Thursday, 3 April 2014

Necessary Lies....Diane Chamberlain

You all know I like books, love books in fact, right?

No?  Well you do now.  Anyhoo, I used to read a lot of Jodi Picoult's books then along came Diane Chamberlain who, similar to Jodi Picoult, writes novels that offer you opportunity to think about moral situations you may never come across.

Having read a few books about vampires and serial killers I felt like a change.  I know!  However, to know me is to love all different parts of my personality and not a lot about me speaks about how many of those there are more than my wide taste in books.

Peeps....most of my life has been put on hold while I read this book.  I was so disappointed when I was forced to put it down to do silly things such as earn a living.  Diane, yet again, gave me food for thought.

When I reflect on the title of this novel, Necessary Lies, one thought keeps jumping to the front of my mind.....'except they weren't'.

The novel centres on a young 22 year old woman named Jane Forrester who, although recently married to a doctor, seeks to make a difference as a social worker in North Carolina in the USA in 1960; the days when whole families worked on tobacco farms, when white and black people were still segregated and when a person could not go in the same hospital as another just because of the colour of their skin.  Jane is given a crash course in extreme poverty while working with her mentor in the rural tobacco fields. 

On one tobacco farm, the Hart family; a white grandmother, her 2 grand-daughters and a great-grandson live in what is little more than a shack on the tobacco farm.  The father has died, the mother is in a mental institute, the grandmother is ill with Rheumatism Diabetes and they are paid a pittance compared to other farm workers in lieu of property costs.

Jane is thrown into the middle of a moral dilemma when she is told a shocking secret by her mentor while visiting the Hart family.  The oldest grand-daughter is mentally-retarded (don't you just HATE that word) and had her son out of wedlock by 'being promiscuous'.  Jane's mentor explains that to prevent further babies, which the state would have to help support with welfare payments, the girl was sterilised under the pretence of a required appendectomy during childbirth.  Agreed by an illiterate grandmother who signs the required paperwork with an 'X' the girl is not told of the real reason for the operation and dreams of more babies in the future. 

Ivy, the younger sister, 15 years of age, scored a low IQ and has suffered from petit-mal seizures since young childhood.  She takes on a mother's role; trys to convince her grand-mother (who loves biscuits a little too much) to take her medication and looks after her 2 year old nephew who runs rings round all of them.  She has fallen in love with the farm owner's son and they sneak out at midnight to see each other and dream of being teachers together in California in the future. 

Identifying the younger sister as having a low IQ and at risk of illegitimate pregnancy Jane is told by her mentor to complete the documentation to petition for her sterilisation using epilepsy alongside the other issues as reasons for putting her at risk.  While Jane can understand that the family would cope better without more children she finds it reprehensible that the girls are not told the truth nor have the opportunity to agree or oppose the decision.  This, as well as the pursuit of a career as a married woman, causes issues between Jane and her husband and she takes measures into her own hands.

This is where I stop because you should read this book and I certainly do not want to ruin the story for you.  Obviously this book is extremely well written as all of Diane's books and kept my interest throughout. 

Diane Chamberlain explains vividly how Jane is expected to feel as middle class white person in that era but cannot conform to what is expected of her. The insight into segregation based on the colour of a person's skin, the bias and difference in cultures and Jane's feelings when seeing poverty for the first time is only a little of what is a stark backdrop to how people living and working in the same poor community get on regardless of colour.

So why am I writing about this other than to say what a great book I thought it was?

In the Author's Note Diane Chamberlain describes how, while the characters and town are fictional, the Eugenics Sterilization Programme is not.  I cannot believe that I have been on this planet 41 years and never knew that this sort of barbaric practice continued after Nazi Germany fell.  Some of the same people that were disgusted by what happened in World War II felt able to continue such activity under the guise of assisting impoverished families. I would wager most involved would say it is completely different. 

Diane describes propoganda found by Jane in the story and that is too based on fact. While Dianes investigations showed that in the early years of the programme the focus was on sterilising institutionalised people it shifted to women on welfare in the 1950s.  The propoganda may have stopped but the practice continued to 'better' society, to keep the welfare bill down and utilised by social workers it was clearly aimed at some of the most fragile of our society.  Furthermore, boys were also sterilised, some castrated for the same reasons.

This is not a novel, it is not based on fiction but on fact.  Doctors, some of our most educated in society, felt it acceptable to play God and determine who should be allowed to bear a child and who should not.  I can only imagine how women on welfare, with few ways to prevent pregnancy and the stigma of contraceptive use felt under such pressure to accept the operation, both for their daughters, sons and themselves as the only way to cope.  

How many can say that they would not have agreed to the operation under such pressure of life and social workers trained that this was the norm?  How many social workers, women new to a career focus, in a male driven society would have felt able to successfully argue against such practice?  And for how many social workers did that become normal accepted practice over the years?

Furthermore many of these poor people grew up believing they would have their own families, believing they had undergone surgery to remove an appendix only to find out in some terrible ways that they could not have children at a later date. Many women were told that the operation could be reversed only to find out that this was not the case.  

This did not just happen to black people, we cannot put it down to the ways of slavery and segregation even as a barbaric excuse that would be; it happened to white people too but tellingly, in most cases, to people that society did not consider much better than the black people already ostracised.

Compare it to Nazi Germany; little by little the ill-treatment of a certain part of society spread, spread like a disease to include jews, polish, gypsies etc and I see the comparison clearly here - sterilisation starts with the institutionalised and spreads like a disease to those that society does not consider to be worth procreation.  Sound familiar?

The last sterilisation took place in 1974 - two years after I was born!  Dates like this remind me that it was not many moons ago, not an era we expect to read about in our history books. Records were sealed until 1996 and when opened it is clear, and maybe inevitable, that today's values clashed with the values of past.  

Diane details events that have taken place since then in the state of North Carolina and provides an internet domain address where a hearing can be watched in which people personally affected by these acts have a chance to speak out.  I have included that link at the bottom of this page.  

Horrified at what I had read I watched that hearing last night and cried along with many of those affected.  Unsurprisingly many of those considered to be 'mentally deficient' are perfectly well funtioning individuals in society today and have nothing wrong with them.  There was nothing wrong with them when they were young other than being victim to their own circumstance.  And lets face it, even if people have a low IQ is it right for society to place a label on them and determine that all below a stated IQ should be sterilised?

Money does not bring the ability to have a child back, it does not make up for the untold heartache that many of these people have suffered and continue to suffer.  What upset me almost as much as the programme itself is that despite the North Carolina Governor putting aside over $10m in the budget and a bill passing easily through the House the Senate refused to support the plan.  Refused, yet a person accused wrongly of murder and then aquitted can be paid millions of dollars in compensation.  

Why are victims of such a brutal programme treated any differently than an incorrectly convicted person?  Are they any less human?  Is their pain and misery any less?  Did the person incorrectly labelled as a murderer suffer any more than these poor people?  No.  All of them were robbed of a future, robbed of what is rightfully theirs.

If we can pay millions of dollars in compensation to one person why can we not pay what amounted to $50,000 dollars each to a number of people?  The bill was for $10m, less than one person was paid in compensation for an incorrect conviction yet I cannot see a difference; all have been victim to a complete violation of their human rights.  In fact, the only difference I can see is that Senate support could open up any number of claims and place an untold burden on the public purse.  But wait, isn't this what these poor people were sterilised for in the first place?  The burden on the public purse.  Are those in positions of power in todays society once again denying these people?

Of course, as years pass society evolves, ideas evolve, what were once our beliefs are no more, views change.  What was considered acceptable only 50 years ago is considered unbelievable in today's society and some may argue that today's society cannot be held accountable for decisions made in the past but that it can learn from them.  It may be too simplistic to argue that we compensate people for incorrect imprisonment as DNA profiling improves our ability to prove the innocent and that I consider this programme should be treated the same.

I know that some people may read this and agree with the principle; that the burden on the public purse should be protected and I agree with that, it should be protected to a degree.  Some may consider that those who are too mentally disabled to make appropriate decisions for themselves should have decisions made for them and there is an argument there also. What is wrong is labelling that up as protection of an individual when it is no such thing. 

I work in the public sector, I administered benefit to the disabled for the first 14 years of those and you know what I learned? Every case should be considered on it's own merits, every person is different, there are lots of people who are incapable of looking after themselves, that require welfare and help from family and some of those will not be able to adequately care for children. I get that, I really do. As a qualified accountant in the public sector my job, for the last 10 years, is to protect the public purse but that does not mean that society  and governments should use this as an excuse to take such drastic actions to do so.

I believe that it is important that these stories are told.  Stories such as this, 12 Years a Slave and The Maid have served as a way for many to experience, if only in a miniscule way, what some in our society have had to suffer and overcome.  Some argue that films such as these, and similar books, serve to sensationalise such actions but I disagree.  Everyone must learn from the past so that the same mistakes can never happen again.

Schindler's List invoked a powerful response when that was first released; I remember sitting in the cinema as the credits rolled and every person in the cinema sat in silence, crying at other people's suffering.  I saw the same again as the credits rolled and lights brightened in the cinema after watching 12 Years a Slave and some of the scenes were painful to watch.  I cried along with those victims while watching the hearing about the Eugenics Programme last night.  Yes, all were hard to watch and so they should be!  

What we feel does not even come close to what these people have suffered and while we may not all wish to see it in glorious technicolour or read about it we should all learn a lesson from these acts. Using books and film is the use of a popular media to bring history to life for our children who are a more visual generation. I personally watch the more difficult scenes so I never forget what those that came before us have suffered for us. That is my choice. This is my opinion. You are free, of course, to agree or disagree. 

Diane Chamberlain; I thank you, thank you for teaching me about things I cannot easily learn about in the UK, thank you for being brave enough to stand up to any criticism you may have received for writing the novel and thank you for standing up for these poor people.

Watch the Eugenics Hearing:   

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