Letters from an imbecile

Carrie Buck was sterilized against her will; her fight against this violation went all the way to the Supreme Court, where Oliver Wendell Holmes dismissed her rights with the remark that “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Now you can see for yourself how imbecilic Carrie Buck was. Some of Buck’s letters have been published. Here’s one sample:

Dearest Mrs. Berry, Will write to you this A.M. This leaves me real well and getting along just fine. Mrs. Berry I have wrote to Dorris several times since I have been here and haven’t gotten any answer from it. I guess there are lots of girls going away now. I had a letter from mother here several days ago and said for me to send her some things. Will it be o.k. for me to do so or not. Will you please let me know. Give her my love and tell her I will write to her later as I haven’t got time to write now as I have got some work to do. Give Miss Vian (?) my love and all of the girls. Well I must close for now. With Love, Carrie B., Bland, Va.

That’s perfectly normal, an average human being with average human concerns having a conversation with another person. These are also scans of her letters, so you can also see that she had remarkably clear penmanship — not that penmanship is the mark of a worthy human, but it does show that she had normal skills and values.

What we did to this woman was a tragedy and a crime.


  1. says

    Carrie Buck belongs in the broader frame of eugenics and implicates psychology and IQ testing generally. There was a tremendous amount of this sort of stuff done in the name of “science” but usually using pseudo-science to justify racism and classism. The Kallikak family story, for one example (like Carrie Buck) turns out to be a lot of cherry-picking data to meet people’s impressions. Eventually it took on a lot of the flavor of a religious inquisition against the unworthy, and that’s basically what it was. Pseudo-science played a huge part; unfortunately scientific classists and racists are still crawling out of the woodwork even today. It seems that there are two kinds of people: those who divide everyone into two kinds of people, and those that do not.

  2. A Masked Avenger says

    And yet people quote Ollie Wendell like some sort of hero. He was always good for a sound byte, but he was a monster, and never met a logical fallacy he couldn’t befriend.

  3. A Masked Avenger says

    …and shit. I clicked through and read the letters, and they’re heartbreaking.

    Maybe she was just a tender-hearted person, but her affectionate — almost fawning — tone toward the physician who sterilized her and retained the power to commit her at any time reads to me like an abuse victim doing her damndest not to set off her abuser’s temper.

  4. A Masked Avenger says

    Oh, almost forgot. Append to #6, “… and still had her mother in captivity at the time.

  5. says

    And didn’t inform her of her mother’s death, so she goes to visit and discovers that she’s cold and buried weeks in the ground.

  6. Walter Solomon says

    Chalking this inhuman behavior up to it just being “a different era” does nothing to excuse it, but opinions like these were all too common in the near past. For instance, see how Rosemary Kennedy was treated by her own family.

  7. Kimberly Dick says

    The way you’re framing this, PZ, really makes me uncomfortable. It seems to imply that the real tragedy here is that a person who was reasonably articulate was sterilized, not that the sterilization itself was a horror.

    Yes, people with severe mental disabilities like Down Syndrome can be quite articulate. And people who are considered very intelligent and capable in certain areas of their lives can be quite inarticulate (e.g. autism or dyslexia). But the real horror here is that we decided that many people didn’t (and don’t) consider people like Carrie Buck to be fully worthy of consideration as humans, and then decided to sterilize them as a result.

  8. kupo says

    Agreed, Kimberly Dick. No one should be able to force another person to alter their body against their will.

  9. kupo says

    Meant to mention that it’s also not okay to consider someone less worthy as a human because they don’t meet some standard.

  10. says

    My sister regularly advertised for workers to assist in her business. Since basic literary skills were essential she asked for written applications. Judging by what she received, if Carrie Buck’s literary standard was used as a benchmark, there would be a whole lot of “imbeciles” not breeding.

  11. methuseus says

    So Carrie Buck’s writing is not up to the par of Thomas Jefferson, or most Supreme Court justices. I’m a college-educated man and my writing is likely not up to that par, either. The main difference between the “quality” of my writing and that of Carrie Buck is that I may have a broader vocabulary. And the reason for most people to have a broader vocabulary than others? Being given the privilege to have a lot of time to read and be given a “better” education.
    That doesn’t even begin to cover the fact that forcibly sterilizing any person is abhorrent. I may dislike the tiny minority who actually does have more children to maximize their welfare benefits, but I would never seek to sterilize them. I know they exist, but, yes, I know they’re the extreme minority (probably less than 0.001% of the population that is actually on welfare).

  12. Jado says

    “What we did to this woman was a tragedy and a crime.”

    In keeping with the proud tradition of the USA. I wonder what we are doing now that we will consider a monstrosity in the future? Everything?

  13. Walter Solomon says

    I wonder what we are doing now that we will consider a monstrosity in the future?

    Allowing Trump to continue to play President.

  14. says

    I just want to comment as Kimberly Dick @ 11 did the real horror isn’t that someone who possibly wasn’t intellectualy disabled was sterelized, it was the fact that this was done to anyone against their will.

    I am very tired of the whole certain people shouldn’t breed jokeing, or very likely seriously meant comments I see in progressive spaces , such asbeing so fast to say how Trump or conservatives are mentally ill or unintellegent. It’s not very amusing, it shoes the terrible bias in general against the disabled that is not very far down if you scratch the surface.