When Fact and Fiction Intersect

The novel Unfit, by Lara Cleveland Torgesen is the story of Chrissy, a young victim of North Carolina’s practice of forced sterilization, and the impact of that program on her life. While the novel is fiction it’s built out of many real stories and historical information. And while eugenics is no longer practiced in North Carolina, (or any state), its legacy is still alive, as survivors try to claim their share of the recent reparations bill. 

Below is Lara Cleveland Torgesen’s thoughts and reactions to the most recent delay in the compensation effort.  

New Snag in the Battle for NC Eugenics Compensation

Lara Cleveland Torgesen

Lara Cleveland Torgesen

The battle for compensation for the remaining survivors of the NC eugenics program hit another low recently with the announcement that more than 300 of the 780 claim forms submitted by the June 30 deadline of this year have been denied. Those individuals denied compensation have the option to supply more medical information and go through multiple rounds of appeals to try to change the ruling.

Junk Science

This battle began more than a decade ago, when The Winston-Salem Journal published a shocking five-part series, “Against Their Will,” documenting North Carolina’s eugenics program that operated from 1929 until 1974. The series revealed that the state had performed at least 7,600 sterilizations over 45 years (many without the knowledge or consent of the victim) and that more than 2,000 of the victims were children and believed to still be living.The purpose of the state program was to weed out the “unfit” from society by stopping them from breeding.

While eugenic ideology was quite popular in the U.S. in the early 20th century and compulsory sterilization of the “unfit” was legal, its practice fell out of favor after World War II when the horrors of the Holocaust were uncovered. The “science” behind eugenics—which held that things like poverty, disease, and alcoholism were inherited genetically and could therefore be bred out of society by controlling the reproductive lives of the population—had already by that time been disproven. The fact that North Carolina continued to operate a state-run program based on junk science long after other states had dismantled their programs is bad enough. But the ugly turn that the program took in the 1950’s and 60’s is even worse. Since NC was the only state in which social workers were empowered to start the petitioning process, the program increasingly targeted individuals in the general population (rather than in state-run institutions). A large percentage of those who were sterilized were people in poor, black, and rural areas.

An Attempt to Make it Right

The public attention on the program prompted a formal apology in 2002 from then Governor Mike Easley along with discussion about ways the state could right a past wrong, including some type of monetary compensation to the remaining survivors. But, for several years, the state had little to show from this discussion other than a traveling historical exhibit about the program and a historical roadside marker erected in downtown Raleigh in 2009. Then, the tide seemed to be changing. After listening to testimonies from survivors, a governor’s task force recommended in 2012 that each survivor receive a one-time compensation of $50,000.The bill was blocked that year, but the following year the legislature passed a $10 million compensation package for survivors. Presumably, the survivors would submit a claim by a June 30, 2014 deadline, and the compensation would be paid out in the summer of 2015.

This latest snag with the claims is upsetting but not surprising. I studied NC’s eugenics program during graduate school at NC State and hadUnfitCover-Final a chance to interview several of the survivors. They shared their stories with me and I wrote about them in a cover article for the March 23, 2010 issue of The Independent Weekly, “The Ultimate Betrayal: NC Eugenics Survivors Seek Justice.” Their stories also prompted my first novel, UNFIT, which was published in 2013, about a girl who is targeted by the program and how that one event ripples throughout her life. One of my main observations from interviewing the victims was that it wasn’t just a one-time incident that touched their lives briefly and then disappeared. It caused lasting damage. It caused heartache and pain. It robbed them of their reproductive rights and stole their future children and families. It shaped the way they saw themselves and affected their relationships with others. I couldn’t quite convey all that in my newspaper article, which is why I ended up writing a novel. While Chrissy’s story is fiction, her heartache and pain are real. And there are others like her out there.

The State Needs To Do More

Although I have not read through the claim forms or interviewed the 320 people who were denied claims, I see several problems with the way it is being handled. First, many of these victims were mentally disabled or children and were not told what the procedure was or why they needed it. They were left on their own to figure out what happened to them. In fact, two of the victims I interviewed were not ever told that they had been sterilized. They pieced together the evidence years later. I have long believed that the state should be doing more to try to get in touch with survivors, especially the ones who were sterilized as children (who are presumably the ones still alive today and would qualify for compensation). If they weren’t told back then what was being done to them, they likely still don’t know now.

Second, most were from desperately poor and rural areas and likely would not have the required documentation necessary for the claim or know where to get it if it exists at all. And, finally, if you’ve ever battled an insurance company over a claim, then you probably understand the frustration of dealing with massive amounts of paperwork, meeting the deadlines, and obtaining the required documentation. Many of these survivors are not highly educated and cannot afford representation. It is vastly intimidating to be a lone individual facing the red tape of a bureaucracy. This is the same type of intimidation that many of them faced when first given the sterilization orders. They did not know that there was a way to appeal it. They did not see a way out. Some families fled the state rather than comply, but many families simply did not have the know-how or means to fight it and so they complied.

My suggestion for the state, rather than being so quick and handy with that red “DENY” stamp, is to examine the evidence that is there. Read through the claim, investigate a little more, interview the individual and others who can vouch for their stories, go back to the Eugenics Board records in the state archives and sort it out. Does the claimant have scars from a sterilization procedure performed years ago? For women at least, it was a very invasive procedure back then. Surely there are other ways to tell whether these claimants are victims even if they do not have the appropriate documentation. I cannot imagine that 320 people who do not have all the appropriate forms are lying. They believe this happened to them strongly enough to fill out and submit a claim form by the required deadline. Have we really made them wait this long only to refuse them on a technicality?

This time, please, give them a chance to be heard before rubberstamping their forms and moving on.

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