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Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck Hardcover – March 1, 2016
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“[IMBECILES is] the story of an assault upon thousands of defenseless people seen through the lens of a young woman, Carrie Buck, locked away in a Virginia state asylum. In meticulously tracing her ordeal, Cohen provides a superb history of eugenics in America, from its beginnings as an offshoot of social Darwinism—human survival of the fittest—to its rise as a popular movement, advocating the state-sponsored sterilization of ‘feeble-minded, insane, epileptic, inebriate, criminalistics and other degenerate persons.’”—David Oshinksy, The New York Times Book Review (cover review)
“In this detailed and riveting study, Cohen captures the obsession with eugenics in 1920s America… Cohen's outstanding narrative stands as an exposé of a nearly forgotten chapter in American history.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“IMBECILES indicts and convicts any number of villains, albeit with proper judicial restraint. Cohen mostly lets the facts speak for themselves…[and] skillfully frames the case within the context of the early 20th century eugenics movement…[The book’s] considerable power lies in Cohen’s closer examination of the principal actors…Buck v. Bell has never been overturned. But thanks to Adam Cohen, we shall never forget it.” —Boston Globe
“Cohen…tells the shocking story of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in U.S. history…and demonstrates to a fare-thee-well how every step along the way, our system of justice failed…The last chapter of the case of Carrie Buck, Cohen reveals, hasn't been written…IMBECILES leaves you wondering whether it can happen here — again.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“An important new book…which details the eugenic horror that still haunts the American legal system… Cohen’s narrative of the legal case that enshrined these practices is a page-turner, and the story it tells is deeply, almost physically, infuriating… Cohen reminds us of the simple, shocking fact that while forced sterilizations are rare today, they remain legal because American courts have never overturned Buck v. Bell.”—The New Republic
“Imbeciles is lively, accessible and, inevitably, often heart-wrenching.”—Nature
“Searing…In this important book, Cohen not only illuminates a shameful moment in American history when the nation’s most respected professions—medicine, academia, law, and the judiciary—failed to protect one of the most vulnerable members of society, he also tracks the landmark case’s repercussions up to the present.”—Booklist (starred review)
“The story of Carrie Buck…illustrates society’s treatment of the poor, of minorities and immigrants, and other populations considered ‘undesirable.’… This thought-provoking work exposes a dark chapter of American legal history.”—Library Journal
“Imbeciles is a revelatory book. Eye-opening and riveting. In these pages, Adam Cohen brings alive an unsettling, neglected slice of American history, and does so with the verve of a master storyteller.” —Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here
“Cohen revisits an ugly chapter in American history: the 1920s mania for eugenics…[in this] compelling narrative....He also tells a larger story of the weak science underlying the eugenics cause and the outrageous betrayal of the defenseless by some of the country's best minds…A shocking tale about science and law gone horribly wrong, an almost forgotten case that deserves to be ranked with Dred Scott, Plessy, and Korematsu as among the Supreme Court's worst decisions.”—Kirkus (starred review )
“Adam Cohen knows how to recognize a story and has the gift to tell it with disarming fidelity to facts that make us cringe. In that vein, Imbeciles made me question my longstanding admiration for the mind and character of Oliver Wendell Holmes and my fading hope that the Supreme Court can sometimes save us from ourselves.”—Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution
“‘Three generations of imbeciles are enough’—these are among the most haunting words in the history of the Supreme Court. In Imbeciles, Adam Cohen unearths the secret history of the case that moved Oliver Wendell Holmes to utter that notorious sentence. The book provides a stark portrait of the resilient eugenics movement—and a welcome warning about its sinister appeal.”—Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Oath and The Nine
“A powerfully written account of how the United States Supreme Court collaborated in the involuntary sterilization of thousands of poor and powerless women. Cohen’s Imbeciles is that rarest of books—it is a shocking story beautifully told, and also the definitive study of one of the darkest moments in the history of American law.”—John Fabian Witt, author of Lincoln’s Code and The Accidental Republic
"Imbeciles is at once disturbing, moving, and profoundly important. With the zeal of an investigative journalist and a novelist’s insight, Adam Cohen tells the story of an injustice carried out at the highest levels of government, and how it reverberated across history and remains with us today. Cohen is one of our most gifted writers, and he has turned the story of the Supreme Court and American eugenics into one of the best books I’ve read in decades."- Amy Chua, John M. Duff, Jr. Professor of Law, Yale Law School, and author of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
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Top Customer Reviews
Drawing on meticulous research, Adam Cohen (full disclosure: a close friend) chronicles the eugenics movement and, startlingly, its embrace in the 1920s by a near-consensus of thought leaders and progressives. But his main focus is Carrie Buck's case. As in his remarkable study of the early New Deal, "Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America," Cohen zeroes in the key players in this drama, building the book around sharply-drawn mini-biographies of five. One is Carrie herself. Three are men who facilitated her sterilization: Albert Priddy, the physician and head of Virginia's colony for the feeble-minded who selected Carrie as the first person to be sterilized under a new state law; Harry Laughlin, the scientist who gave an expert opinion supporting that law and its application to Carrie; and Albert Strode, the lawyer who drafted the law and defended it in the Supreme Court. But Cohen's most withering scrutiny falls on the fifth, Supreme Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote the majority decision in Buck v. Bell.Read more ›
"We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. (Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11.) Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
Thus reads the most-quoted portion of the opinion of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who put to words the Supreme Court's 8-1 majority decision in the (in)famous case of Buck v. Bell in 1927. It may sound callous to twenty-first-century ears, but is very interesting for the reasoning it employs to defend what most of us would today consider an unjustifiable invasion of privacy.Read more ›
The book chronicles the legalization of forced sterilization by focusing on the Carrie Buck case. Oliver Wendall Holmes is someone who I was taught in history class was the most venerable jurist to ever sit on the bench. Reading this book will make you rethink that premise. It certainly made me rethink it.
Not only are the implications for this book as applied to the international stage huge but they are also very important to our own domestic affairs, as well. With scientists having mapped the genome and acquiring the God-like capacity to "design babies" which would have been inconceivable in the 1920's, this book sheds light on some serious ethical questions we face today. When we design a baby, are we doing it with society in mind or for the sake of the baby? We might rationalize we are doing it for the baby (and in many cases this may actually be true) but what if the real reason is that we want to improve society. Once we cross into that territory, we are in danger because we have to consider a whole host or diagnoses or characteristics where genes can come into play. Autism, Down Syndrome, the color of a person's eyes, their sexual orientation (see Dean Hamer's research) almost anything we can think of. Many parents would say they want genetic breakthroughs leading to the cure for autism so that their child no longer suffered. Perhaps there are parents today who still see homosexuality negatively.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
“Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (p. 270)—Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
EUGENICS IN AMERICA? Read more
Stunning bit of history. How tragic that U. S./state government agencies treated human beings like that. Read morePublished 4 days ago by Bob V.
In the 1920s eugenics reared its ugly head first at the Colony for Epileptics and the Feeble -minded. Read morePublished 7 days ago by Magdalene Ensminger
Well researched; eye-opening reveal of our less than better nature.Published 8 days ago by Joe Brophy
Quite an eye-opener about a period of (US) history that does not get much attention. Changed my opinion of Oliver Wendell Holmes.Published 16 days ago by JC in GA
An eye opening review of history. Well written and topical.Published 18 days ago by Delaine Charette
It is scary how the american medical, social and justice system went wrong. The book looks at the racist and elitist attitudes that were rampant through out our history. Read morePublished 19 days ago by Clarence I. Teem
Well told story of a major failure of our legal system. Adam Cohen researches thoroughly and then writes compelling prose. This is a great book.Published 25 days ago by Michael Dubno