Monday, April 20, 2009

Carrie Buck: Someone Who Matters

One of the stories that Jonathan Mooney tells in his book, The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal, is that of Carrie Buck. Buck is not someone that he talks to, but a significant figure in history. While Mooney is traveling through Virginia, he attempts to find the state memorial to Buck, but finds out that it is not included in the guidebook of state monuments and that the staff at the historical information center have no clue about its location. This is not surprising; I don’t think very many people know about her. I know I didn’t. Another important lesson rarely included in history class.

Remember our unfortunate history related to how we treated those with cognitive disabilities? We had the sad unfortunate mistreatment at places like Willowbrook, but Buck depicts another, related, but slightly different area of our history – eugenics. This movement sought to eliminate people who were considered “defective.” Think this only happened in other countries and not here? Wrong. This movement was founded in Darwinism and sought to eliminate reproduction of such individuals, including those with developmental disabilities. Mooney points out that at one time there were eugenics departments at many US universities. In addition, at one point 28 states had involuntary sterilization laws for those in state-run institutions for the “insane, epileptic, and feebleminded.”

Carrie Buck was placed in a state-run institution. It was unclear what her disability was or if she even had one – although it was noted by those who interviewed her later in her life that she appeared to be of average intelligence. Buck was raped and became pregnant, and the institution – the Virginia Epileptic Colony – wanted to have her sterilized. In the meantime, Buck gave birth to a daughter. In 1927 her case reached the US Supreme Court. Here is what Mooney says about Buck’s case: “Evidence was presented that not only Carrie and her mother were feebleminded, but also her one-year-old daughter. Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the majority decision that Carrie’s sterilization was constitutional because, according to Holmes, ‘three generations of imbeciles are enough.’ It was later shown that Carrie’s daughter had an average or above-average IQ. To this day, fifteen states still have laws permitting the involuntary sterilization of ‘defectives,’ although they are rarely put into practice” (p. 126).

Buck’s ability to have more children was taken from her given this law. Ironically she probably didn’t even have a cognitive disability. In addition, our definition of cognitive disability has changed since this time. In 1973, the criterion changed from those with an IQ less than one standard deviation below the mean (85) to those with IQs less than two standard deviations below the mean (70). This is a huge difference. Mooney states: “In plain English, thousands of people earlier classified as mentally retarded woke up one day and were no longer retarded” (p. 153). Think about how some of them might have been sterilized under the previous criteria.

After Mooney’s unsuccessful attempt to find Buck’s monument, he says the following: “I thought about the trip to find this invisible testimony to what was an invisible past. Eugenics was an ambitious attempt to normalize the population, to dehumanize the other: the defective, the abnormal, the person with a disability. In the disability rights movement there is a concept called ableism – the idea that our culture’s treatment of people with different cognitive and physical experiences is a form of discrimination. Inherent in the idea of ableism is that the marginalization of people who are different is a civil rights issue. Eugenics embodies one of the greatest assaults on the civil rights of people with disabilities. Ableism draws a line between acceptable and unacceptable human experience. Ableism is normalcy’s enforcer. As I left the office, I thought about what the first lobotomy patient had said after her frontal lobes were cut. This woman was hardly insane; she was reported to be moody and difficult. After the procedure, the lobotomist, Walter Freeman, looked at her and asked if she remembered what had bothered her before the operation. ‘I don’t know,’ she replied. ‘I don’t remember. It doesn’t seem to matter anymore.’ The operation was considered an unequivocal success” (p 128-129).

We should not forget Carrie Buck. This does matter.

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