Tragedy in my family history

Many families have crazy family legends that may or may not be true. My family has its share of those, but the craziest (and saddest) story in my family is 100% verifiable.

When I was a teen the oldest living member of my grandmother’s family on my mom’s side (which I refer to as the white side) was my Aunt Dean. She was in her 80s. She was actually my great, great aunt, my grandmother’s mother’s sister. She was funny, absent minded, long winded, occasionally silly, and very sweet.

I didn’t know much about her past until I was a teen. I knew she’d gotten married in her late 30s, and divorced in her early 40s. I knew she’s learned to drive in her mid 40s, which I thought was weird but didn’t think about. Sometimes people referred to others thinking Aunt Dean would never be able to live by herself, and said “look at how long she’s been living alone with no problem.” I thought this referred to her being absent minded. I also knew she’d had some medical problem that had made it impossible for her to have children, but when I learned the real reason I was shocked.

Aunt Dean had a large number of brothers and sisters, and I wondered why my Grandmother’s mother had been the only one to have children. I asked about it when I was 15, and what my mother told me had my mind reeling. Their father had been killed in a straight razor fight in Indiana. Their mother was alive and willing to care for them, but all the children were removed from their home and sent to orphanages. All except my Grandmother’s mother who went to live and work for a doctor (she was 12.) In the orphanage, the other children were given an IQ test with the same questions for every child (including the 2 year old) and only one, Angus, passed. All the others were deemed “feeble minded” and sterilized. To add insult to injury, Angus was sterilized too, because he had a deformed arm. I find that pretty horrifying on its own, that institutions in the U.S. once deemed it okay to sterilize a child because of a deformed forearm, but what makes it worse is that Angus’s arm was not a genetic malformation but had been broken at birth by incorrectly applied forceps. It had healed badly because no one had detected it. None of the officials at the orphanage bothered to find this out. The family opinion on this is that because they were poor white trash from Kentucky, the orphanage was looking for any excuse to sterilize them. Before Hitler went crazy, his ideas on Eugenics were actually pretty popular in the US. My great-grandmother only escaped sterilization because the doctor she worked for was categorically against Eugenics.

As an adult, I sought to verify this information. I found census records of the children living in the orphanage. Even a greater shock to me was finding records for my Aunt Dean in the Indiana State Home for the Feeble Minded as a young adult. She had been slapped with a label and lived under it for some time. Apparently when she married her situation was still the same; her husband told her that she was not capable of certain things and she went along with it. (I understand why she got divorced.) So when she was single, she set about living in a house on her own, learning to drive, working. To tell the truth, Aunt Dean was a horrible driver, but that’s not the same as being mentally unable to do it.

This situation impacted my family in many subtle ways. Growing up I thought my grandmother was kinda racist. She railed against the way young black people talked to the point that I’d just nod my head and say sure. But I learned that her mother, my Grandma Anne, rigidly insisted her children “speak correctly.” She believed that if her family had not sounded like “Kentucky coal miners” they would not have been taken to the orphanage. It was a strong certainty in her head that language was the way to keep others from pigeonholing you, stereotyping you, and abusing you because of that.

I’ve found more information about Grandma Anne’s family, and a large part of it sounds like the Hatfields and McCoys. As I mentioned, Grandma Anne’s father was killed in a knife fight. I found out that on Grandma Anne’s mother’s side, her Grandfather and Uncle had died at a Christmas Eve party where, according to the newspaper, both sides of the argument had been heavily armed. Some 7 people had been injured and I believe 5 of them died. Most of the people at the party had one of two last names, and the closing of the article warned that the violence may not have been over “because both sides are dangerous people.” (The article is pretty amusing, in a horrifying way. The caption, almost as large as the headline, states “both sides were white.” I guess so readers would know to care?)

I find this family history interesting but also incredibly sad. It seems clear to me that the children in a family possibly connected to criminal activity were deemed a problem because of their antecedents and so were sterilized.

My Aunt Dean is connected to some pretty funny stories. (Her name, Dean Virgil, led to her getting a draft notice in WWII. She was excused when she showed up for the physical.) She was a pretty funny and amazing person so I don’t want to define her by what happened to her as a child, as if it were the only thing in her life that matters. But she, and her siblings, are the reason why when I hear someone jokingly say we should sterilize all the ____ people (stupid, ugly, racist, mean) I find it hard to laugh.


3 thoughts on “Tragedy in my family history”

  1. A very nice post today. I can see that you have learned not to judge people by their actions alone, but to look below the surface. Something most of us never do in our all to brief walk on this earth.

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