This author exposed the horrors of a state-run sterilization program

The Thin Reads Interview with Belle Boggs, Author of "For the Public Good"

Until1974, more than 7,600 poor and often powerless North Carolinians were sterilized.  Frequently, they were forced to undergo the procedure as part of the state-run eugenics program that began in 1929.  North Carolina-based writer Belle Boggs (author of “Mattaponi Queen,” a collection of short stories) became interested in the tale and wrote the  46-page Kindle Single “For the Public Good: Forced Sterilization and the Fight for Compensation,” an outstanding work of long-form investigative journalism.  In it, Boggs throws a harsh spotlight on the shameful history of eugenics in America, the science that attempts to improve a race by controlled mating.  “For the Public Good” is the first e-book single produced by The New New South, a new digital publisher focused on nonfiction stories that take place in the South. Thin Reads caught up with Boggs, who has published in The Paris Review and Harper’s, and conducted this email interview. 

Thin Reads: In the opening pages of "For the Public Good," you mentioned your struggle to conceive a child. Is that one of the major factors that drew you to this story?

When I first read about the eugenics program in my state, and the victims' fight for compensation and recognition, I was thinking a lot about the value of having children and what I would give up in order to conceive. Having a child is an expensive, difficult, lifelong commitment, yet it's one I've seen people put their whole life savings into securing, and I was on the brink of making that decision (to pursue expensive, uncertain fertility treatment) myself. I asked Elaine Riddick, a woman who was unwittingly sterilized at age 14 after the birth of her first child, what she'd have given up for the ability to have more children, and she said "That's easy--my whole life" (which sounds extreme, but I believe her). The chance to talk to a group of people who'd thought deeply about this question, and who'd lived with involuntary childlessness for such a long time, was compelling to me.

I was also drawn to the reactions of opponents of compensation, both in our state legislature and in the general public. I was interested in people's complicated, distancing personal reaction to our country's history of sterilization, and why some people--even after hearing about the impact on the lives of the sterilized--still seem to think it's a not such a bad idea. I recognized a kind of dismissiveness from my experience with infertility, this idea that well, there must be something wrong with you, probably you shouldn't have children in the first place. A lot of the commenters I found online, responding to stories about eugenics, wanted to reserve the possibility that "some people"--poor people, people with low IQs, criminals--should be prevented from having children. When an excerpt of "For the Public Good" appeared on Salon, a lot of the comments echoed that idea. Of course, the Internet is full of trolls, but I think some people really believe this--that they should be free to have kids, while others should not, or should be grateful they were spared that burden. The way that old ideas persist, especially when they are somewhat hidden or cloaked, is always interesting to me as a writer.

In the South in particular, we often hear people saying – that was a long time ago, there's nothing we can do about it now –  which is almost always, of course, a reference to our legacy of racism and slavery (and somewhere in there, a fear response to reparations). I wanted to know, what can we do? What should we do?

Thin Reads: Did you have any misgivings about inserting your own personal situation into the book?

I did, and in the first draft, it isn't there at all, but my editor, Andrew Park, and the filmmaker Olympia Stone (who shot great videos to accompany the story and read an early draft), encouraged me to try. I didn't want to seem like I was drawing an equivalence--my experience is nothing like Willis's or Annie's or Elaine's. (Willis Lynch, Annie Buelin, and Elaine Riddick are three victims of North Carolina's eugenics program, all sterilized as children, who have been advocates for compensation and recognition from the state). But I do think I'm in a position to understand some of the isolation, the depression, and the longing they suffered, so as I wrote about those issues I found it helped to include more of my own background. I also talked frankly with Willis, Annie, and Elaine about my infertility, and we had very open conversations about loneliness, shame, family, what it's like when your life turns out differently than how you imagined it. I found those conversations, personally, very helpful.

Thin Reads: It's hard not to read "For the Public Good" and not feel a sense of incredible outrage at the state-sponsored forced sterilizations in our country. Yet your tone in the book was extremely even-handed. Were you outraged by what you were discovering? If so, how did you keep emotions so carefully cloaked?

One thing you'll notice about the victims--or survivors--of this program is that they are very capable of telling their stories and articulating outrage over the experience. There is nothing I could write that would be more powerful than Willis describing his dawning realization that the operation he received at 14 was a vasectomy, or Annie talking about growing up so poor that she didn't feel welcome at school, or Elaine relating the abuse and neglect that got her labeled as promiscuous and feebleminded. So my goal was to get out of their way, and try to provide the context for the story. (It also helps to have a great editor who can point out when you are verging on editorializing.)

Thin Reads: Is there any aspect of eugenics that you think might be useful or do you think the entire concept is completely reprehensible?

It's a pretty widely discredited idea. Genes are so complicated--last year I audited a biology class at Duke, and the first day was devoted to debunking the dichotomy of "nature versus nurture," another concept developed by Francis Galton, because we now know that nature and nurture work together. We know, through the study of epigenetics, that experience and environment influence the expression and behavior of our genes. Genes have much more plasticity that we once thought--and, interestingly, environment is more fixed (proponents of eugenics-based sterilization were actually more often addressing environment, not genes). But even more than that, selective breeding is very easily vulnerable to our worst human traits and prejudices. As Elaine, Annie, and Willis all point out, directly or indirectly, there was nothing "unfit" about them other than poverty. 

It's interesting to me when people bring up the "new eugenics" and connect it to things like assisted reproduction and abortion. There's a fear that because embryos can be tested before selection, or because we can learn about genetic abnormalities in developing fetuses, that people will feel compelled to select for certain traits. People who bring this up tend to have very little experience with the actual difficulty of assisted reproduction or the pain associated with making those kinds of decisions--it's more of a thought experiment for them--so the argument becomes another way of making assumptions about something that is very private, very personal.

Thin Reads: "For the Public Good" is quite thorough and comprehensive. Explain how long it took for you to research and where your investigation took you.

I spent about a year working on the story. I started by meeting Willis Lynch, visiting him in his home, and then going to some of his performances at the jamboree held every Friday night at the VFW in Norlina, North Carolina.  I had a chance to visit with Annie, and talk to Elaine on the phone, and connect with some other people who I thought could add context and perspective to the story, all while the fight for compensation was happening (mostly behind the scenes) in our legislature. We were finishing edits on the story at a very politically contentious time in North Carolina, with hundreds of people getting arrested over cuts to all kinds of public programs, and an extended budget deadline, and we weren't sure how the legislature would vote. I was getting guesses from Winston-Salem Journal editorial page editor John Railey about how things would go, and talking to Willis and Annie about their predictions, but we all had to wait, which was exciting but also anxiety-filled.

Thin Reads: How does the content in your book differ from the ground-breaking reporting John Railey and his colleagues at the Winston-Salem Journal did on the same subject (which you cite)?

I would not have been able to write this story without the assistance of John Railey, who has a close relationship with many of the victims, and who has written so powerfully, extensively, and passionately about North Carolina's eugenics program and the fight for compensation. I also greatly admire the work of the whole team at the Winston-Salem Journal. I knew that if I wrote about sterilization in North Carolina, it would need to be different in some way--not more comprehensive, but approaching the story from new angles.

One way I tried to do this was by considering the public and legislative support for--and resistance to-- compensation. What does it mean when the state recognizes and apologizes for past wrongs, and puts actual resources behind that apology? How is that "for the public good"? And why, particularly in the South, is agreeing on compensation such a tricky issue? I met with David Gray, a law professor who has studied truth commissions and other forms of transitional justice, and learned about the goals and obstacles to successful public amends-making.

I also wanted to show more of the arc of these lives, how it is possible to survive and transcend this kind of suffering. I found Marni Rosner, a therapist who specializes in infertility as trauma, and talked to her about post-traumatic growth, which happens when you can integrate painful past experiences into your identity and actually get strength from them. Annie, Willis, and Elaine all exemplify this kind of growth, and it's been enhanced, I think, by the various ways they have spoken out publicly about their experience. No matter what happened in the compensation battle, this was something they achieved for themselves, and I found it inspiring. I hope other people will too.

Posted 9/10/13

Buy “For the Public Good” at: Amazon

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