For the Public Good: The Shameful History of Forced Sterilization in the U.S.

“I never figured out why they did that to me.”

Belle Boggs | The New New South | August 2013 | 62 minutes (15,377 words)

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We’re proud to present, for the first time online, “For the Public Good,” Belle Boggs‘s story for The New New South about the shocking history of forced sterilizations that occurred in the United States, and the story of victims in North Carolina, with original video by Olympia Stone.

As Boggs explained to us last year: 

“Last summer I met Willis Lynch, a man who was sterilized by the state of North Carolina more than 65 years earlier, when he was only 14 years old and living in an institution for delinquent children. Willis was one of 7,600 victims of North Carolina’s eugenics program, and one of the more outspoken and persistent advocates for compensation.

“At the time I was struggling with my own inability to conceive, and the debate within my state—how much is the ability to have children worth?—was something I thought about a lot. It’s hard to quantify, the value of people who don’t exist. It gets even more complicated when you factor in public discomfort over a shameful past, and a present-day political climate that marginalizes the poor.”

Thanks to Boggs and The New New South for sharing this story with the Longreads Community, and thanks to Longreads Members for your helping us bring these stories to you. Join us.

* * *

One

Willis Lynch lives just outside Littleton, North Carolina, in a trailer set close to a quiet road that runs between tobacco and cotton fields. Retired from a career that included military service, farming, plumbing, handyman work, and auto repair, Lynch still does all the work himself on his 1982 Ford EXP, a car he modified to improve its gas mileage, adding Plexiglas panels to make the recessed headlights more aerodynamic and lowering the radiator to keep the engine cooler. It gets 40 miles to the gallon, according to Lynch, and has traveled more than 700,000 miles.

“People around here know me for being smart, for knowing how to fix a lot of things,” he tells me the first time I meet him, not long before he shows me the paperwork that suggested he was unfit to father children. In 1948, when he was 14 years old, Lynch was sterilized on the recommendation of North Carolina’s Eugenics Board, a state-run organization that targeted thousands of men and women for vasectomies, hysterectomies, salpingectomies (removal of the fallopian tubes), ovariectomies (removal of the ovaries),  and even castrations. He has lived most of his life with the knowledge that he would never have biological children.

I’d gotten in touch with Lynch after reading some of his frank public comments on North Carolina’s sterilization program, recounting, in just a few sentences, a life that turned out differently from the one he once imagined. My husband and I had been trying to conceive a child for four years when I first met Lynch, and I knew from experience already how involuntary childlessness made you an outsider in places others took for granted as welcoming, how difficult it could be to get through a day without dwelling on your invisible loss. I thought I understood something that the politicians who had been fighting over compensation for victims like Lynch did not: it is not possible to forget. But I wondered, is it possible to recover?

Sitting in his small kitchen, I tell him that I don’t have children either, that I know a little of what it’s like to miss people who don’t exist.

“You can’t have kids?” he asks gently.

“I don’t think so,” I say, sparing him the details.

“It stays on your mind,” he agrees.

Lynch is still in good health, able to walk a mile-and-a-quarter — his daily exercise — in 21 minutes. Most of his contemporaries are enjoying grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but every day he wonders: What would my kids be like? How many would I have had? Would they favor me? He wonders if a child of his might have inherited his talent for singing and playing guitar — he is an avid fan of country music, particularly Jim Reeves and Hank Williams tearjerkers, and every Friday, he performs a few of the 60 or 70 songs he knows by heart at the VFW hall in nearby Norlina.

“Some people think they have to wear boots, belt buckles, and britches like they’re in Nashville,” says Lynch, who prefers the same work pants and button-downs he wears any day of the week. “I go as I am.”

At the VFW, he’s friendly with the other musicians, the couples who come to dance, but he stands slightly apart from them, drinking bottled water alone in the kitchen and stepping outside during breaks. Things might have been different if Lynch had had children of his own. He might have had a lasting marriage, someone to take out on Friday nights. His child, too, might have been a part of things. He wonders if she’d have come hear to him sing, if he’d be someone Lynch could be proud of.

He shakes his head at the clumsily typed, tersely written documents he shows me, now decades old, which he keeps in a plain clasp envelope. An operation of sterilization will be for the best interest of the mental, moral, and physical well-being of the said patient, and/or for the public good, the Order for Sterilization or Asexualization reads. “I never figured out why they did that to me.”

document-lynch

Willis Lynch’s order for sterilization.

* * *

Two

People generally have two reactions when they hear about American eugenics programs for the first time: the first is shock, and the second is distancing. How could those people have done that to them?

Most have heard of the program in Nazi Germany, in which more than 400,000 people considered unworthy of life — those with hereditary illnesses, but also the dissident, the idle, the homosexual, and the weak — were targeted for forced sterilization beginning in the 1930s. Few realize that some of the inspiration for Germany’s eugenics program, and even the language for the Nuremberg racial hygiene laws, which among other restrictions banned sexual intercourse between Jewish and non-Jewish Germans, came from eugenicists who had been practicing for years in the United States. Some 60,000 American citizens were sterilized, often under coercion or without consent.

Returning from my first visit with Lynch, I met my in-laws, in town from Northern Virginia, for dinner in Durham. When I told them about all he had been through, they were outraged. They had never heard of forced sterilizations taking place in the United States, but blamed their ignorance on where they grew up. “I’m from the North,” said my mother-in-law, who had assumed that Lynch is black (he is white). “We didn’t have things like that there.”

I went home and looked it up. Pennsylvania, her home state, never passed a eugenics law, but managed to sterilize 270 people anyway, and also to perform the first known eugenics-motivated castration, in 1889. The first state to enact a eugenics-based sterilization law was Indiana, in 1907; it was followed 2 years later by Washington and California. Eventually 33 states would pass such legislation. Internationally, the list of countries with a history of forced sterilization includes Canada, Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, Denmark, Japan, Iceland, India, Finland, Estonia, China, Peru, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and Uzbekistan.

Though North Carolina did not sterilize the greatest number of people (that distinction belongs to California, where 20,000 were sterilized), the state’s Eugenics Board was notorious for its aggressiveness. While many states confined their sterilization programs to institutions, North Carolina allowed social workers to make recommendations based on observations of “unwholesome” home environments or poor school performance. The state’s program was also one of the longest lasting, increasing its number of sterilizations while others were winding down. Between 1929 and 1974, more than 7,600 North Carolinians were sterilized. Like Willis Lynch, many of North Carolina’s victims were children, and consent was provided by relatives or guardians who feared the loss of public assistance or other consequences if they refused.

Over more than a decade, sterilization victims waited for North Carolina to make things right. Lynch, for his part, testified at state hearings, gave interviews to newspapers and magazines, and talked regularly by phone with other victims. For years, not much materialized: an apology from Democratic Gov. Mike Easley, expressions of regret and sympathy from his successor, Beverly Perdue, also a Democrat.

Then in 2012, something remarkable happened: A Perdue-appointed task force that had been listening to testimonies from Lynch and others like him for almost 2 years recommended a package of compensation for the victims of eugenics, and the state’s Republican-controlled and oft-divided House of Representatives supported the measure in a bipartisan effort. The plan included equal monetary payments to victims, access to mental health resources, and a program of public recognition and education that would ensure that no one would ever forget what happened to them. It began to look like North Carolina would be the first in the nation to address the legacy of eugenics, and victims imagined what they might do with the restitution: pay bills, fix up their homes, visit distant relatives.

The members of the task force were united in their recommendation, but the journey to a proposal that satisfied the victims had not been easy. They’d listened to many hours of painful testimony from sterilized men and women and their families, and had reviewed thousands of pages of supporting documents: medical records, reports from the Eugenics Board, propaganda in favor of eugenics-based sterilization. They’d looked at the faulty science behind eugenics, as well as North Carolina’s unequal targeting of poor, vulnerable, and minority citizens. They’d considered actuarial data to estimate the number of living victims, and calculated the potential total cost of compensation. Though they acknowledged that no amount of money can pay for the harm done by compulsory sterilization, they did, in fact, put a number on the line: $50,000 for each living victim.

But some wondered: Can you put a price on reproductive ability? And is it appropriate, in a time of austerity, to make such large monetary payments, especially when it won’t right the wrongs? Should today’s taxpayers be responsible for something that happened decades ago? Though the effort to include the task force’s recommendations in the House budget had been bipartisan, the measure faced more dissent from the GOP-led Senate: The state can’t afford to pay for something that won’t fix any problems, and it was a long time ago, anyway. It wasn’t us.

It is human nature to distance oneself from what now seems cruel, violent, reprehensible. We tell ourselves that we would not have done that, that our country is better than that now. But that same distance —I am not like that, I am better — is what motivated the first eugenicists and their followers.

* * *

Three

Like Willis Lynch, Francis Galton was born into a family of seven children, though more than 90 years earlier and thousands of miles away. The circumstances of his early childhood in England were quite different: His father was a wealthy banker, his mother the daughter of physician Erasmus Darwin, making Francis Galton a cousin to the father of the theory of evolution. The Galton family also included a number of prominent gunsmiths, ironmongers, athletes, and Quakers.

Under the tutelage of a doting older sister, Galton showed exceptional intellectual promise even before he was school-aged. He knew his capital letters by 12 months, could read at 2-and-a-half, and could sign his own name by 3. The day before he turned 5, Galton boasted in a letter to his sister:

I am four years old and can read any English book. I can say all the Latin Substantives and Adjectives and active verbs besides 52 lines of Latin poetry. I can cast up any sum in addition and multiply by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10. I can also say the pence table. I read French a little and I know the Clock.

When he finally entered school, he was surprised and disappointed that his classmates did not share his enthusiasm or facility for reciting the Iliad or Walter Scott’s Marmion. He was sent to a boarding school at age 8, and at 16, left secondary school to study medicine (a pursuit he later abandoned).

As an adult, Galton had a varied and peripatetic career. He traveled to Africa for anthropological work, discovered the anticyclone, published the first weather map, pioneered the first system of fingerprinting, and developed a “Beauty-map” of the British Isles that compared the relative attractiveness of women. (London had the most beautiful women, according to his research, Aberdeen the ugliest.)

He is best known, however, as the father of modern eugenics, an area of study partially inspired by cousin Charles Darwin’s work. Less than a month after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Galton wrote, in an admiring letter to his cousin: “I have laid it down in the full enjoyment of a feeling that one rarely experiences after boyish days, of having been initiated into an entirely new province of knowledge, which, nevertheless, connects itself with other things in a thousand ways.” Galton was interested in the potential implications of Darwin’s work on heredity and evolution: Could these principles be used, through selective breeding, to enhance the human gene pool? Likely influenced by the achievements of his own illustrious family, Galton believed that talent and ability are transferred genetically rather than by environment. To Galton’s mind, his particular aptitude for geography, language, and the sciences came not so much from his education and privilege as from his eminent forebears.

Improving human societies through selective breeding was not a new idea, even in the 1800s. In ancient Greece, deformed babies were killed at birth, unwanted ones abandoned to the elements. Spartan elders inspected every newborn for potential contribution to the state — weak babies were dropped into a chasm — and the strongest men and women were encouraged to procreate (including outside of marriage). In the Republic, Plato argued that “the best of either sex should be united with the best as often as possible, and the inferior with the inferior as seldom as possible.” The goal was the good of the state. If only the strongest and smartest reproduced, then their offspring would, over time, benefit everyone through their industry, bravery, creativity, and strength.

But the term eugenics was not coined until 1883, when Galton published his fifth book, Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development. In it, he combined the Greek word eu, meaning good, with the suffix -genes, meaning born, and defined eugenics as “the study of all agencies under human control which can improve or impair the racial quality of future generations.” He identified both positive eugenics (encouraging the breeding of the best) as well as negative eugenics (discouraging and even preventing the unfit from procreation), though he found the former more practical and socially palatable. Arguing that religion and custom had always strongly influenced breeding and marriage, Galton proposed that eugenics, with its ultimate goal of improving human societies, could be introduced to the general public as a new and compelling religion.

With his amateur background in anthropology, Galton classified humans along a line of “Mediocrity,” or average talents. Those above average, especially the most talented, should be encouraged to procreate within their classes, early and often. Those below average, especially the lowest-ranking, should be encouraged to abstain or, at the very least, refrain from tainting the bloodlines of their superiors. He had only a few vague suggestions about how this could be accomplished: intelligent and well-born women should be encouraged to marry at 21 or 22, promising couples provided with inexpensive housing, social inferiors encouraged to regard celibacy as noble self-sacrifice, and habitual criminals segregated, monitored, and denied the opportunity to produce offspring. “What nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly,” he asserted. His vision was Utopian; the English race, after a few generations, would be “less foolish, less excitable, and politically more provident.” Men of special ability, like himself and his cousin, would be less rare, and would be able to contribute more than their fair share to the general population.

Galton soon realized a problem with positive eugenics, though: Eminence generally appeared later in life, often after the opportunity to marry and produce children. To address this problem, he established London’s Anthropometric Laboratory, the world’s first mental testing center, which sought not only to provide individuals with information about their own abilities, but also to serve as a collection of data for Galton and other scientists. These early tests, offered for three pence each to subjects ranging in age from 5 to 80, were unlike the written test Willis Lynch would take, years later, though their goal was the same: determination of ability or potential. Galton’s tests involved a variety of largely physical measurements: grip strength, head size, tactile sensitivity, breathing capacity, and visual and auditory acuity. His Anthropometric Laboratory collected data on more than 9,000 people, and although there is little evidence that they found much use in the information cards they received, his studies of the data eventually produced the statistical concepts of standard deviation and percentile ranking.

Negative eugenics — preventing those deemed unfit from reproducing — was considerably more challenging, at least as envisioned by Galton. It was not reasonable to expect most people to live a celibate life simply for the betterment of the gene pool, and monitoring ex-cons and other undesirables  was equally daunting. Though the British Eugenics Education Society, founded in 1907, campaigned for sterilization and marriage restrictions for mentally ill citizens, negative eugenics remained mostly the subject of political debate in Britain, and legislation enforcing sterilization of the unfit was never passed. Galton died in 1911 without seeing his “new religion” realized. Despite the genetic promise of his intellectual gifts, he also died childless.

* * *

Four

Willis Lynch was raised by a single mother in a house without electricity, not far from where he lives now. Lying in bed at night, he could see stars through nail-holes in the roof, but he never felt deprived. He remembers his childhood as “the good old days.”

“I was mean,” he freely admits about his adolescence. Often in trouble for fighting, he was sent at age 11 to the Caswell Training School for the Mentally Handicapped, which housed not only those with intellectual disability but also juvenile offenders and unwed mothers. Located 100 miles away, in Kinston, Caswell was too far for visits from family members, and he received only two weeks in the summers to spend at home.

At Caswell, Lynch woke at 3 a.m. to milk the cows, and he was homesick for family and friends. His mother, who was on welfare, struggled to provide for her seven children, and though she missed her son, she didn’t have the resources to bring him home. Lynch says the school’s strict discipline policy taught him to stop fighting, and he made friends and did his best to get along. But 2 years after he was committed, he was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was to undergo a vasectomy. He remembers little about the surgery itself, only a mask being held over his face, and being asked to sing a song to a nurse, but he can still recall doubling over in pain when he tried to walk, the next day. “That’s when I knew something wasn’t right,” he says. He never received sex education in public school or at Caswell, and he had to put the pieces together on his own.

The Eugenics Board’s records show that Lynch had been targeted as “feebleminded” on the basis of an IQ test. Feeblemindedness is a catch-all label that was used by eugenics boards across the country to identify those unfit to reproduce. The feebleminded, those with low IQ scores and “abnormal” behavior, were seen as particularly dangerous by eugenicists, who connected their condition (believed to be hereditary) to promiscuity, criminality, and social dependency. Eugenicists feared that the feebleminded could easily pass as normal, reproducing with the general population and passing on undesirable traits to their children. To talk to Lynch, who has a precise recollection of dates, facts, and country music trivia, and who taught himself a number of skills, from electrical work to guitar playing, is to realize how carelessly the term was applied.

His mother, who must have known that her son was not feebleminded, consented to his procedure when the Welfare Department threatened to take away the benefits that provided for the rest of her children. Lynch doesn’t blame her. She did the best she could, he says. She hoped that by consenting he’d be allowed to come home again.

She lived only seven miles away from where he lives now, and they remained close until her death a few years ago, at age 93. Lynch is proud of the filial duty he showed his mother all her life, taking her to church and out to dinner. Just inside the entrance of his home, there is a framed color photograph of her hanging on the paneled-wood wall. Across the small kitchen and sitting room is a sepia-toned one of Lynch at 20 years old, handsome in the first suit he ever owned, back in the days when he says he was fighting girls off. “People say I favor her through here,” he says, gesturing to his eyes.

Lynch says he wasn’t too optimistic when the compensation plan was announced in 2012, having learned in life to look both ways. He imagined taking his favorite nephew on a trip — they’d once travelled to the Hank Williams museum, in Alabama — but says he’d never been crazy about money. It’s the principle of the thing, he insists.

* * *

Five

Willis Lynch and the other victims might have spent their whole lives wondering if their stories would be heard had it not been for a team of newspaper reporters at the Winston-Salem Journal. In 2002, the Journal published “Against Their Will,” a five-part series written by Kevin Begos, Danielle Deaver, Scott Sexton, and John Railey, revealing the social and political history of North Carolina’s eugenics program and the racial and economic biases that motivated it.

Raised in North Carolina by a family of progressive Democrats, Railey had never heard of forced sterilization happening in his state. He was shocked to find, among the thousands of pages of state records, a letter from the Eugenics Board to Democratic Gov. Terry Sanford, a noted progressive and beloved family friend. Why didn’t Sanford put a stop to the program, still operating during his governorship and clearly counter to his liberal policies? Railey never found a satisfying answer to that question. “This was my epiphany, the blast that shattered any last illusions I still had about my state,” he said.

“Against Their Will” had an almost immediate impact.  It inspired state Rep. Larry Womble to take a personal interest in the victims, requesting a formal apology to victims from Gov. Mike Easley and sponsoring a 2003 bill that officially took the sterilization law off the books. Easley’s apology and the Journal‘s story attracted national and international attention, prompting apologies from governors in other states, including California and South Carolina. Easley authorized a committee to study possible compensation, an effort that was continued by his successor, Beverly Perdue. Perdue established the Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation in 2010 and appointed the task force that considered compensation. Over the years, the task force looked at a variety of compensation amounts (their first recommendation of $20,000 was considered paltry by many victims) and amends-making measures. Railey was there for it all.

In helping to report the story, Railey not only brought a shameful program to light, but also made lasting friendships with many victims, meeting them at their homes, at church events, and at hearings. He calls them his buddies and speaks to them by phone a few times a week, updating them with what he’s heard from the Legislature and checking in on how they’re feeling. He’s kept them updated, too, on the health of Womble, who continued to champion their cause even after a devastating automobile accident in 2011.

Railey has written more than 75 editorials and columns about North Carolina’s eugenics program in the decade since the story broke. His most recent pieces have focused on the opportunity for the state’s conservatives to correct a big-government mistake, and on memorializing the victims who have died since the fight began.

“When you come to know these people, you just can’t help but share their outrage,” he said. “You appreciate the lessons they give you about tenacity, and guts, and compassion–and not letting something like this wreck them. I’m constantly learning from them.”

* * *

Six

The American eugenics movement is often characterized as a progressive folly for its faith in science and its big-government intrusiveness, but the truth is somewhat more complicated. The American Eugenics Society counted among its members some of the country’s most influential Progressive Era businesspeople, philanthropists, and activists, including J.P. Morgan Jr., Mary Duke Biddle, and Margaret Sanger, but the group of scientists and eugenicists who founded it also included well-known racists and anti-Semites. Early outreach efforts often included a mix of public health education and racist, anti-immigration messages.

The Fitter Families for Future Firesides competitions, sponsored by the Eugenics Society starting in 1924, provided one way of reaching out to rural white Americans. Held in state fairs across the country, the contests originated as Better Babies competitions and exhibitions that were meant to educate the public about infant health and mortality. Fitter Families contests, with the goals of collecting data on hereditary traits and spreading the message of eugenics to a wider population, invited entire families to submit to screenings for health, character, and intelligence. Those scoring highest received awards and medals bearing the inscription, “Yea, I have a goodly heritage” and had their photographs taken for the local papers. Following an examination, a family might listen to a Galtonesque lecture on the importance of mating the best with the best; browse an exhibit about comparative literacy rates of foreign, African-American, and native-born white Americans; or read about the social costs of incarcerating the mentally deficient.

At the 1926 Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia, a poster equipped with flashing lights informed fairgoers that “every 48 seconds someone is born in America who will never grow up beyond the mental age of 8” and that “crime costs America $100,000 every second.” The poster also claimed that  “few normal persons go to jail.” The message received by the “Fittest Families?” You are carrying the burden of the least fit, who should not be having so many children. In one way or another, you will pay for the children of undesirable parents: to feed and clothe them when their parents cannot, to care for them in institutions, and later, to imprison them.

Outside of state fairs and exhibitions, this fear of social dependency had already primed the culture for an embrace of negative eugenics. Large-scale asylums for the homeless and mentally ill, built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, raised fears that increasing numbers of handicapped citizens were a drain on public resources. The country’s first major immigration law, the Act of 1882, specifically prohibited entry by any “lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” American eugenicists believed, as Galton did, that people could be bred, like livestock, for desirable traits. Those with undesirable traits, which included everything from alcoholism to criminal recidivism to poverty, could be sterilized.

Indiana passed the first law allowing eugenics-based sterilization in 1907. Thirty-two other states would follow. After constitutional challenges, many employed language and structure from the Model Eugenical Sterilization Law written by Harry Laughlin, one of the founders of the American Eugenics Society. (Laughlin’s law later became the model for Nazi Germany’s Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring, and he would receive an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg for his support of “the science of racial cleansing.”)

Laughlin proposed a position of state eugenicist, whose function was “to protect the state against the procreation of persons socially inadequate from degenerate or defective physical, physiological or psychological inheritance.” He defined a socially inadequate person as one who, in comparison with “normal” persons, fails to maintain himself as a useful member of the state, and he set out the socially inadequate classes: the feeble-minded, the insane, the criminalistic, the epileptic, the inebriate, the diseased, the blind, the deaf, the deformed, the crippled, and the dependent (including “orphans, ne’er-do-wells, the homeless, tramps and paupers”). Twenty years later, Virginia’s Sterilization Act, patterned after Laughlin’s, was found constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Buck v. Bell case, in which Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote, about the family of 19-year-old Carrie Buck, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

North Carolina’s first sterilization law was recorded in 1919, but sterilizations did not begin until 1929, after the passage of Buck v. Bell, when one vasectomy, one castration, and one ovariectomy were performed (the state’s law was unusual in allowing castrations for “therapeutic treatment”). In 1933, the law was declared unconstitutional by the state’s Supreme Court on the basis of a deficient appeals process, and a second law was passed that year, ostensibly providing for due process for the individuals recommended for surgery. Sterilizations could be petitioned by the superintendent of public welfare, the heads of prisons or other institutions housing potential patients, or their next of kin or legal guardians. Despite the ability of individuals to appeal such recommendations, the statute was broad, allowing the Eugenics Board to overrule objections and authorize sterilizations in the best interest of the individual, for the public good, or if the individual was suspected to produce children with “a tendency to serious physical, mental or nervous disease or deficiency.”

By July 1935, the state had sterilized 223 men and women, most of them residents of state-run institutions. Though it would take another decade for public opinion to begin turning away from eugenics, Eugenical Sterilization in North Carolina, a report published by the state that year, envisioned a public that still needed convincing. The report argued, among other things, that sterilization was protection that benefitted both society and the sterilized individual:

There is no discovery vitally affecting the life, happiness and well being of the human race in the last quarter of a century about which intelligent people know so little, as modern sterilization. The operation is simple, it removes no organ or tissue of the body. It has no effect on the patient except to prevent parenthood. Under conservative laws, sanely and diplomatically administered, as they have been in California, these discoveries developed by the medical profession now offer to these classes the greatest relief possible and the greatest protection to the defenseless child of the future. It offers one, humane, practical protection against threatened race degeneracy.

* * *

Seven

The third of 10 children, Annie Buelin barely remembers when her father was taken to a home for the mentally ill in Virginia. He was already in his 60s when he married her mother and set up a household in Flat Rock, North Carolina, but Buelin isn’t sure if it was senility or something else that caused him to lose his mind. Buelin’s mother — 15 when she married, with a third-grade education — supported her children through welfare, working in tobacco fields, and doing washing and ironing for her neighbors. She hardly had time to keep up with all of her children.

As a child, Buelin dreaded going to school. She received free lunch, and everyone knew it. She didn’t have nice clothes, and she and her brothers and sisters were left out of school plays and celebrations. She sat in the back of the classroom and tried not to draw attention to herself, and she was too nervous to answer when her teachers called on her. “People laughed at us because we didn’t have money,” she remembers. “It didn’t bother my siblings as much, but that kept me tore up.”

At age 12, Beulin stopped attending school, instead working as a live-in babysitter for neighbors whose long shifts in the mills kept them away from home. She earned $15 a week doing housework, cooking, and childcare. It was hard work, but she didn’t mind it. She was able to contribute to her family’s finances, and she enjoyed caring for the children.

Soon, though, local officials noticed her truancy. One day, a social worker appeared and took her to the county welfare office to give her a test. “They didn’t tell me what the test was, or what it was for,” Buelin says. Later, her sister would tell her that the test had found she had the IQ of a 7- or 8-year old.

The social worker told Buelin she had to go back to school, or else she would have to have an operation that would prevent her from having children. “‘Well, I’m not a-going,'” she remembers telling the social worker.

When the day came for her surgery, she walked the half-mile driveway to the road alone. A nurse picked her up and took her to the hospital in nearby Elkin, where she was admitted. Buelin never had a chance to see the paperwork; the nurse filled it all out and signed it for her. She doesn’t remember much about the operation itself, but she vividly recalls returning from the hospital, five days later.

“No one was there when I got home,” she says. She was still in pain from the surgery, but she walked until she found her mother at work in a nearby tobacco field. They didn’t talk about what happened.

“She just did the best she knew how,” Buelin says. “She let people run over her. She didn’t realize she had any other choice.”

In fact, her mother likely didn’t have any other choice. Had she refused consent, the Eugenics Board would have held a hearing to review Buelin’s case in Raleigh, more than three hours away, and could have overruled her mother’s objections based on Buelin’s test scores and the conditions of her home. It’s possible they would have declared her mother incompetent, even if she could attend the hearing, and assigned a guardian ad litem to make the decision for her.

After the surgery, Buelin didn’t tell any of her friends what had happened to her. At church, some people knew, but no one mentioned it or asked how she was doing. Her surgery wasn’t discussed much among her family either, though her brother-in-law warned her that she’d better tell any man she planned to marry. Buelin saw a doctor in the hope that the procedure could be reversed, but after an exam was told that her fallopian tubes had not been tied but severed. She’d had a complete, irreversible salpingectomy.

The 1948 manual of the North Carolina Eugenics Board repeats the claim, made in the 1935 manual and derived from the California legislation, that sterilization is not a punishment but a kindness. In the eyes of the Eugenics Board, Buelin would not be stigmatized or humiliated as a result of her surgery, and her community would not shun her. Her married life would be happy — happier, since her future husband would not have to fear for the welfare of their children. The surgery would have no effect on her life, the manual insisted, other than preventing parenthood.

* * *

Eight

Pronatalism is the widely accepted cultural idea that biological parenthood and family life are not only normal, but necessary for the successful transition to adult life. Aside from a slight dip in the 1970s, America has been a distinctly pronatalist country, especially in the 20th and 21st centuries, promoting idealized visions of family life through film, television, and advertising. It was particularly strong around the time that the North Carolina sterilization program reached its peak. Surveys taken in 1945, 1955, and 1960 found that zero percent of Americans considered no children the ideal family size.

Many researchers believe that the desire to have children is not only the expression of a cultural desire to fit in and be validated, but an inherent, inborn need. Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson was the first to describe ego development as a lifelong process that lasts into adulthood. Adults’ primary challenge, according to Erikson, is generativity versus stagnation, with the core of generativity expressed through raising the next generation, especially through parenting or caring for others. Stagnation occurs when adults are unable to satisfy their need for generativity, and can result in depression and emotional stunting.

More recently, evolutionary psychologist Douglas Kendrick suggested a revision of Maslow’s classic hierarchy of needs, replacing the ultimate goal of self-actualization, the desire to fulfill one’s potential, with parenting, the desire to care for one’s offspring and other relatives. The Americans with Disabilities Act has recognized infertility — the inability to become pregnant after trying for one year — as a disability. And reproduction, according to the Supreme Court, qualifies as a “major life activity.”

My own depression started after about two years of trying without success to conceive. I avoided people I loved and felt isolated from everyone except my husband and my few childless (or childfree) friends. Although I don’t consider myself disabled and find Kendrick’s model to be too narrow, I also understand that we live in a world — a pronatalist one — where many people feel that you aren’t really an adult until you are a parent.

Buelin watched her siblings grow up and have children, as well as friends and coworkers at the textile mills where she eventually worked. She was happy for them, she insists, but she never talked about what happened to prevent her from having children of her own. “Lord have mercy, I loved children,” she says. “Whenever I saw someone who was going to have a baby, I thought they were so pretty.”

Buelin’s first marriage was troubled. Her husband drank and ran around on her, and she thinks he blamed her for what had happened, years before. People at work sometimes asked her why she didn’t have kids, but Buelin never told them. “I didn’t want to talk about it,” she says. “I think I was just ashamed, or hurt, I don’t know which.”

Her first husband died young, leaving Buelin alone and depressed. She saw a psychiatrist several times in her 30s, but they never talked about her sterilization or childlessness. “It got to the point where I didn’t even want to go to church,” says Buelin. “And I always went to church.”

Willis Lynch found relationships difficult, too. When he was young and working in maintenance for the city of Richmond, he began dating a woman who already had one child and was expecting another. The baby’s biological father was in jail for robbing phone booths and wasn’t around for the birth, which Lynch found deplorable. He married her just eight days after she gave birth, and Lynch grew close with the younger child. But after a few years, his wife left him for another man. “She took me for a meal ticket,” he figures. “But I didn’t regret it ’cause of those kids. I loved those kids.”

Lynch never remarried, and like Buelin rarely spoke about what had happened to him. It was too hard to explain, when so many people had never even heard about the sterilizations or the eugenics movement. He lost touch with his ex-wife’s children.

Despite the general acknowledgement that parenting is a crucial milestone, it is not hard to find those who think, even today, that some people should not have that option. To read the comments section of any online discussion of North Carolina’s eugenics program is to find a significant percentage of readers who are uncomfortable with dismissing the program outright.

Here are just a few of the comments I found online in response to a local news story about compensation, an online photo essay depicting the victims on the Mother Jones Web site, and the online transcript of an NPR story about North Carolina’s eugenics program:

I do not understand the underlying premise that forced sterilization is somehow “wrong.” That seems to be taken for granted but no one has made the case for it. Can anyone explain this? How is forced sterilization not completely consistent with what is taught in our public schools to the effect that only the most fit should survive?

 Is it or is it not a good idea to encourage persons with developmental disabilities NOT to have children?

 The idea of humans having to accomplish something in their life before breeding is actually sound. We are in a world economy … Those that can not complete high school or are not able to keep a job or produce something tangible that is worthwhile should not be breeding…. I would suggest ALL men and women be temporarily sterilized at adolescence- Norplant for women, vasectomies for men.

Once they have become contributing members of society through formal education, technical school, or have remained employed and no felonious crimes for over 5 years – then they should be allowed to breed.

Online forums are a popular place for people to express ideas they might not feel comfortable sharing in person, but I have heard similar arguments expressed within the context of the public school system. Biology students learning about genetics for the first time will often wonder, why can’t we just get rid of dumb people? And a common refrain expressed by frustrated teachers, out of earshot of students and parents, is this: If you need a license to drive, you should certainly have to get a license to have kids.

* * *

Nine

Willis Lynch doesn’t remember exactly when he first heard about North Carolina’s Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, the organization tasked with contacting and verifying victims of the state’s eugenics program. A friend of his, one of the few who knew what had been done to him, saw something about the foundation on television and gave Lynch the contact information. Not wanting to wait for a response by mail, Lynch drove his Ford EXP to the Caswell Training Center in Kinston, where he once milked cows in the early morning and was only allowed recreation on Friday nights. Caswell operates today as a residential home for the mentally handicapped though it no longer serves children, and the farm was sold years ago. He requested and received the papers certifying his admission to the center, as well as a complicated chain of letters related to his sterilization.

Reading carefully through the correspondence between Caswell and the Eugenics Board of North Carolina, Lynch realized that their original target was not him but his mother. In August 1947, not long after his 14th birthday, Elsie Parker, secretary for the Eugenics Board, wrote to Dr. W.T. Parrott, superintendent at Caswell, requesting information about Lynch’s suitability for sterilization. Parker wrote, “The mother had been receiving aid to dependent children but the payment was terminated at one point because it was not considered a safe and proper home. At that time the mother requested a sterilization operation. Authorization was granted on the basis of feeble-mindedness. The operation was, however, never performed.”

Parrott wrote back to the Eugenics Board almost immediately: “We have your letter of August 13th in regard to the sterilization of the above named child. We would like to have this operation done. Willis has an I.Q. of 58. Thanks.” Still, it took until April 1948 for the Eugenics Board and Caswell to secure her consent for her son’s vasectomy.

Lynch doubts that his mother would have ever consented to her own sterilization. “Mama loved kids,” he says. But he understands that she might have felt pressure to agree to his operation in order to maintain her family’s welfare benefits. What work she could find paid too little to care for seven children, and two had already been removed from her home to live in institutions (one of his sisters had been sent to a home in Virginia). He returned home in 1951, but never talked with his mother about the operation or what it meant for his life.

Lynch drove the Caswell papers to Raleigh himself rather than trusting them to the mail. It was there that he first met Larry Womble, the first of North Carolina’s legislators to become an advocate for compensation. Lynch testified about his experience in a matter of minutes — he calls his story “short and bitter” — then sat down again among the other victims.

Railey, the reporter who first brought the eugenics program to statewide and national attention, remembers talking on the phone to Lynch after getting his number from Womble, then driving to meet him in the parking lot of the Littleton Piggly Wiggly.  They sat in the cab of Railey’s truck and talked about Lynch’s experience at Caswell, the dawning realization, months after the surgery, that he’d been given a vasectomy. They talked about his time in the service, as a rifleman, about the mechanic trade Lynch learned on his own, about his love for country music.

For three years now, Railey has talked with Lynch once a week about the progress of legislation. “He’ll call me on a Friday, usually. He’ll say ‘What do you hear? What do you know?'”

In his many articles, editorials, and columns about the program, Railey has often relied on Lynch for insight into the experience of the victims. “Willis is kind of an elder statesman of this movement,” says Railey. “He’s the oldest victim who speaks about it regularly. He’s very aware, but not in a bleak sense, of his own mortality.”

Railey, who considers Lynch a friend, is aware of it, too. “He’s close to his nephew, but he doesn’t have anyone else. When he’s gone, he’s gone.”

* * *

Ten

Few if any studies have been made about the psychological damage of sterility, but there is evidence that infertility, as a stressor, is equivalent to the experience of living with cancer, HIV, or other chronic illnesses. “It’s such an assault to your identity,” says Dr. Marni Rosner, a New York-based psychotherapist and author of a lengthy study examining infertility as traumatic loss. “Physically, mentally, socially, spiritually.”

Rosner’s study focused on women whose backgrounds are far different from victims of eugenics; they are comparatively wealthy and well-connected, with access to mental health care and other support systems. Still, they struggle in similar ways. They mention feeling isolated from their churches, especially on Mother’s Day, when many congregations have special recognition for mothers and expectant mothers. They experience shame, depression, grief, envy, and difficulty communicating with spouses, family, and friends. Marriages experiencing long-term infertility tend to suffer sexually as well as emotionally, and infertile couples often feel disconnected from friends and siblings moving into the parenting phase of their lives.

Rosner was the first in her field to fully explore the way infertility traumatically impacts almost every area of life, and was questioned about her use of the phrase “reproductive trauma” during her dissertation defense. I have experienced it myself, in five years of trying to conceive: each time a friend or relative becomes pregnant, each child-centered holiday, each reminder of childlessness, is a fresh experience of grief. “It’s not concrete,” she allows. “The losses are hidden. But with reproductive trauma, the losses happen over and over again.”

Compounding this sense of loss is the inability of many infertile people to talk about their experiences. I have experienced this also; when invited to speak at a church service for infertile women and men, I found that I was barely able to raise my voice above a whisper. As Rosner writes in her study, “There are no clear norms for grieving a dream.” Fear of having one’s loss diminished and the desire not to offend or upset those with children reinforce the silence that is a manifestation of what writer and grief counseling expert Kenneth Doka called “disenfranchised grief”: “the grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported.”

It isn’t surprising that sterilization victims have experienced all of those losses — social isolation, depression, trouble in their romantic relationships — but also, perhaps to an even greater extent, disenfranchised grief. Because their inability to have children was not a consequence of biology but a decision made by another, they feel lifelong shame at being deemed “unfit.” At the hearings held by North Carolina’s task force to determine the method of compensation, several of the speakers were in tears as they told their stories. Some who suspected they were targeted and sterilized refused to go through the process of verification necessary to make them eligible for possible compensation. They didn’t want to know the truth.

“It would really be wonderful if, when one of these victims told of what had happened, there was general understanding of what exactly that meant, psychologically, and the life-long implications of the infertility itself,” says Rosner.

When I first met Lynch and Buelin, I had been attending a support group for people experiencing infertility for more than a year. Each month, my husband and I drove to Raleigh to sit in a chilly hospital basement and listen to other women and men tell their stories: the years of trying and failing to conceive, the difficult and painful medical procedures, the feelings of jealousy and longing that never seemed to go away. Most of the other couples were, like us, in stable relationships, with the means to pursue some sort of treatment and the hope that these treatments might one day work. If nothing else, we had those meetings. Once a month, for two hours, we knew we could talk to other people who understood.

Lynch and Buelin have never attended a support group; Buelin, who has transportation issues, has never been able to attend a public hearing, though she once attended a church service with Railey that recognized sterilization victims. The children they don’t have are in many ways just like the children we don’t have — they are people who don’t exist, people we’ve only dreamed about, some of us since we were children ourselves. But there is one difference, which shows up in the dismissive tone taken by opponents to compensation. Lynch and Buelin’s children would be poor.

* * *

Eleven

Among the many artifacts of the eugenics era collected in North Carolina’s state archives is a pamphlet produced in 1950 by a group called The Human Betterment League. “You Wouldn’t Expect…” was circulated to citizens to gain financial and political support for what it referred to as “North Carolina’s humanitarian Selective Sterilization Law.” Written and illustrated in the style of a children’s book, the 12-page pamphlet begins, “You wouldn’t expect… a moron to run a train, or a feebleminded woman to teach school.” Subsequent illustrations depict “mental defectives” crashing cars and fumbling with money, then asks why the “feebleminded” are allowed the most important job of all: parenthood.

“The job of parenthood is too much to expect of feebleminded men and women,” the pamphlet reads. “They should be protected from jobs for which they are not qualified.” The flat colors, large type, simple text, and stylized illustrations, call the intended audience into question. Was it meant to convince those whom the state aimed to keep from reproducing? To bring their limited capacities to mind among the “normal” adult recipients? Or was it merely intended to reference the children it meant to save from “mental affliction and unwholesome surroundings?”

Elaine Riddick is one of the most outspoken victims of North Carolina’s sterilization program. She has appeared on NBC’s Rock Center and on Al Jazeera, and has been interviewed by reporters from across the country. Like Lynch, she was 14 when she was sterilized, immediately following the birth, by Cesarean section, of a son, her only child. Although Riddick scored above the state’s IQ threshold of 75, the five-person Eugenics Board approved the recommendation for her sterilization, labeling Riddick “feebleminded” and “promiscuous” and noting that her schoolwork was poor and that she did not get along well with others.

“I am not feebleminded,” Riddick told members of the task force in June 2011. “I came from a very rural area of North Carolina. I couldn’t get along well with others because I was hungry, I was cold, I was dirty, I was unkempt, I was a victim of rape. I was a victim of child abuse and neglect.” Riddick, who was frequent witness to her father’s physical abuse of her mother, was raped at age 13 by a neighbor in his 20s. She says she didn’t know anything about sex other than that “it was ugly and it hurt.”

At 59, she is also one of the youngest victims to come forward. Riddick’s sterilization, in 1967, came at the end of North Carolina’s peak years: 1946 to 1968, when the state performed 5,368 operations on its residents under the authority of the Eugenics Board. By the time of Riddick’s procedure, most other states had abandoned or scaled back their programs, in part due to postwar revelations about Nazi forced sterilizations. States were also motivated by legal concerns raised by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942), which held that sterilization could not be used as punishment for a crime. In North Carolina, though, the focus merely shifted to an even more vulnerable demographic, targeting more black women and girls than any other group. Riddick, who is black, was a victim of this shift.

After the surgery, Riddick had experienced frequent hemorrhaging, and her period lengthened to 17 days a month, but she did not learn of her sterilization until she was 19, when she began to wonder why she and her husband could not conceive. Her illiterate grandmother, she discovered, had consented with an “X” to a complete salpingectomy.

Riddick’s husband reacted violently to the news, threatening her and calling her barren. Eventually she had to have a complete hysterectomy. She went to a clinic to talk to someone about her emotional distress and was given prescriptions for Haldol and Prozac. “I was catatonic,” she says. “Humiliated. I felt like everyone knew. And then, on top of that, I blamed myself.”

Riddick, who was raised by alcoholic parents and who left school in eighth grade, suffered two bad marriages and a period of drug dependency and homelessness, seems on the surface an example of someone ill-equipped for parenting, likely to produce offspring destined to follow in her own impoverished footsteps. Her principal told the social worker who pursued Riddick’s sterilization that she would never be able to take care of herself, much less a child.

But that isn’t Riddick’s story, not by a long shot. Though she never finished (or even entered) high school, she managed to continue her education, first with a medical aid degree, and then with a degree in social work. “I realized if I didn’t get a little education, God knows what might have happened to me,” she says.

She was among the first to bring a civil case against the state of North Carolina, a case she lost, in the 1970s, but which gave her experience speaking in public and enduring the scrutiny of strangers. Her son, Tony, is a successful entrepreneur who often accompanies his mother to public hearings and speaking events, where he rails against what he calls “North Carolina’s genocide.”

Together, this fiercely intelligent mother-and-son pair stand in defiance of the “science” of eugenics, which, relying on faulty or missing information to make its claims of heritability of traits, was long ago discredited. No gene was ever isolated for bad character or poverty, and it was impossible to separate the circumstances of individuals — Riddick, for her part, remembers going to school hungry each day — from their performance in school or on IQ tests. The tests themselves, the primary method used to determine “feeblemindedness,” have long been seen as flawed, disproportionately penalizing minorities and low-income people.

“It was so close … the timing was so significant, that perhaps that if it were just the next pregnancy, I wouldn’t be able to stand here and speak before you,” Tony Riddick told the task force, right after his mother spoke. “I’d like to give God all the honor and praise for this delicate moment.”

* * *

Twelve

How could the state account, then, for all those who were not born? For Willis Lynch and Annie Buelin and Elaine Riddick’s missing children, and the missing children of the thousands of others who were sterilized? And how to account for the physical and emotional pain the victims experienced: the years of “female trouble,” the broken marriages fraught with physical and emotional abuse, the isolation?

In early 2012, the task force that spent 2 years reviewing documents and listening to victims’ stories acknowledged that “no amount of money can adequately pay for the harm done to these citizens.” It then recommended a package of compensation and recognition: lump sum payments of $50,000 to verified living victims, mental health services, funding for a memorial, and more funding to help the foundation locate and verify others who had been sterilized and were still alive. Though some still felt that the suggested payments were not enough —  Riddick called it “an insult” — others were relieved to see an amount more than double the $20,000 proposed in 2011. At one hearing, Lynch urged the Legislature to hurry up and approve compensation before he died.

Despite the obvious pain of the victims, their relative lack of access to mental health care, consensus that the program was a disgrace, and bipartisan support from the House of Representatives (the bill was advanced by Thom Tillis, a Republican, and longtime victims’ advocate Larry Womble, a Democrat), some felt that the proposed compensation was too generous. Others worried that the financial burden was too much for the state to bear — the task force estimated between 1,500 and 2,000 victims were still alive — or that offering compensation would create a slippery slope of liability, inviting all sorts of wronged parties to seek money from the state.

“You just can’t rewrite history. It was a sorry time in this country,” said state Sen. Don East, a Republican, who opposed compensation. (East died last fall.) “I’m so sorry it happened, but throwing money don’t change it, don’t make it go away. It still happened.” Though the House approved the compensation, which amounted to $11 million in the state’s more than $20 billion budget, the Senate refused to consider it. In June 2012, the Legislature passed a budget that offered zero funding to the victims, effectively shuttering the North Carolina Justice for Victims of Sterilization Foundation.

Victims, many of whom had traveled hundreds of miles to speak multiple times at public hearings, expressed a mix of disbelief, disappointment, and frustration.

“Everybody I know agrees with [compensation],” Lynch said.

“They can find money for everything else,” Buelin said.

Riddick, who has sought compensation for almost 30 years, was confounded by the arguments that sterilizations were perpetrated a long time ago, and that the people in power now have no connection to that past. “No one in the Senate is over 59?” she asked, referring to her age. “Their tax dollars went towards what happened, and they benefitted from the [welfare] savings that came out of that program.”

East was steadfast. “I just don’t think money fixes it.”

On that matter, at least, there is some agreement. “You cannot put a price tag on motherhood,” Riddick said.

I asked her what she would have given to have more children. “That is so easy. I would have given up my life. My whole life.”

* * *

Thirteen

If monetary compensation will not address the wrongs done to the 7,600 people sterilized by the state of North Carolina, then what is the point of adding millions of dollars to the budget of a state with a struggling economy? The answer may lie with the legal theory of transitional justice, a method of confronting legacies of human rights abuses through criminal prosecution, truth commissions, reparations, and institutional reform. Transitional justice addresses the primary objections of those resistant to expensive, government-funded programs, namely that financial compensation will not make victims whole again, and taxpayers should not have to pay for something they did not do. The practice can be traced back to the Nuremberg Trials, and more recent examples include the truth commissions in South Africa, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone.

(Though the genocide and war crimes investigated by those trials and commissions may seem far removed from the experiences of those targeted by North Carolina’s Eugenics Board, forced sterilization is in fact a violation of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly Article XVI, which states: “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. […] The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” According to the United Nations, measures disrupting the reproductive acts of a group can also be considered genocide.)

David Gray, a University of Maryland law professor, has written that transitional justice is not a matter of “ordinary justice.” It is not about making victims whole again, as in tort law (often, for instance in the case of genocide, nothing will do that), or about the assignment of blame for past wrongs. Gray says transitional justice is “Janus-faced,” ideally addressing both “an abusive past and a future committed to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.” Monetary compensation does not seek to restore the victims to their earlier conditions but to help correct the status injustice they experienced, and also to establish a “pre-commitment” from the state that the wrong they experienced will never happen again. According to Gray, the cost is best borne by the state, even if those in power were not involved or even alive during the time of the abuses, as an expression of that commitment. “‘I didn’t do it’ is a non sequitur when the fundamental question is ‘How do we make it right?'”

I asked Gray how the victims of North Carolina could both recognize the state’s abusive past and ensure that it never happens again.

His first suggestion was a public, accessible archive of documents related to the program (one already exists online, but is not comprehensive). “That way,” he said, “there can never be a dispute about what happened.” In addition to the archive, he suggested a public display or monument that would not only provide recognition to those who were sterilized, but would challenge the public to ask themselves, as the Holocaust Museum in Washington challenges its visitors, what would I have done? This lines up with the recommendations of the task force to create both permanent and traveling exhibits, as well as an ongoing oral history project to “tell the full story of eugenics in North Carolina.”

Gray differed with the task force, however, in how to approach compensation. Instead of awarding each victim the same amount, he suggested a fund administrator be retained to listen to each victim’s story and determine an amount based on individual experience, including physical and emotional suffering. This approach would likely result in payments roughly equivalent to the $50,000 proposed, but individualized approaches are often more palatable to detractors, said Gray. “There’s a difference between equality and uniformity. You’re recognizing the wrong, while compensating the harm.”

Though there is a danger that victims would feel divided by such an approach, one potential benefit to Gray’s suggestion would be the opportunity for all victims to have their stories heard, if not publicly, then privately. This could have a therapeutic effect on many, says psychotherapist Marni Rosner.

“Many shamed and traumatized people rarely tell their story for fear of being shamed and traumatized again, or receiving yet another unhelpful response. It’s possible that some have never had the opportunity to tell their story, from beginning to end, without interruption, to someone that is truly interested and listening attentively. This can be extremely cathartic,” she says. When an empathic witness hears the story of traumas, according to Rosner, something shifts. The brain is rewired to make room for a new, non-shaming response.

Riddick, who has told her story again and again to audiences large and small, local and international, puts it more simply: “Through talking, I starting shedding off pieces of my shame. I had to get rid of all that shame if I wanted to live.”

* * *

Fourteen

Willis Lynch and other victims of sterilization have an intuitive sense of the way transitional justice should work, and they see examples everywhere that support the rightness of their quest. Look at the compensation awarded to Japanese internment victims, they say. Or the wall of names at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. They speak, at hearings, of genocide and Nazis, and they want the state to pay for what it did. They want something lasting and significant to mark what they have been through. They want a public legacy.

For the objection raised most often by North Carolina’s resistant legislators — the state cannot afford to compensate all of the potential victims — Willis Lynch has an easy answer: It’s the state’s responsibility to pay for its mistake, a mistake it should have understood was wrong in the first place. “Look at what they do for people put in jail, people who were innocent,” he says, referring to the compensation offered by many states, on the order of $50,000 per year of incarceration, to the wrongfully convicted. “They lost their freedom, but they weren’t cut open like hogs.”

On a warm spring Friday, I drive to Norlina to watch Lynch perform at one of the “Norlina Jamborees” held at his VFW hall. It is the day of George Jones’s death, and many of the performers have chosen songs to honor the country crooner: “Jones on the Jukebox,” “A Picture of Me (Without You),” “White Lightning.” Lynch sits in the corner of the stage, his usual spot, and strums along.

I think about why his easy answer has not worked so far, why people are still uncomfortable with the idea of connecting monetary compensation to the loss of reproductive ability. The compensation in his example, afforded to wrongfully convicted inmates, is structured to replace lost wages. Japanese internment victims, likewise, received payments meant to compensate for the harm done to their businesses and earning ability. It is much more difficult to establish the value of children who never existed.

Or is it? Sitting in the audience of the darkened VFW hall, I shift uncomfortably in my newly tight jeans. I am 10 weeks pregnant, my condition invisible to everyone but me. Also invisible is the $25,000 I have paid doctors to achieve and sustain my pregnancy, the 3 years of trying and despairing and saving up money, the 2 years of difficult and invasive treatments. My experience with infertility, an unlucky circumstance rather than a state-sponsored violence, is nothing compared to what Lynch and others like him have endured. Yet I understand something of the isolation, the sadness, and even the shame that comes with not being able to have the child you always dreamed of, especially when others seem to be able to have children so easily. I also know, better than many, what people with the resources and will to pursue fertility treatment will pay in order to conceive. All of our money — all of it.

There is another cost of sterility to be considered, which is the cost of spending your later years alone, without the support network of traditional family life. The 75 or 100 men and women who have come to dance and perform at the VFW hall have a lot in common with Lynch: They are mostly country people, retired, but in evident good health as they shuffle and spin around the varnished wood floor. Still, more of them than not are couples, and it isn’t hard to imagine that they have children and grandchildren nearby to help them with things that get harder with age: home repair, trips to the doctor, legal matters. If there are repairs to be done at Lynch’s home, he does them himself. If he has a doctor’s appointment, he drives himself two hours north to the VA hospital in Richmond. His car, with its modified headlights and more than 700,000-mile history, has only one seat, for the driver.

At the VFW hall, Lynch is alone and yet not alone. He sits on a folding chair at the front of the room among about a dozen other performers. One by one, they go to the microphone and sing a number of their choosing, backed by the rest of the group. Finally it is his turn, and he gets up to play the song he’s promised me, Marty Robbins’s “Devil Woman,” a song about wrongs and forgiveness, and which shows off his falsetto:

I told Mary about us, told her about our great sin

Mary just cried and forgave me, Mary took me back again

The crowd’s best dancers take the floor, and afterward I watch Lynch accept praise and nods of appreciation from friends and acquaintances. He doesn’t linger to talk with anyone, though, and soon makes for the kitchen at the back of the room. How many of his peers know about his situation, I wonder? How many of them know how much he loves kids, how much he wishes for children and grandchildren?

It is a paradox that Lynch and others like him experienced the most intimate loss of privacy, the invasion of the state into their reproductive lives, but because we consider reproduction “private,” we have little way of talking about or evaluating their loss. At the final victims’ hearing, even then-Gov. Perdue seemed to be uncomfortable. She came in late and spoke hurriedly, saying that she was not attending in an official capacity.

“It’s hard for me to accept or to understand or to even try to figure out why these kinds of atrocious acts could have been committed in this country and I’m being told more than 30 states. I find it reprehensible,” she said. “But, I just came here as a woman, as a mama and as a grandma and as Governor of this state, quite frankly to tell you it’s wrong.” She spoke briefly of her support for compensation and thanked the victims in attendance for their courage, then left without talking to them individually.

Lynch, who’d sat next to John Railey during the meeting, called his journalist friend on the way back to Littleton. “I didn’t think much of her,” he told Railey. “I’m not too hopeful.”

* * *

Fifteen

The word “sterile” has two meanings: free from germs or contaminants; and fruitless, or unable to produce offspring. Using outdated, scientifically dubious ideas, the eugenics program in North Carolina conflated these two definitions. It sought to cleanse the state of the contamination of poverty, disability, and mental illness by surgically preventing thousands of men, women, and children from ever having biological children. It happened in every one of the state’s 100 counties: to men and women; to blacks, whites, and Native Americans; to those who already had offspring and to those who had not yet entered puberty. For some, it took years to accept that their sterilizations were permanent. Others bore the bitter understanding immediately, and thought of it daily.

All of the victims who testified before the Task Force to Determine the Method of Compensation for Victims of North Carolina’s Eugenics Board confronted painful, often shameful memories to speak before strangers, on the good-faith assumption that their words would have an impact. They would finally receive official recognition and the assurance that nothing like this would ever happen again in their state. Though they could never be made whole, they would receive financial support that would make some kind of difference in their lives.

To date, two things have happened, officially. The state included brief language about the eugenics program in the revised American History and Grade 8 Social Studies curriculum. And in 2009, it erected a new historical marker near the site in Raleigh where the Eugenics Board once met. The marker looks similar to the hundreds of other silver-and-black signs commemorating presidential visits, significant birthplaces, and Revolutionary War battles across the state. It reads:

EUGENICS BOARD

State action led to the sterilization by choice or coercion of over 7,600 people, 1933-1973. Met after 1939 one block E.

The marker does not come close to the permanent and traveling memorials envisioned by the victims, who wanted something to teach people about injustice, someplace the public could visit to pay their respects, to grieve, and to make amends. They have also yet to receive a dollar from the state.

Still, the most outspoken victims have experienced, on their own, what psychologists call “post-traumatic growth”: positive psychological change experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances. Post-traumatic growth can be expressed in a number of ways: through new and satisfying relationships, through greater personal strength and vulnerability, or through creative outlets or other forms of self-expression.

Annie Buelin experienced growth and generativity through her faith. After suffering a long period of depression and spiritual isolation, she says, “I thought, I’m going to go somewhere to church.” A friend from the chicken plant where she worked invited Annie to hers. She went and even felt comfortable enough to ask the congregants to pray for an end to her depression.

That church was also where she met Woodrow. They sat near each other in the choir at an Easter Sunday evening service; Annie, an alto, noticed Woodrow’s strong bass singing voice, and was impressed when he sang a song he’d written himself. After church, Woodrow asked Annie if she’d like to have a poem. He borrowed a pen and paper and wrote one out for her, then added his phone number at the end.

Annie remembers talking with Woodrow for more than two hours the first time she called him, and his delight at hearing her voice: “He said he was walking the floor, waiting for me to call.” They dated for over a year before they married, going to church functions and getting together with Woodrow’s large family for potlucks and holidays. “I told Woodrow right off when we talked about getting married,” she says. “He said, that’s all right if you can’t have children. My children and grandchildren will make up for the ones you couldn’t have.

“At Christmas, the house would be full of 12 or 15 children,” Annie says. “I cooked for everyone. We all just had a good time.” At church, Woodrow’s kids made Annie stand for the traditional Mother’s Day honoring.

Annie and Woodrow were married for 27 years; he died in 2012 at 89. She still lives in the converted tobacco curing house he restored for her in Ararat, North Carolina, not far from where she grew up, and one of Woodrow’s sons and his wife live next door. The walls and tabletops of Annie’s home are filled with framed photographs of her late husband and his children and grandchildren, along with typed poems he wrote for Annie and her mother. He told her every day that he loved her.

Post-traumatic growth does not erase the experience of trauma, but allows people to integrate painful experiences into their life stories. Even after all the love she experienced with her husband and his family, Buelin still thinks about the children she didn’t have. “I know I would be a good mother,” she says. “I would work hard to raise them in church, to teach them right from wrong. I imagine myself sending them to school and [them] getting a good education. I would love them with everything in my power.”

Though Buelin follows the news and feels strongly that she should be compensated, her faith has helped her cope with the possibility that she might be disappointed. “To be a Christian, you can’t hate anybody,” she explains. “I forgive everybody that’s ever done me wrong. The Lord will take care of me. He loves me just as much as he loves you.”

Elaine Riddick’s growth has come through advocacy for her fellow sterilization victims and also, as with Buelin, through her faith. But it took her a while to get there.

“When I first started going to Raleigh, I was a mess,” she says, referring to the public hearings that began in 2010. “The more I went, the better I felt.”

Riddick speaks eloquently about her experience as a victim of North Carolina’s eugenics program, but can also cite statistics for programs in other states: California, Washington, Oregon. She’s developed a particular interest in international reproductive rights abuses, including recent reports that the Israeli government had been giving Depo-Provera shots, without consent, to immigrant Ethiopian Jews. She has traveled to Lynchburg, Virginia, to visit the institution where Carrie Buck lived and help a new organization begin the process of identifying victims in that state. Riddick, who is passionately pro-life, has also told her story at anti-abortion events around the country.

Her personal life, too, has improved. She is in a loving relationship, spends lots of time caring for nieces and nephews, and no longer feels jealous of pregnant women.

“I’m the type of person, if something bothers me, I have to fix it,” she says. She can now put her face next to a pregnant woman’s stomach to talk to the baby. “That was hard, but I did it.”

Riddick follows the Legislature’s debates over compensation from her home in Atlanta, but is also pursuing another civil case, this time a class action. She’s convinced several of her fellow victims to join her — Willis Lynch is a co-plaintiff — and talks to them regularly. With the goal of becoming a more effective and better informed public speaker, she reads everything she can, from international news reports to the mystical writings of St. Teresa of Avila.

Her primary goal in life, she says, is making sure that involuntary sterilization doesn’t happen to anybody else.

“I’m comfortable. I feel free,” she says firmly. “I’m so proud that God gave me a voice. I demand to be heard.”

Lynch’s post-traumatic growth is more difficult for outsiders to gauge. After his first marriage ended, he stayed away from women, fearing that he would again be used. After coming forward with his story he has granted interviews, but he doesn’t seek them out, and he is circumspect about the impact telling it has made. He’d rather talk about where Hank Williams ranks in the hierarchy of country musicians (No.1), and about which songs he’ll try out at the VFW on Friday night.

“Willis came to all this pretty tough and extroverted,” says Railey. “Even though there’s a certain point he won’t let you get past, more and more, he’s wanted to tell the story. He’s seen that he’s part of a bigger story … part of a movement towards justice.”

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Sixteen

After legislators failed to include compensation in the 2012 budget, advocates and victims  vowed to fight on. Railey and his colleagues at the Journal continued to publish editorials urging action, victims continued to give interviews, and several House members, especially Womble and Tillis, continued to work behind the scenes to secure votes. In that year’s gubernatorial race, both major-party candidates expressed support for compensation, and following his election, Republican Pat McCrory included $10 million for it in his proposed spending plan for 2013-14.

But with both houses of the legislature and the executive branch under G.O.P. control for the first time since Reconstruction, progressive causes came under attack. The legislature repealed the Racial Justice Act, which allowed inmates who believed they were victims of discrimination to challenge death sentences, and passed a bill severely restricting access to the polls. They voted to reduce unemployment benefits, to cut funding for preschool programs and teachers’ aides, and to close agencies serving young children with developmental disabilities. They cut Medicaid and teacher pay, removed class size limits, and passed a bill that would close most of the state’s abortion clinics.

The state’s chapter of the NAACP organized a series of  protests at the Capitol to draw attention to the cuts, which resulted in more than 900 arrests. No one talked much about the eugenics issue, and victims and their supporters waited anxiously to see if they would be left out again. Given the contentious tone of the budget process, and the hostility so many lawmakers seemed to feel for the poor and disenfranchised, and to poor children in particular, it was hard to imagine a positive outcome. Buelin says she prayed every night for Phil Berger, leader of the Senate, who blocked compensation in his chamber’s first version of the budget.

Then, after a late night vote on Thursday, July 18, Railey heard from one of his sources that compensation would be included in the final bill reconciling the House and Senate budgets. He didn’t want to call any of the victims until he was “damn sure,” he says, and he waited nervously all weekend for word from Raleigh. On Saturday, he talked to Womble, who was optimistic. Sunday night, while watching a movie at home and working on the next week’s editorial page lineup, he checked his email and saw a joint press release from Tillis’s and Berger’s offices. He opened the document and scanned until paragraph four, where he read:

The plan […] provides one-time compensation to living victims of a state-sponsored Eugenics program that ended in the 1970s […]

Immediately, he began calling the victims and their advocates. He congratulated them on their hard work and perseverance. After more than a decade of seeking redress from the state, their voices conveyed “a real sense of vindication,” he says. One he couldn’t reach was Willis Lynch. When Railey finally got through the next morning, Lynch had already read the news. “I keep my eye on the paper, too,” he teased.

Statisticians estimate that more than half of North Carolina’s 7,600 sterilization victims have died, erased from history, just as the eugenicists imagined. Eighteen known victims have died since the verification process began in 2010. That leaves fewer than 200 who have been confirmed, only a fraction of those who might be eligible. Though the $10 million proposed would  cover the administration of $50,000 for each of the currently verified victims, it’s unclear how many more will come forward. The individual funds, scheduled for administration in 2015, could be more — or significantly less. It’s also unclear how aggressively the foundation will search for additional victims or where money will come from for the mental health services and memorials the task force recommended.

Still, in a political season that has attracted shaming attention to the state on a national scale, it helps to remember that any compensation is historic. North Carolina will likely serve as an example and motivation to other states considering how to address eugenics-based sterilization. Two legislators in Virginia’s House of Delegates, a Democrat and a Republican, recently co-sponsored a bill that also recommends individual payments of $50,000 each for victims of that state’s eugenics program, and advocates have been attempting to interest politicians in California and West Virginia in compensation, too.

But it is the deeply personal, painful stories of North Carolina’s victims — black and white, rural and urban, male and female — have now been heard by people around the world. They overcame their shame and their grief to talk about something that no one wanted to talk about for decades. In the absence of a traveling exhibit or permanent archive, their actions stand as both a memorial to their resilience and a challenge to the rest of us: How will we make it right?

Most victims weren’t waiting, after all, for the money. Riddick has said that she wants to use her award to help pregnant teenagers and disabled children. Buelin wants a more reliable car for getting around, but also plans to give back to the stepson and daughter-in-law who have taken care of her.

And Lynch has started planning a trip with his nephew — a token of gratitude, he says, for how good he was to Lynch’s mother. They’ll go to Nashville, to the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame, and then on to Montgomery for Hank Williams Day, held each year on January 1, the day he died. Lynch, who turned 80 in June, says he intends to live a long time yet.

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Originally published by The New New South, August 2013. 

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BELLE BOGGS is the author of Mattaponi Queen, a collection of linked stories that take place along Virginia’s Mattaponi River. Mattaponi Queen won the Bakeless Prize, the Emyl Jenkins Sexton Literary Award from the Library of Virginia, was a finalist for the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, was a 2010 Kirkus Reviews top fiction debut, and was a finalist for the Library of Virginia People’s Choice Award for fiction. Boggs has received fellowships to the Bread Loaf and Sewanee writers’ conferences and is a recipient of a 2011 Artist Fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council and a 2012 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Boggs was named “Best New Southern Author” by Southern Living magazine, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Paris Review, Harper’s, Glimmer Train, the Oxford American, Orion, the Sun, and other publications. 

OLYMPIA STONE is an award-winning independent producer, director and editor of documentary films.  Her intimate portrait of the artist James Grashow, The Cardboard Bernini, details his exhilarating quest to create an intricately detailed cardboard version of the Trevi fountain, which he intends to abandon to the elements. Broadcast nationwide on PBS in 2013-14, the film also won Best Documentary at the Art of Brooklyn Film Festival 2013, and was an official selection at Sebastopol, Santa Fe and 18 other festivals. Her first independent film, The Collector: Allan Stone’s Life in Art (2007) chronicles the obsessive collecting of her father, a New York art world gallerist whose habits and prescient scouting shaped his life and the lives of many in his artfully cluttered orbit.

Editor: Andrew Park

Special thanks to: Richard Allen, Rosecrans Baldwin, Gray Beltran, Crystal Fawn, Andrew Foster, Haven Kimmel, Dan Kois, Philip Motley, Duncan Murrell, Dan Oshinsky, John Railey, Evan Ratliff, Cristina Smith, Ron Stodghill, Olympia Stone, Barry Yeoman, Atavist, and the Duke University School of Law Startup Ventures Clinic