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

Nine stars

A large thank you goes out to my friend, Brenda, who has agreed to jointly read and review this book, in hopes that we might stir up some discussion on the matters addressed. Her review can be found at:  
Cohen uses this book as a much-needed soap box to highlight a case that made its way to the US Supreme Court, Buck v. Bell, and whose analysis was so jaded that it has found its way on a list of the Court’s worst decisions of all time. Not only were some of the greatest minds of time involved in the ruling, Louis Brandeis, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and William Taft, but the Court stood behind Holmes’ written decision almost unanimously. However, Cohen chooses not only to focus on the Supreme Court ruling, which explored the eugenic sterilisation movement in America (as well as sanctioning the Virginia law as constitutional), but the journey the law took from its inception in the legislature and selection of a young Carrie Buck to be the test subject. 

Carrie Buck was a young woman, eighteen by the time the case made its way to the US Supreme Court, who was adopted as a child. She attended school for a few years before she was pulled out to work, as determined by her adoptive parents. At the age of seventeen, she fell pregnant and was committed to an institution for epileptics and the feebleminded, seemingly because she possessed loose morals and was deemed a woman whose brain was oversexed. At the time, the early 1920s, this was entirely appropriate and Carrie was forced to abide by the stringent rules set upon her by the State of Virginia. Around this time, as the eugenics movement in the United States was heating up, Virginia sought to pass a law to bring about eugenic sterilisation, which would not only ensure that the state’s residents were of the highest calibre, but also ensure those who were less than adequate could not reproduce and sully the gene pool [their views, not mine]. While other states were having similar laws overturned by the courts as unconstitutional, Virginia sought to test their legislative initiative all the way to the Supreme Court, using Carrie Buck and her situation as the ideal set of facts. From there, it was a process stacked against Buck, offering her no hope of personal victory. Doctors who manipulated facts and forced her to undergo mental testing for which she was not adequately prepared, an assigned lawyer who sought to defend her by offering flimsy arguments that would not pass muster in any court of law, as well as a set of legal and medical minds buoyed by a movement that tried to press for the purest of the race to continue, leaving those of a lesser ability to be subjugated to the role of subservient. By the time the case made its way to the nine justices of the US Supreme Court, the legal circus was in full swing and Buck had no chance. Once Justice Holmes got his hands on the right to pen a decision, he chose not even to explore the validity of the arguments made and simply rubber stamped the law, adding one of the most perverse comments ever attributed to a decision of the US Supreme Court: “three generations of imbeciles are enough!” Cohen dissects that inane comment throughout the book and shows how Buck was truly a whipping boy for the movement and stood no chance at having her rights upheld, personal and/or constitutional.

While the story of Buck would be enough to pull on the heartstrings of any warm-blooded reader, Cohen goes further, examining the backstories of the key actors, as well as the eugenics movement in America. The medical and legal communities filled their professional journals with articles on the subject, coming out on either side, which led to a mainstream propaganda attack, which propped up the idea of eugenics in books, pamphlets, and even a Hollywood movie, which sought to explore what letting a feebleminded baby grow up might yield (a mentally deficient killer, of course [which I say, tongue in cheek]). This eugenics movement was so well-established that the likes of Dr. Josef Mengele was surely salivating at the chance to implement it in Germany. Cohen does mention that some of the early eugenic ideas of the Nazis are attributed directly to the American movement, as lauded in German medical and propaganda materials in the early 1920s. Deplorable, perhaps, but also poignant as the world tosses out how atrocious the Nazis were in their Megele-ian experiments. We need only look to the Land of the Free to see how enslaved segments of its population were at the time. Worry not, when sober thinking returned, America scrapped its eugenics movement, seeking to sweep it under the rug and point to Germany’s atrocities, as if the left hand’s antics would never be remembered. Cohen makes it much harder to reach for that first stone now, though what is even more astonishing is that this case, this entire narrative, is not better known. America (read: anyone with a general knowledge of human and civil rights) is not able to toss out Buck v. Bell as a horrendous legal precedent, as we do Dred Scott, for reasons that baffle Cohen, as this was a significant case with a fiery line penned by Justice Holmes. Alas, the annals of poorly supported decisions made by the US Supreme Court must have missed this, their golden child example. It is that shameful sleight of hand that is perhaps worst of all!

Cohen does a masterful job at presenting this book. It is more than simply Carrie Buck and how she was forced into being sterilised, thereby forcing her not to have any children after her first. It is also more than a simple analysis of the criteria surrounding feeblemindedness in America, or the push for eugenics, which would rid the country of the ‘lesser folk from procreating’. It is even about more than forced sterilisation, which is a horrid subject in and of itself. Cohen explores all the pieces of the movement, its actors, and detractors, as well as using the Buck narrative to explore how America failed its citizenry and a US Supreme Court disregarded its fundamental law, the Constitution, to protect those who needed it the most. With significant research, Cohen hones in on many of those who played a role, some of whom will surprise the attentive reader. His narrative is crisp and propels the story forward, as abysmal as the content might be. It also pulls no punches in drawing significant connections between the American eugenics movement and the influence it played on Nazi Germany’s decision to adopt similar ideals. The blood is right there on the hands of the influential and the reader cannot deny its existence. No matter how the reader feels about eugenics and reproductive rights, the book opens eyes, leaves mouths agape, and paves the way for many intellectual or gut arguments. I can only hope readers will engage in this, both on public forums like GoodReads, and in their own way. This is not a topic to read about, nod, and move along. It is a discussion to be had. Are you willing to join in?

Kudos, Mr. Cohen for this spectacular piece. The title is so open-ended, I am left to wonder if you reference Holmes’ comment or the list of those who failed Buck throughout the ordeal.