I read mostly fiction but every once in a while a non-fiction book comes along that I can’t resist, and Against their will is just such a one. I knew nothing of North Carolina’s sterilization program as I started to read, and I want to tell myself these things could never happen now, but I’m not sure I can. “Experts” argue the case for sterilization of individuals in these historically accurate documents. Their words are transliterated by non-experts, analyzed by committee, and turned into judicial pronouncements leaving human lives torn apart. I find myself wondering what experts are saying now and how the rights of individuals are so easily lost in the application of laws.
That the sterilization program was still in effect so very recently astounds me. That individuals could be denied reparation in the courts over long years of arguing their case, that science could have been twisted and co-opted this way, that World War II’s evil eugenics had so amazingly little impact... But the articles collected in this book have a deeper purpose. They show a country where journalists are willing to ask the tough questions, find the victims and give them voice, and where people are willing to read and willing to change. And that gives me hope.
“We Americans tend to ignore our past,” the editor quotes from filmmaker Ken Burns in his introduction, reminding readers of the dangers of repeating what we do not examine. The book contains a pleasing mix of articles written at different dates, where genuine victims of the program come forward and reappear like old friends asking us to listen and listen again, where clear statistics and honest investigation reveal how common belief unquestioningly denies uncommon truth, and where the greater good is neither great nor good, whatever the words may say. Each article stands on its own, but the inevitable touches of repetition serve only to emphasize. Read together, the articles pull the reader in to wanting more for the victims, hoping to hear more, wishing things had been different. From the horrors of a 1947 poem, to churches so carefully choosing which topics will appall them, to the tragedies of Lumbee Indians, and ancient arguments about purity, this book amazes and saddens while engaging and enthralling me. Economics, medical experiment, social uniformity… Behind it all are real human beings, wounded by real human beings. And all of us are vulnerable, either to being hurt or to hurting others. All of us should care and be vigilant.
Disclosure: I was given a free copy of this book with a request for my honest review.