2016 National Book Award Longlist, Nonfiction

Adam Cohen

Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie BuckAdam Cohen
Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck
(Penguin Press/Penguin Random House)
ISBN: 978-1594204180

National Book Foundation: Who did you write this book for?
Adam Cohen: I wrote Imbeciles for two groups. First, I was thinking of the many people American law has historically excluded and denigrated. Carrie Buck—the young woman who was forcibly sterilized—was impoverished and undereducated, raised by a single mother and then institutionalized. People like Carrie, who are low on the social hierarchy—whether because of poverty, race, disability, gender, or something else—have never gotten a fair shake before the law, and it is important to rediscover their stories. More broadly, I wrote Imbeciles for all of us, because justice is everyone’s concern. The inclination to oppress the weak and the other, which was at the heart of eugenics, has always been with us—and, as news reports remind us, still is. I wanted to tell this history not only so we are not condemned to repeat it, but to help with the affirmative work of building a fairer society.


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.” 

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.

About the Author

Adam Cohen is a former member of the New York Times editorial board and senior writer for Time magazine. He is the co-editor of The National Book Review. His previous books include Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America, The Perfect Store: Inside eBay, and American Pharaoh: Richard J. Daley, His Battle for Chicago and the Nation (co-author). Cohen is a graduate of Harvard Law School.


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