Point of View

Admirable play makes only half the point on eugenics

July 19, 2013 

We’ve come a long way, both here in North Carolina and across the country, in fighting prejudice and its terrible consequences. “You Wouldn’t Expect,” a play by Rocky Mount’s Marilynn Barner Anselmi, shows just how far we have come.

The play is about the horrifying eugenics program that North Carolina implemented in the early 20th century and continued for several decades. The play, which I saw performed as a dramatic reading during a Social Equity Leadership Conference, portrayed one of the darker moments in our state’s history insofar as it hurt many poor and African-American women, men and children.

But it stopped there. Despite its recognition that the eugenics program was aimed at eliminating from the human race anyone with “defections,” the play did not acknowledge that doing so was wrong. Rather, it made the point that forceful sterilization was brutal and unjust when done to minorities and poor people – but not when done to people with disabilities.

Temperance, a social worker employed by the eugenics program and the heroine of the play, protested the program in a stunningly emotional final scene. But when her coworker pointed out that the sterilization of Dorethea, a child with severe seizures and developmental delays, would “protect” her, Temperance responded, “No arguments here. You’re right. Sterilization may be the best option for her.” But for another child, she asked: “Did you look at Mary Elizabeth’s IQ score? How much formal schooling did she have which would have adequately prepared her for that test? Her crime, if she has one, is being desperately poor.” As opposed to the crime of being desperately “mentally defective,” I suppose.

Anselmi says that her position is that no one should play God, ever. But she also says that the Eugenics Board hid its racist and socioeconomic agenda behind its stated purpose of eliminating the ability of people with disabilities to have children – the implication being that if the board had simply stuck to its mission, everything would have been all right. Why does it matter what the Eugenics Board said versus who its actual targets were? The point is that it was abusing its power and harming people – often children.

A woman in the audience who travels with the play stood up to share her story as a eugenics victim. She told us how she had been taken as a child and sterilized, followed by months of painful hemorrhaging. She said she didn’t even know what had happened to her until years later, when she was trying to get pregnant, and her doctor told her that her body had been irrevocably damaged by the surgery.


Why, knowing full well how horrific the sterilization experience was, did she not object to the play’s claim that it was acceptable – or even to be encouraged – for people with disabilities? How did that not offend her?

Sadly, people with disabilities are the last group in America against whom discrimination is still acceptable. In a society in which people with any obvious differences are stared at and treated as sub-par, in which the word “retarded” is used as an insult rather than the diagnosis it was originally intended to be, and in which it is not only tolerated but encouraged to abort babies who have even a chance of a disability, should I even be surprised that this play is considered by its audiences to be a great promoter of social justice?

I guess not. But I was surprised – surprised, appalled and so angry that I was shaking the entire drive home. But then my mother is a special education teacher who, with my father, raised my siblings and me with the understanding that having a disability does not alter a person’s inherent worth as a human being.

“You Wouldn’t Expect” made me realize that many people do not have that understanding. And it made me even more fervent in my desire to spread that understanding to those whose disability doesn’t come from an extra chromosome, a chemical imbalance or a brain difference. I want to spread this message to those whose disability is the only disability I’ve ever heard of that actually hurts other people: ignorance and intolerance.

Taryn Oesch, a former N&O Our Lives columnist, is involved in the founding of a new Raleigh organization that will support children, teens and young adults with disabilities and their families.

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