by Jason Y. Lee
There are nearly 3,000 living victims of North Carolina's eugenics program; a small group of them appeared before a state task force Wednesday, describing the personal humiliation, stilted relationships, shattered marriages and even drug addictions resulting from choices the government made to take away their ability to have children. It was the first time some of the survivors had spoken publicly.
"My problem was environmental," said Elaine Riddick. "I am not feebleminded. I couldn’t get along with others because I was hungry. I was cold. I was dirty. I was unkempt. I was a victim of rape. A victim of child abuse, neglect. My problem was environmental because everyone wanted to bully me."
"They said I was feebleminded. I was a little teeny kid. I seen my mother get cut ear to ear. I seen someone throw acid in my mother’s face. And you say feebleminded? They put my mother in jail instead of putting her in a hospital for treatment. You tell me what type of person should I be? I never got out of 8th grade. Yet still I acquired a college degree. Yet, still, I’m labeled feebleminded."
The N.C. Eugenics Board was established in 1933, almost eight decades ago, with a revision of a 1929 eugenics law. Composed of five representatives from different state agencies, the board oversaw the sterilizations of anyone deemed “mentally diseased, feebleminded, or epileptic.”
An estimated 7,600 people were sterilized throughout the program, which was dismantled in 1974. Three months ago, Gov. Bev Perdue established a task force to investigate the N.C. Eugenics Board and to recommend whether and how victims should be compensated.
The five-member task force must draft a preliminary report by August 1, and a final report on Feb. 1, 2012. With the deadlines approaching, the panel has met once a month to study the history of the program and examine the documents produced by the N.C. Eugenics Board. But this, according to task force Chairwoman Dr. Laura Gerald, was the first chance to hear the stories of victims directly.
Like Riddick, more than 71 percent of the victims were branded as "feebleminded"—a vague descriptor now acknowledged by researchers as a placeholder for other, less genteel labels: “promiscuous,” “truant,” or “lazy.”
Permitted by the 1933 law, any head of a state health institution, county public welfare official or child's legal guardians could petition for sterilization. The petition would include details such as an individual’s medical and case history and a written justification. Secretaries would process the petitions, and summarize the cases to be presented to the Eugenics Board, which would issue a decision.
But, as reported in 2002 in a groundbreaking Winston-Salem Journal series "Against Their Will," the petitions were often tremendously biased, or even flat out wrong. Records show the secretaries also took liberties to make their summaries concise, although not always accurate. Combined with the unclear definition of the word itself, the label of “feebleminded” amounted to something of a carte blanche for petitioners.
In some cases, relatives of the original survivors carried their stories to the state task force on behalf of those who have passed away, such as Karen Beck:
"I’m here on behalf of my grandmother and great-aunt, now deceased. Virginia Dottie Bates, 13, and Flossie Jane Bates, 15, were growing up in North Carolina. They lived in a dirty, fly infested house with a dirty toilet. Their mother was bedridden and dying from pellagra... Their father was absent, alcoholic. The girls knew what it was to be hungry. After their mother died, workers split up their family. The children ran away from their temporary homes to be together. The case workers decided the children were a social and financial danger.
The oldest girl [Flossie] escaped and was raped by a transient man. After the birth of her daughter she was told she was too small to have any additional children. And in 1936, Dottie was told she had appendicitis. She was 15 at the time of the surgery. She only learned years later, when she actually had appendicitis, that she had had the surgery.
Who were Flossie and Dottie? They were two little girls who were lonely and hungry. They were wards of the state who ran away because running away was the only way to get back with family."
Literature published by the Eugenics Board and its advocates is rife with rhetoric that puts a humanitarian tone on the sterilization program. The 1933 law itself says that sterilization is performed “when it is in the best interest of the mental, moral, or physical improvement” of the individual.
But the ultimate benefits, according to the logic purported by proponents, went to the public and to the unborn children. A 1954 pamphlet from the Eugenics Board suggests that one of the judgment criteria is “the ability of (sic) love, care for, and support of a child or children.”
A 1950 pamphlet from the Human Betterment League, a eugenics organization that was active in North Carolina, points out, “You wouldn’t expect a moron to run a train.” The text continues, “The average feebleminded parent cannot be expected to provide: good heredity, a normal home, intelligent care… like running a train… the job of parenthood is too much to be expected of feebleminded men and women.”
Despite their tragic experiences, many of the so-called “feebleminded men and women” went on to hold jobs, purchase homes and cars, and raise children—either those born prior to the surgeries, or those brought in by marriage. According to their testimony this week, the survivors' kin, including biological children, live normal lives despite their genetic links to the victims—connections that damned their futures in the eyes of many advocates of the eugenics movement. Debra Chesson is the daughter of one survivor:
"I have never been arrested. I don’t do drugs," Chesson said. "I purchased a house. I purchased my mom a car. I purchased one as well. I pay my taxes, I love my family. My mother has everything to do with who I am. My mother was a nurse’s aide. All of her patients loved her. My mother was a hardworking single mother who was responsible for putting food on table and going to PTA meetings, and helped other people raise their kids as well."
As noted in a three-part series published by the Indy earlier this year, sterilization was preached not only as a way to liberate both parent and child from the strains of genetically flawed parenting, but also a way to reduce the tax on the American economy by people who needed public services. As noted in the first story in the Indy series by Kevin Begos, "Blinded by the illusions of reducing poverty, eliminating metal illness and saving taxpayers money, people from all walks of life supported this second wave of eugenics.” The scheme was driven by a fear that society would buckle under a growing strain of dependents.
"It’s easy to say you can’t have children," Chesson said. "But it wasn’t just the fact that they couldn’t have children. Their God given rights were violated. Their bodies were violated without their consent. The eugenics board chose people who needed help. But help would’ve cost too much money. ... It’s easy to say we’re gonna give you medical provisions now. But when it comes to money, it’s harder to step forward. When Rep. [Larry] Womble first proposed $50,000, the legislature said you are not worth $50,000. You are worth $20,000. So you have done the same thing again. You are doing the same thing you did to my mother. You are saying she means nothing."
Womble, a Democrat from Forsyth County, is a champion for the victims of sterilization at the state Capitol. He began exploring the legacy of the state's eugenics program during the Winston-Salem Journal investigation and soon became involved with efforts to redress the state's actions.
Among his efforts, Womble sponsored a bill in 2003 to compensate the victims for $50,000 each. A House committee quickly reduced that sum to $20,000, then neglected to follow through. Despite Womble’s efforts since then, there has yet to be any productive discussion within the legislature about compensating the victims.
Two hours into Wednesday's hearing, Perdue walked into the room and sat down, nearly unnoticed, in the row of seats against the back wall. She listened to a few testimonies, then was recognized by Charmaine Cooper, executive director of the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation.
“I’m not here in an official capacity,” Perdue said. “It’s hard for me to understand or figure out why these kinds of atrocious acts are being permitted. I’m here as a woman, and as a momma, and as a grandmomma, and I’m saying it’s just wrong.”
When Mary English talks about her surgery, you can hear in her voice, bitterness that has persevered over 30 years:
"When he pulled up, I had a 2.5-carat diamond and I was engaged. And when he left, I had no ring, and I was single again," English said. "My best friend was going to have a baby. I found out when she was four months, because she was afraid to tell me. There was a big family dinner. Her mother was there. And they come in like someone died. I said, 'What’s wrong?' They said, 'She’s gonna have a baby.' 'Oh that’s good, that’s great!' 'Are you sure?'
"That’s how it is being a eugenics—no, no, no, not a victim—a eugenics survivor. This family’s having a child. They’re not thrilled. They’re more concerned with how I’m taking it. I learned when a man gets a scent that you cannot have a child, he can outrun a gazelle on the plain."
English’s ruptured engagement is only one variation on a common theme within victims’ testimonies—the broken relationships and humiliation over one's inability to share in parenthood recur with heartrending frequency. Several of those present had turned to alcohol or drug abuse to smother their depression.
As the state move towards restitution, the task-force members and other decision makers struggle to comprehend, and even quantify, the damages of the life-changing operations. They'll face the impossible task of parsing the threads of past, present and future that bind the life of a human being.
When asked what the obstacles to compensation might be, Womble said, “Obstacles? Well, the legislature, who will not hear the bill. Because it has to do with money.” He also postulated that “they just don’t want to be reminded of what happened a while back.”
However, Perdue's vocal support and the establishment of her task force and the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation will bolster continued efforts to offer some form of redress to survivors, Womble said.
“I’m going to bring up the bill again and again and again," Womble said. "I’m here to try to get it done. I’m here for the long run.”