Book Nook: 'When Mortals Play God: Eugenics and One Family’s Story of Tragedy, Loss, and Perseverance' by John Erickson
A long-time Dayton Daily News editor reconstructed his family history. There's heartbreak here and also inspiration.
A century ago numerous states had eugenics laws which allowed them to commit citizens who they deemed to be "feeble minded" to institutions. The criteria for assessing when an individual might be judged to be "feeble minded" were often uncaring. Promiscuity could be cited as a justification, especially for women. Behavior which was considered to be outside the norms of a conservative, mostly rural society might get a person committed to an institution. Poorly educated people who performed badly on intelligence tests would be vulnerable to being labeled as "feeble minded" if they attracted the attention of the authorities. During the 1920's some American women were rebelling against societal norms by dressing provocatively, drinking contraband alcohol as Prohibition laws were being stringently enforced, and otherwise flouting societal norms. Their behavior placed them in peril by attracting attention from governmental bodies that had the power to punish such cultural offenses by locking away the perpetrators. Believe it or not some of these eugenics mandates still remain on the books of certain states.
John Erickson's grandmother Rose was one of the women who ran afoul of the authorities in a small town in Minnesota. They consigned her against her will to an institution. Some time after that they sterilized her and placed her three children in an orphanage. This fracturing of her family created fault lines that spanned generations. John Erickson recounts the story of Rose and her descendants in this compelling and potent book.
The Book Nook on WYSO is presented by the Greene County Public Library with additional support from Washington-Centerville Public Library, Clark County Public Library, Dayton Metro Library, and Wright Memorial Public Library.