When Mortals Play God: Eugenics and One Family’s Story of Tragedy, Loss, and Perseverance

Rowman & Littlefield Sept. 2022. 208p. ISBN 9781538166697. $36. HIST
In the 1920s and ’30s, more than 63,000 American residents, two-thirds of them women, were forcibly sterilized by state authorities. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court infamously ruled that states did not violate the Constitution when they sterilized people who were designated as “unfit” to reproduce. These state-sanctioned policies of eugenics (based on the discredited science that claimed “immorality” was genetically heritable) were used against impoverished people, people of color, incarcerated people, anyone labeled as “degenerate,” women thought to be “promiscuous,” and people with mental illness or other disabilities. Thirty-two states had sterilization policies in the 20th century, and local officials’ decisions in these cases were rarely reviewed. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Erickson explores American eugenics in this bricolage of memoir, biography, local history, national history, and genealogy, which centers on the history of his own immigrant family. His great-aunt, in her early 20s and a mother to three children, became a victim of state-sanctioned eugenic—institutionalized, designated as “feebleminded,” and involuntarily sterilized. Erickson draws on this personal connection as he explains the rise of the eugenics movement and its adoption by “progressive” thinkers, and also illuminates the harm done to his own family by so brutal a practice.
VERDICT Erickson’s straightforward account occasionally departs into sentimentality and folksy commentary, and the level of detail accorded many of the author’s relatives makes this book predominantly a family history, which might narrow its audience.
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