Carrie Buck’s letters, and badly written narratives about them

Carrie Buck was the institutionalized plaintiff of the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell. In a case rigged against her, the Supreme Court upheld a 1924 sterilization law. The Virginia institution sterilized her, then later “paroled” her: they sent her to do poorly-paid housework for local families. For any arbitrary reason, the Colony could re-confine her. She repeatedly pressed for a full discharge, and eventually won it. These facts are not in dispute.

Dr. Paul A. Lombardo, an academic scholar on Buck v. Bell, writes about these facts in a recent Undark Magazine article. He presents some letters written by Buck during her “parole” and post-discharge period as an untold story. It is a disingenuous claim to say he is presenting a new angle on an untold story.

Buck’s story has been told many, many times, by journalists, historians, a film in 1994, and an upcoming film starring Dakota Johnson. And her letters are not undiscovered, her thoughts not wholly unknown: The letters have been around for years, in the state library of Virginia, and excerpted in journal articles and books. Yet he writes in the article: “We also now know that Buck left her own record.” Buck’s story is albeit being told in flawed ways:  the narrative of her being “mentally normal” as the reason it was wrong to sterilize her. It is a narrative that journalists and scholars have done little to correct, including Lombardo. In fact, he uses these letters to promote that narrative in his article.

And it is true that they have not been publicized in Internet articles such as Lombardo’s (that I could find). But to say that Buck’s thoughts have never been known before, to say that we just now know “Buck left her own record,” is to say that we did not know before that Buck had agency.  To use Buck’s letters to promote a narrative that fails to acknowledge that eugenicists used disability, real or not, as a reason to sterilize people – is also wrong. To use Buck’s letters as proof of “not disabled” meaning she shouldn’t have been sterilized is wrong. (Also, disabled people are often denied agency in a number of ways.)

It is not only insulting to disabled people, but it is also insulting to Carrie Buck and what she went through. Carrie Buck was sterilized under a government law by people who used public fear of disability and “defectiveness” to do it. It was not for people to claim “not disabled” was the one quality that made her sterilization wrong. It was not for people to deny her agency.

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