By 1974, 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 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 published a few weeks ago. 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. Thin Reads, which has interviewed many prominent e-book single authors, caught up with Boggs and conducted this email interview. (Read the full Belle Boggs interview here.)
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.
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.
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.