In the writing room right now ...

In the writing room right now ... I am working on book #3 in the Winds of Freedom series, a teen adventure series set in the 1850s in North Danville, Vermont. My 1852 Vermont adventure THIS ARDENT FLAME is scheduled for June 2021 publication with Five Star/Cengage -- I will give you updates and early order information as soon as I know! I'm also writing a memoir; revising a mystery; in the midst of a novel about a grandmother and her granddaughter; and always writing poems. Yes, I guess I do like multi-tasking! How about you?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Strep Throat, Telephones, and the Eugenics Movement

photo by Stephanie Krishnan
I've been learning about Alexander Graham Bell today. Until recently, all I really knew about him was that he "invented the telephone," and that he'd taken part in the eugenics movement that lies behind the story in my book The Darkness Under the Water.

When I worked on the background history for the book, I read the massive nonfiction work War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race, by Edwin Black. More than 500 pages long, including 50 pages of footnotes, this book contains the results of decades of research by Black and his team.  I especially paid attention to the sections in the book that detailed the Vermont Eugenics Project (given at more length in Nancy Gallagher's book Breeding Better Vermonters). And although I noticed Bell's participation nationally, it didn't interest me much at that time.

But yesterday I finished up an article for one of my other blogs ( in which I mentioned a historical mystery by Victoria Thompson called Murder in Chinatown. My husband Dave reminded me that he had another Victoria Thompson mystery for me to read: Murder on Lexington Avenue. In this one, Detective Inspector Frank Malloy and trained midwife Sarah Brandt, in turn-of-the-century (that is, around 1900) New York City, discover the havoc created in a family where Alexander Graham Bell's ideas about deafness affect how the father makes decisions for his deaf teenage daughter.

And those ideas, in Thompson's story, are expressed as part of the eugenics ideas -- the ideas about "cleaning up" or "improving" the genetic basis of humans through choices in who has babies with whom. Oh, it's easy to shudder now -- we can see the terrible flaws in those ideas, especially when we know what Adolf Hitler's ideas on the subject did in the world -- but many well-meaning people missed the danger and thought they were making "right decisions" by stepping in and controlling, in one way or another, who would be able to have children. And in Thompson's book, Bell's ideas are in favor of teaching the deaf to lip-read and speak (even if their speech sounds odd), in order to be part of society -- and Bell felt that deaf people should not marry each other, because they could then produce more deaf children and increase the pain in the world.

Bell's passion for enabling the deaf to be part of the social world around them came partly from his love for his own deaf mother, and partly from his marrying a woman who was deaf -- and who had become deaf at age five, from being ill with scarlet fever (caused by the same organism that causes strep throat).

One of his most famous students was Helen Keller, now well known for her success in moving beyond her own blindness and deafness to become a leader among Americans and worldwide. And Bell's efforts to assist hearing led to the telephone's invention. (Video here!)

But Bell turned out to be mistaken about deaf parents inevitably having deaf children, and as Edwin Black confirms, Bell also did not like the way the eugenics movement began to concentrate on "eliminating" the "negatives" in people -- he wanted instead to see a focus on encouraging positives.

At any rate, the eugenics movement went on without Bell's support, and provided the reasoning for terrible events in America, as well as in Germany. Just last month, the state of North Carolina received a report from its governor's Eugenics Task Force, recommending that the state give $50,000 per victim to people who could show that North Carolina's government had forcibly done surgery on them or their families between 1929 and 1974, under the "eugenics" ideas ("stop the wrong people from having children").

I am so glad that this beginning of justice, and of admitting that government makes terrible mistakes sometimes, has started for North Carolina.

North Carolina wasn't the only state where this happened, though. In Vermont, where the very real effects of a state eugenics law are part of the historical fiction in The Darkness Under the Water, apologies for the state's treatment of its Native Americans have only just begun. And there were 29 more states where laws focused on "sterilizing" -- forcing surgery that would prevent people from having children -- during those years.

In North Carolina about 7,600 people were sterilized; in Virginia about 8,000; and in California, about 20,000, with a national total of some 60,000 people.

What can we do about the evidence of so much injustice? I think we each have a responsibility to try to make things right.

Interested in learning more about how American views of deafness and actions among both the deaf and hearing communities have changed over the years (and Alexander Graham Bell's role, too)? Consider watching the PBS film Through Deaf Eyes. The DVD is easy to purchase, and there's a lot of free and interesting information on the film's website.


MamaMinden said...

The eugenics programs that this country participated in are difficult to understand from this point in our timeline. We are just now beginning to see the ramifications of these programs. And, legislature and victim's compensation are just starting to have a voice. Kanell does a beautiful job in her novel, Darkness Under the Water, tackling this social issue. It is a moving story which I highly recommend.

Beth Kanell said...

Many thanks, MamaMinden. A reminder for classroom use: Candlewick Books will provide a free "desk copy" for any teacher planning to use The Darkness Under the Water with students. We live in an era when we desperately need to "see" the flaws of eugenics programs. They happen far too often.

janet winikoff said...

Very interesting post. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge!

Beth Kanell said...

North Carolina has just closed the door -- at least, for 2012 -- to potential payments for victims of eugenics in that state. "Victims and supporters, who had hoped that North Carolina would be the first of 32 states that practiced eugenics to pay its victims, were angry."