This cautionary tale about the horror and hypocrisy of eugenics is based on real-life events.
London, 1928. Eleanor and Edward Hamilton believe they have a perfect life. Their young daughter, Mabel, is a bright and happy child. Edward is a successful scientist and shining star in the English eugenics movement, following the example set by the Americans.
Says Harry Laughlin, head of the effort in the U.S.: “It’s plain to see that the quality of the American race is under severe threat from inferior-quality genes, and something radical had to be done. Just as we breed quality into racehorses, or higher yields into pigs and cattle, so we must breed higher quality into humans, the Nordic race being the pinnacle, the unfit and the lower-quality races being undesirable.”
The Hamiltons agree that weak-mindedness and disease are inherited. Breeding better people should reduce poverty and thus crime caused by subpar humans. After all, Eleanor’s mother was killed by a mentally challenged man; she agrees they must do something to get the imperfect off the streets.
But fate deals the Hamiltons a devastating blow when their precious Mabel is diagnosed with epilepsy — a condition the eugenics movement targets for elimination. Eugenicists believe “the adult epileptic mind is prone to criminal tendencies by lewd and obsessive interest in sexual activity.” Never mind that Mabel is only 4 years old. She has become an “unmentionable,” and Edward knows they must hide her affliction to keep his reputation intact. But at what cost?
Edward convinces Eleanor to institutionalize Mabel, as the movement requires. Yet the little girl’s health rapidly deteriorates at the Heath Colony for Epileptics — a cold and dreary place where no one should be forced to live.
Eleanor’s heart breaks knowing Mabel’s health is declining. To occupy her mind with other things, she assists her husband in compiling test results supporting the eugenics law that Edward will propose to Parliament. But as she transcribes the data, she discovers an anomaly. When she confronts Edward about the error, long-buried secrets surface which question the validity of the entire movement. Have their lives been a lie? No, insists Edward, since “the ends justify the means.”
Read the rest of my review at Washington Independent Review of Books.