreme Court ruled 8–1 that involuntary sterilization was constitutional. Bruinius delves deep into the lives of plaintiff Carrie Buck and her relatives, suggesting that Buck’s foster parents disowned her when she announced her pregnancy in part to protect a nephew of their own, whom she charged with paternity. Buck’s trial, Bruinius shows, was a sham, with the chief evidence of her feeblemindedness coming from schoolteachers who had taught not her but her relatives.

He puts an even more personal face on sterilization with an extended visit to Lucille, a 78-year-old Colorado woman who, declared legally insane after a troubled childhood, had been sterilized with her parents’ consent. The loss of her reproductive capacity haunted her for half a century, further complicating the depression and other mental troubles that compromised her life. In a painstaking picture of this desolate soul, Bruinius tells us that Lucille, who refused to discuss the subject of children with him, spends her final days in a nursing home watching Perry Mason reruns.

The portrayal of these two women may be Bruinius’s chief contribution to the history of eugenics. By showing that real people’s lives were changed irrevocably by the movement, he provides, by implication, a persuasive argument against forging ahead with efforts to genetically enhance the next generation. Promises of collective benefit to all humankind are all very well, but they don’t mean much if individuals are left worse off than they began.

—Shari Rudavsky

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