The shocking history of forced sterilizations that occurred in the United States, and the story of victims in North Carolina.
Willis Lynch lives just outside Littleton, North Carolina, in a trailer set close to a quiet road that runs between tobacco and cotton fields. Retired from a career that included military service, farming, plumbing, handyman work, and auto repair, Lynch still does all the work himself on his 1982 Ford EXP, a car he modified to improve its gas mileage, adding Plexiglas panels to make the recessed headlights more aerodynamic and lowering the radiator to keep the engine cooler. It gets 40 miles to the gallon, according to Lynch, and has traveled more than 700,000 miles.
“People around here know me for being smart, for knowing how to fix a lot of things,” he tells me the first time I meet him, not long before he shows me the paperwork that suggested he was unfit to father children. In 1948, when he was 14 years old, Lynch was sterilized on the recommendation of North Carolina’s Eugenics Board, a state-run organization that targeted thousands of men and women for vasectomies, hysterectomies, salpingectomies (removal of the fallopian tubes), ovariectomies (removal of the ovaries), and even castrations. He has lived most of his life with the knowledge that he would never have biological children.
I’d gotten in touch with Lynch after reading some of his frank public comments on North Carolina’s sterilization program, recounting, in just a few sentences, a life that turned out differently from the one he once imagined. My husband and I had been trying to conceive a child for four years when I first met Lynch, and I knew from experience already how involuntary childlessness made you an outsider in places others took for granted as welcoming, how difficult it could be to get through a day without dwelling on your invisible loss. I thought I understood something that the politicians who had been fighting over compensation for victims like Lynch did not: it is not possible to forget. But I wondered, is it possible to recover?
Sitting in his small kitchen, I tell him that I don’t have children either, that I know a little of what it’s like to miss people who don’t exist.
“You can’t have kids?” he asks gently.
“I don’t think so,” I say, sparing him the details.
“It stays on your mind,” he agrees.
Lynch is still in good health, able to walk a mile-and-a-quarter — his daily exercise — in 21 minutes. Most of his contemporaries are enjoying grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but every day he wonders: What would my kids be like? How many would I have had? Would they favor me? He wonders if a child of his might have inherited his talent for singing and playing guitar — he is an avid fan of country music, particularly Jim Reeves and Hank Williams tearjerkers, and every Friday, he performs a few of the 60 or 70 songs he knows by heart at the VFW hall in nearby Norlina.
“Some people think they have to wear boots, belt buckles, and britches like they’re in Nashville,” says Lynch, who prefers the same work pants and button-downs he wears any day of the week. “I go as I am.”
At the VFW, he’s friendly with the other musicians, the couples who come to dance, but he stands slightly apart from them, drinking bottled water alone in the kitchen and stepping outside during breaks. Things might have been different if Lynch had had children of his own. He might have had a lasting marriage, someone to take out on Friday nights. His child, too, might have been a part of things. He wonders if she’d have come hear to him sing, if he’d be someone Lynch could be proud of.
He shakes his head at the clumsily typed, tersely written documents he shows me, now decades old, which he keeps in a plain clasp envelope. An operation of sterilization will be for the best interest of the mental, moral, and physical well-being of the said patient, and/or for the public good, the Order for Sterilization or Asexualization reads. “I never figured out why they did that to me.”
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