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Publisher's Summary

One of America's great miscarriages of justice, the Supreme Court's infamous 1927 Buck v. Bell ruling made government sterilization of "undesirable" citizens the law of the land.

New York Times best-selling author Adam Cohen tells the story in Imbeciles of one of the darkest moments in the American legal tradition: the Supreme Court's decision to champion eugenic sterilization for the greater good of the country. In 1927, when the nation was caught up in eugenic fervor, the justices allowed Virginia to sterilize Carrie Buck, a perfectly normal young woman, for being an "imbecile".

It is a story with many villains, from the superintendent of the Dickensian Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded who chose Carrie for sterilization to the former Missouri agriculture professor and Nazi sympathizer who was the nation's leading advocate for eugenic sterilization. But the most troubling actors of all were the eight Supreme Court justices who were in the majority - including William Howard Taft, the former president; Louis Brandeis, the legendary progressive; and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., America's most esteemed justice, who wrote the decision urging the nation to embark on a program of mass eugenic sterilization.

Exposing this tremendous injustice - which led to the sterilization of 70,000 Americans - Imbeciles overturns cherished myths and reappraises heroic figures in its relentless pursuit of the truth. With the precision of a legal brief and the passion of a front-page exposé, Cohen's Imbeciles is an unquestionable triumph of American legal and social history, an ardent accusation against these acclaimed men and our own optimistic faith in progress.

©2016 Adam Cohen (P)2016 Penguin Audio

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  • Gillian
  • Austin, TX, United States
  • 04-05-16

Compelling Concept, Aggravating Execution

"Imbeciles" seemed like such an extraordinary and fascinating book that I hit Pre-Order and waited a looong time for it. I couldn't download it fast enough (okay, I'm kind of a nonfiction nut).
It's taken me weeks to finally finish it.
How to say this, hmmm: It's repetitive as all get out! It starts out engaging, but then the main concepts are retold over and over... and over. Carrie's education is stated, then it's referenced in another context, then in another. What one doctor, lawyer, whomever, says is stated, then it's quoted from, say, a letter that they wrote, then from a different letter, then as a statement they gave, then perhaps a different letter they wrote. Facts are told, retold, etc. and, at first, it's boring, then it becomes downright aggravating. I fell asleep twice, woke up an hour later, and each time found myself listening to something I'd already heard several times.
Further, Cohen keeps telling the reader things like, "As if that weren't bad enough," and "It's egregious that..." I don't need an author poking me with a stick, especially when he just poked me eight minutes ago.
Dan Woren does a decent job, but it's not a stellar performance. Certainly not enough to make this a compelling listen.
This is a great story, worth being told and listened to... if it was maybe eight, nine hours long. Over thirteen? Not so much...

13 of 14 people found this review helpful

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One of the best history books I've read in years

This is a powerful, fascinating book. Deeply researched yet highly readable. It works well as an audio book. The story is horrifying, especially to early 21st century.intellectual sensibilities. But the author makes a good attempt to explain the context of the eugenics movement from the Gilded Age to the 1920s. How some members of the upper classes.in the U.S. got swept up in social Darwinism.& how that.in turn led some to find eugenics an attractive extension. The story is told in episodes, which makes it easy.to pick up & put down. But it hangs together well. It's structure does create some competitiveness. But the books powerful narration makes.it.easy to forgive some repetition.

7 of 9 people found this review helpful

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Nice addition to the literature on eugenics

There have been many books written on the American eugenics movement of the early 20th century. This book differs in that it focuses on the US Supreme Court decision to uphold the Virginia eugenics sterilization law and the men who were involved in bringing that case forward. The book is structured around short biographical descriptions of the people involved in the case, including the plaintiff, Carrie Buck, along with her family, and the doctors, the lawyers, the witnesses and the experts who testified. Sketches of the Supreme Court justices are included but most of the attention is centered on Oliver Wendell Holmes, as he wrote the majority opinion for the court. Drawing upon available information from letters, medical reports and other private and public records, the author attempts to understand what motivated these people to act the way they did in relation to eugenics in general and this case in particular. This is an emotionally charged story and most people today are horrified to learn how poorly Carrie Buck was represented in the legal case presented against her. A cursory search on the internet will return numerous lists of the best and the worst Supreme Court decisions and it should come as no surprise that Buck v. Bell is nearly always included as among the worst. Adam Cohen helps us to understand why its inclusion on those lists is justified. I appreciate his contribution to our understanding of this dark chapter in American history, shedding light on the lives and thinking of those who promoted eugenics and sought to establish legal precedent for involuntary eugenics sterilization. If you want to learn more specifically about the eugenics movement in America and Europe and its relation to Nazi racial hygiene policies, this book may not be the best place to start. But I certainly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning about the legal foundations of eugenic sterilization laws in the United States.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Forgotten History

It's a shame that this important piece of history is not taught in schools. Incredible how easy it was for Carrie and others to be determined to be feeble minded and how a few zealots in power could determine the path of so many lives.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Full of great information and well told

This history of eugenics was easy to read and full of information on a topic not covered often in even college classes.

5 of 7 people found this review helpful

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Thought provoking

Imbeciles was a thought-provoking book about the people and historical circumstances involved in the Buck vs Bell Supreme Court decision, which allowed involuntary eugenic sterilization of people diagnosed as having inferior genetics or intellectual disabilities, broadly defined. There are some repetitive parts of the book that are apparent when listening to it, and it is jarring to hear "imbeciles," "morons," and "feeble-minded" repeatedly, as these were specific diagnoses given to people and used to justify their involuntary sterilization. It was very timely to hear how the rise of eugenics and push for sterilization of the "feeble-minded" occurred at the same time and by the same people as the introduction of exclusionary quota based/ merit based immigration laws and how these precedents set by the US were used as justifications by the Nazis. It was also thought provoking and disturbing to see how faulty intelligence testing and social judgments resulted in the classification of people as justifying involuntary sterilization or immigration exclusion to purify the American "genetic stock." And ultimately very sad and horrific to see the injustice done to people by legal/ justice, social service, educational, and public health systems and how Carrie Buck not only should never have been classified as an imbecile or feeble minded, had such horrible legal representation, and was not actually told that she was sterilized until years later.

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Tedious at first, but it gets more interesting.

I bought this book on the recommendation of a friend. At first, I had trouble sticking to it, both because the presentation was tedious but because it was the story of such a depressing chapter in our history. Later, it gets into a discussion of the judicial philosophical evolution of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and that was very interesting and compelling, although disappointing to realize how unenlightened Justice Holmes had been.

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This will make you UNCOMFORTABLE......

Adam Cohen brings up some chilling questions about uncomfortable choices that we as a society have made in the past--and in the not so distant past. This story is horrifying, and real and so easily could happen again......

The book is good. The story is heartbreaking. It is a true story of us.

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Disturbing infirmation

If you could sum up Imbeciles in three words, what would they be?

informative, well researched

Any additional comments?

I listened intendedly to try and understand why our government felt they had the right to take procreation rights from any of it's citizens. It is appalling that th "intellectual elite" felt motivated to take other's rights away. It made me sceptical, and has caused me to wonder if there is anything similar taking place right now.

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interesting story

good story and information, but the author repeats himself too often. narration is done very well.