An issue of forced sterilization: Freddy's Story

Was every case wrong?
Was every case wrong?

Forced sterilization was one of the shameful things the United States at one time did to its citizens whom it considered inferior. A person might have been sterilized for being the wrong race, emotionally disturbed, or mentally challenged. Forced sterilization was still practiced in the United States after World War II. I am not going to go into statistics or the morality of the issue in general. There have already been enough good hubs written on that aspect.

This is the true story of Freddy Walters, a mentally challenged man who was sterilized in the mid-20th Century. Was this a blatant civil rights violation of a United States citizen or was his sterilization justified? Let me assure you that I am not arguing either side of the coin or offering an opinion. My jury is still out. I am just presenting the story as I know it.

I have changed his name for my purposes here. He was an older son in a large brood of children belonging to the Walters family. The Walters were dirt poor and uneducated, but seemingly honest people who lived in a little shack off a dirt road called “Polewood Alley” for as long as my grandparents could remember. Polewood Alley meandered down by a bridge over a large creek just outside the city limits. The bridge was very old and probably the only bridge in the county not made of stone and concrete, so the only name anyone could remember was “the Old Steel Bridge. The area around the Old Steel Bridge was isolated and a favorite dumping ground for people’s trash. This was the environment in which Freddy and his siblings grew up.

Source

The Walters were not very bright people, but Freddy was mentally challenged. The simple Freddy wandered around town with a faraway look in his eyes, wobbling his head from side to side keeping time to the rhythm of his steps. Behind his back people called him “Wobbly,” so I was a teen ager before I learned his real name. As a rule, he was considered harmless but attitudes began to change when he started impregnating his sisters. I don’t know if any of them were mentally challenged also, but their IQs definitely were low enough to be suspect. Freddy fathered at least three children by his sisters, maybe more. When he impregnated one of them a second time, the town fathers decided enough was enough. One of the local men’s clubs raised the money for Freddy’s sterilization.

Usually people in town minded their own business, but by now Freddy had become a bit more than a public nuisance. It is really difficult to explain the prevailing attitude of the mid-century era, but it seemed to be similar to today’s attitude of getting your pet neutered. Freddy was liked by everyone, but like a dog that keeps having unwanted puppies, he needed to be fixed. He was sent away for the procedure.

Freddy was a Human Being

I had seen Freddy around most of my life. He was a small man with a Native American look, thick black hair and nut brown skin from spending his days in the outdoors. He might have been considered handsome to a stranger unaware of his condition. But when he spoke, his high nasal tones and speech impediment gave him away.

He was probably middle age when I became acquainted with him at the local swimming pool where I worked as a cashier during my summers in high school. One year the pool got a new manager, a college student nicknamed “Sparky,” who befriended Freddy. Freddy then started coming by late in the afternoons and hanging around. He never seemed to have any money to pay to swim although he had a job, but Sparky started allowing him to come inside and take a shower when the pool was closed. This was a real boon to Freddy whose family had no indoor plumbing in their shanty. I imagine that his usual summertime bath was to take a swim in the nearby creek, hopefully accompanied by a bar of soap.

Late in the afternoon several times a week, here came Freddy carrying his swim trunks and wanting to shower off the sweat and grime from his job. As soon as we closed the shutters on the cashier’s window, Freddy asked permission for his shower. “Me take share baff?” he would ask.

We teased Freddy a lot, but it was always good natured teasing because we liked him and he knew we were his friends. He understood that we were playing with him and it became a game, especially between him and Sparky. I am including a sample conversation to illustrate Freddy’s level of comprehension.

“Me take share baff?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Freddy, I don’t think so today,”

“C’mon, Sparky, me take share baff.”

“Not today, Freddy.”

“Why, Sparky? “Me want share baff!”

“Because it’s Tuesday, Freddy. You can’t take a shower on Tuesday.”

“Me can take share baff on Tuesday.”

And so the conversation would go until Sparky laughed and then they both laughed and Freddy walked in. He always showered in his bathing trunks. Then one day Sparky figured out that Freddy was too modest to remove his bathing trunks because the showers were not enclosed. Sparky started teasing Freddy about his modesty, and that is the only time Freddy ever got angry.

“Take off your trunks, Freddy, so you can wash your bottom.”

“No, not take um off.”

“Why not, Freddy, you need to wash there too?”

“No, don’t want people see me.”

“But you don’t want to be an old rusty butt.”

“Me not rusty butt!”

“You are too, rusty butt!”

“Me not rusty butt!”

The rusty butt joke almost became too much for Freddy because Sparky teased him a lot about it. As he approached the front, Sparky would call out, “Here comes Rusty Butt!”

“ME NOT RUSTY BUTT!” Freddy would yell back.

One day Freddy did take off his trunks, but apparently it embarrassed him so much that it was hard to tell if he was upset or angry, or both. Sparky was not an unkind person, and he genuinely regretted upsetting Freddy. He immediately stopped the rusty butt jokes, but the teasing before the showers continued.

Sometimes Freddy talked to us girls while he waited for Sparky or a lifeguard to let him in. We never had any fear of Freddy, even when alone with him. In fact, the fear factor never entered our minds. To us Freddy was just another kid, albeit a big one, and we learned a lot about him. He told us that he had a “good job,” and it was obvious that he was pleased that he had become self-supporting. By that time, he was contributing to his family’s support, and may have been their sole support.

He would talk to us about his work. The manager of a local soft drink bottling company had seen something in Freddy that caused him to hire him to work inside the warehouse and to fill orders loading cases of soft drinks onto customers’ trucks. Freddy took his responsibilities seriously and developed the reputation of being a reliable employee.

He didn’t have an much of education, but he knew his numbers. When a customer handed Freddy a paid invoice, he loaded onto the truck the exact number of cases written on the invoice, no more, no less. More than once a customer would back up his truck to the loading dock and tell Freddy to “have it loaded when I come out.”

Freddy would answer, “No sir, Mr. Jones said you pay first.” Freddy wouldn’t budge until the customer brought him the paid invoice. He would scrutinize the invoice and then load the exact amount paid for. It was said that sometimes a customer would be in a hurry and would get angry with Freddy, but that didn’t faze him. The owner answered any complaint with “Freddy is just following my orders, don’t get mad at him.” Freddy would tell us proudly, “Me not load cokes ‘til they pay.”

Freddy didn’t live to a ripe old age, but died from a heart attack in his fifties. One of Freddy’s children went to school with my younger sister, and she said the girl was an average student capable of finishing school. I never heard if she graduated high school because without Freddy’s very public persona, the town lost interest in the family.

The Questions Remain

If Freddy had lived today, he would have been arrested and charged with sex crimes. His babies would have been evidence of his guilt and he probably would have gone to prison with hardened criminals or, at best, to a mental institution and placed with mentally disturbed people. Freddy was not crazy, just mentally challenged. If arrested, he never would have become a happy productive member of society. His family would have been forever stuck on welfare and not had the benefit of his income.

Was his work ethic an inspiration to his daughters to get an education? Did the town fathers do a service or a disservice to Freddy, his family, and to society? Would society have been better off by locking him away? I believe what we think doesn’t matter. I think that only his sisters and daughters are qualified to answer that question.

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Comments 22 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

Thank you for your last line. What I think makes no difference at all...I didn't live in those conditions so I have no way of making a judgment.

An interesting case study and you presented it well. I love that you take no sides in this. It is indeed troubling but it is understandable. I have a sense that this happens far more than we care to believe.

Meanwhile, we cut back on every social service program and then bemoan the loss of family values and the "degenerates"roaming the streets.

Makes no sense. :)


MizBejabbers profile image

MizBejabbers 3 years ago Author

Thanks, Billybuc, my friend, for your comment. I really agonized over how to present this because when I was young, this was taken so lightly. When I was young, there were no social programs to help people like Freddy and his family. (Dates me, doesn't it) With today's social programs there is no tolerance, which makes me wonder if we have progressed any or just changed our modis operandi.


fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 3 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

Hello, Miz B.....This very well-presented story, not only held my interest, but brought me back to one of my first positions, working with dually diagnosed individuals, housed and cared for, in State facilities. Two brothers in my unit, both products of sibling incest, were sadly, profoundly retarded, as well as victims of severe psychiatric issues. They were an incredible challenge to work with, but we did what we could, in terms of keeping them physically healthy and safe. When I met them, they were in their 50's.

Their history/background is quite upsetting for the average lay person to hear, so I will tone down the graphic details. Fact is, they were only 2 of 8 severely damaged offspring of a mentally challenged brother and sister. They lived in total poverty and unbearable squalor for many years, until the authorities stepped in and placed all of them in State-run facilities. All 10 individuals of this in-bred family were sterilized before placement with other State-Supported clients.

This family differs from Freddy and his family, as there was psychosis, as well as retardation. Still, the point is, it took decades for anyone to take serious notice, care, realize the egregious issues, step in, and/or do a thing to intervene. "Back then," as you explained, there was no assistance offered via social programs and the general public, ignored them and avoided getting involved....no one cared. ....at all.

I am not a religious fanatic nor a Bible thumper, by any means...but when I think back on these brothers, I keep hearing, "Whatever you do to the "least" of my creatures......"

A very moving hub, MizB..............Up+++


MizBejabbers profile image

MizBejabbers 3 years ago Author

Thank you so much for your insightful comment. That's a moving description of a pitiful situation, and a good example of today's level of care. I really don't know about Freddy's other children, just the one I described here because she was in class with my young sister. I hope they fared as well as she did. I just know that the town sincerely cared about Freddy and his family. I love your comment from the Bible. I'm not a bible- thumper either, but I think this quote is so very appropriate. Thank you for your comment and votes.


Michele Travis profile image

Michele Travis 3 years ago from U.S.A. Ohio

Thank you for writing this. His story is kind of sad. The way he was treated. I am worried they are going to start cutting programs that help people, not sure what is going to happen after that.

Very moving.

Voted up.


rajan jolly profile image

rajan jolly 3 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

A beautiful story albeit a sad one but I believe Freddy or the likes of him today, would have been worse off. I'm touched by this story though inspite of his being mentally challenged Freddy appears to be a fun and honest guy.


MizBejabbers profile image

MizBejabbers 3 years ago Author

Michelle, for the time period Freddy lived, he was treated quite well. He had friends and the tolerance of the community. At that time there was a saying "every village has its half-wit" and Freddy was considered one of ours. Our village was big enough to have two. "Half-wits" were treated like children, with tolerance and good will. I'm just glad they didn't arrest him. Thanks for the read and comment.


MizBejabbers profile image

MizBejabbers 3 years ago Author

Rajan, yes the story is sad, but aside from the sterilization, I believe Freddy may have been treated better than we treat people like him today with all the "help" available. He had the run of the town and friends. I am glad to have been one of them. Thank you for your comment.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

Hi, this was an interesting read, and like you, I feel bad this happened, I have no idea the whys or why nots, but its something that probably goes on today behind closed doors, so to speak. I remember reading about this sort of thing in a book years ago, and feeling pretty reviled about the whole thing, hopefully it will be dealt with in a more sensitive way in the future, nell


MizBejabbers profile image

MizBejabbers 3 years ago Author

I hope so, too, Nell. It is a very sensitive issue, and of the mentally challenged, I hope a guardian thinks long and hard and makes the right decision for their legal wardward. Thank you for your nice comment.


angryelf profile image

angryelf 3 years ago from Tennessee

I did not know that this went on in America. I knew that in other civilizations, the guards for princesses and other female royalty would be sterilized to keep them from doing anything to them.... Which I thought was creepy enough. But America doing this... wow!


MizBejabbers profile image

MizBejabbers 3 years ago Author

Angryelf, it has been done in this country for as long as doctors have known how to sterilize people. There are some really good hubs on the history of forced sterilization. By the way, I love your nom de plume. Thanks for the comment.


Victoria Lynn profile image

Victoria Lynn 3 years ago from Arkansas, USA

I didn't know that the US practiced sterilization at one time, either. I love how you tell the story of Freddy so objectively. I do wonder how his sisters and daughters felt. Poor Freddy. It sounds like he had a good heart. It sounds like it was enjoyable to be his friend.


angryelf profile image

angryelf 3 years ago from Tennessee

Really? Talk about America's dark side.... And thank you :) It's actually a long running nickname!


MizBejabbers profile image

MizBejabbers 3 years ago Author

Vickie, when I was in high school, we all knew about Freddy's operation, and I didn't realize that it was a common thing in the U.S. I also wonder if his daughters knew who their father really was. In some families the grandfather was passed off as the father. My girlfriend and her father moved in with his parents after a divorce, and she requested that her grandfather be her "father" and her father be her "brother" because kids teased her and asked what she did to run her mother off. We were grown before I found out her older brother was actually her father. It was a different culture back then. Thanks for commenting.

@ Angryelf, you're welcome.


Cantuhearmescream profile image

Cantuhearmescream 3 years ago from New York

MizBejabbers,

Well, what was your opinion? lol... how will I know how to answer accordingly? :D Actually, I know a few people that sound very much like your 'Freddy' and they are generally no threat to society and are more than willing to be productive citizens. Obviously I have issues with incest as there is a plethora of problems with that, but I don't believe imprisonment is the answer either, as you said, in Freddy's case, it would've only stopped him from doing the productive things that he did do. I don't know that we should have any rights to sterilize anyone, but maybe that is a better alterative in regards to certain kinds of immoral sexual behavior. Definitely interesting!

Up and others, sharing too!

Cat


MizBejabbers profile image

MizBejabbers 3 years ago Author

I don't know, Cat. I cared about Freddy, and so did others. I was trying not to express an opinion at all, but I do think the love that he was shown from us and the community may have made up for the loss of his capability to reproduce. The incest did take place because he didn't know how to discern right from wrong. By our standards it was immoral, but by his it was not. One of the factors that hold humans above the animals is the ability to make intelligent judgements. Freddy proved that he wasn't an animal and that he could within limits make judgements, but his hormones overrode his sense of judgement. He was a gentle soul and otherwise functioned well in society, at least at his level. I just can't see incarcerating him in any kind of an institution. We medicate mentally ill people today and turn them loose on the street. I'm not sure that I see the difference, except that a mentally ill person can choose to drop the medication and then do harm to himself or society. So it is a catch-22. What was it Spock said about the rights of the many come before the right of the one (paraphrasing, of course)? Thank you for your insightful comment, votes and share.


Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

Interesting story. It is hard to be overly critical in this case. On the one hand, forced sterilization has connotations of Hitler marching the mentally ill to concentration camps, but in this case you could see how it could be a serious public health issue. Good food for thought.


MizBejabbers profile image

MizBejabbers 3 years ago Author

Yes, it is a public health issue and a public welfare issue. It is hard to know when and where to draw the line and not be a “Hitler” issue. Thanks for the read and your comment, Mel.


Jackie Lynnley profile image

Jackie Lynnley 3 years ago from The Beautiful South

It seems to me that the sisters should have been the ones in trouble. I missed it if you said that had mental problems so maybe they were responsible for the pregnancies and Freddy fathering their children and it doesn't sound like Freddy was the kind of human to force himself on them. Just a sad world and with no help probably it was the best thing he was sterilized for what more could just neighbors or bystanders do? Another time and place they may have lynched him.


midget38 profile image

midget38 2 years ago from Singapore

Oh my. Sounds like not enough discretion was exercised. Being mentally challenged does not mean being dangerous.


MizBejabbers profile image

MizBejabbers 2 years ago Author

So very true for back then, but today he would be arrested and charged with sex crimes. That's how far we've come in the USA. Personally, I think we've gone overboard today. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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