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In Reckless Hands: Skinner v. Oklahoma and the Near-Triumph of American Eugenics

3.58  ·  Rating Details ·  73 Ratings  ·  16 Reviews
In the 1920s and 1930s, thousands of men and women were sterilized at asylums and prisons across America. Believing that criminality and mental illness were inherited, state legislatures passed laws calling for the sterilization of “habitual criminals” and the “feebleminded.” But in 1936, inmates at Oklahoma’s McAlester prison refused to cooperate; a man named Jack Skinner ...more
ebook, 256 pages
Published July 17th 2008 by W. W. Norton Company
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Paul Bryant


Havelock Ellis :

The superficially sympathetic man flings a coin to the beggar; the more deeply sympathetic man builds an almshouse for him so that he need no longer beg; but perhaps the most sympathetic of all is the man who arranges that the beggar shall not be born.


The armies of defective and delinquent persons in every nation and race, the crowded hospitals, asylums, jails and penitentiaries in almost every country, the enormous cost of car
Sep 05, 2009 Cindy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone!
"It was an almost irresistible intellectual seduction: a Promise that asylums and prisons would fade away and that the problems of the old and infirm and unemployed would 'cease to trouble civilization.' The seduction was once named the science of eugenics. Law would confront this seduction and its science in a case called Skinner v. Oklahoma."

From the opening paragraph in this book to the final page, I was completely wrapped up in the writing and the story itself. Nourse takes a rather controve
Bill Sleeman
Apr 30, 2011 Bill Sleeman rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: supremes

Very well done. Nourse does a fantastic job drawing out the issues of the case and the social milieu around eugenics and sterilization. The work hums along but reaches a peak in the final few chapters where Nourse brings current Supreme Court decision making back to the influence of the “Skinner” case and how it helped to create the constitutional theories around due process that we take for granted today. An excellent analysis of an often overlooked case.

(June 30, 2011)In a strange twist I jus
Aug 06, 2008 Beth rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people interested in American history, sociology, and nature/nurture history
Recommended to Beth by: Diane Rehm Show
Fast-paced, wide-reaching history of eugenics in the United States as well as the case mentioned in the title.

Makes the fascinating point that the Constitution was interpreted to respect the common good more than individual rights through the early 1900s. Thus, sterilization was legal and justified as a means to minimize the "drain" of criminals, the poor and severely handicapped people on society was permitted, on the belief that such characteristics were hereditary.

I've found the book educati
This book wasn't exactly what I was expecting -- a state of affairs that is always the fault of the reader and not the writer. A closer reading of the jacket flaps on my part would have shown that this book was more about the legal arguments surrounding this particular case rather than an overview of the eugenics movement.

A big focus of this book is how integral the decision in Skinner v. Oklahoma was to the shift toward putting individual rights above the police power of government. That the nu
Feb 12, 2013 B rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own
The history is interesting and it works with G. Edward White's Constitution and the New Deal to serve as a reminder that modern jurisprudence can't simply be overlaid on old opinions.

But it's pretty short and it's one of those books where the author has much broader views on the subject than the text between the introduction and the conclusion would justify. As with many of those other books, I think this book would be better served if she discussed those as well.
Pam Porter
Jul 07, 2014 Pam Porter rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Excellent discussion of the American Eugenics movement in the 1930s. The book is a mix of historical perspective, the "science" of eugenics, and a discussion of the legal issues in the Skinner case. The Skinner v. Oklahoma case was taken to the US Supreme Court after Oklahoma passed a law requiring sterilization of 3rd time criminal offenders to stop them from producing offspring who would also be criminals. This took place in America as Hitler was rising to power in Germany.
Sep 25, 2010 Tobyh rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
While In Reckless Hands was interesting, I felt that the side flap was misleading. I was expecting a drama about prison uprisings and disturbing facts about eugenics. Instead it ended up being more about the legal process in challenging eugenics in Oklahoma. While some of the wording was confusing and technical, I ended up enjoying the book even though it was not what I was expecting.
Dec 29, 2010 Lisa rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Another one of those books that get bogged down in details and takes off on a new tangent. I felt it started talking about the politics of the time to much and lost direction since the book was supposed to be about the sterilization of prisioners at the McAlester prison.
Thorn MotherIssues
May 05, 2009 Thorn MotherIssues rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2009
This was fascinating, lots of information about a case I hadn't really known about and parts of the history of eugenics in the US. I learned a lot and now want to read more about the legal discourse of equality vs. rights.
Jul 07, 2010 Simon rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellent description of a critical event in the history of eugenics in America. Interesting interpretation from the legal perspective of changes in the understanding of human rights (individual versus public) and race.
Jun 25, 2009 Harvey rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A view of the "Sterilization Laws" enacted by a number of states in the 1950's and 1930's, which, among other things, inspired Hitler to engage in "ethnic cleansing;" and the Supreme Court decision which struck down such laws in the United States.
Mar 05, 2014 Mark rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is an interesting exploration into a subject that I, an Oklahoman, have never really heard much about. But it is a very dry read.
May 16, 2012 Lesley rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wanna see the idiotology of the 1930's? Read about the racist rhetoric that lead to one of the most contested issues dealing with right to reproduction.
An interesting and readable account of the historical context of Buck v. Bell and Skinner v. Oklahoma.
Emily Thompsett
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