In 1933, the North Carolina Eugenics Board was formed, which led to more than 40 years of forced sterilization in the name of combating poverty and welfare costs in the state. This period in history affected thousands of poor women by taking away their right to bodily autonomy. And yet, it has been almost erased from history.
In Diane Chamberlain’s compelling novel NECESSARY LIES, the work of the Eugenics Board is brought to light through the poignant, heart-wrenching tale of a teenage girl living on a tobacco farm in 1960 and the social worker put in charge of her fate.
Fifteen-year-old Ivy Hart is the only person holding her family together. With her parents gone, she and her older sister, Mary Ella, are under the care of their ailing grandmother, Nonnie. While Nonnie clearly cares for the girls, she is in no position to handle Mary Ella, who is 17, mentally ill, and the mother to a 2-year-old son. Ivy dreams of running off with her boyfriend to California, but that possibility seems further and further away as the story progresses.
The novel also follows the story of another remarkable woman, Jane Forrester. At 22, Jane defies the mores of her time—and the wishes of her new husband—by taking a job as a social worker. It quickly becomes apparent that Jane is much less jaded than her coworkers and her clients. While this causes regular disputes with her coworkers, and her husband, to the point of threatening her job, it becomes the Harts’ saving grace.
Jane treats her clients as human beings worthy of help and acceptance, giving the Harts a break from their difficult lives with a trip to the beach and by bringing them a fan for their kitchen. One of my favorite parts of this book, though, is that while Jane tries her best to help, she is not painted as the savior of this family. Instead, Jane must learn that she cannot single-handedly fix the lives of all of her clients and that the system she represents is severely broken.
From day one of her job, Jane is given the task of recommending which of her clients should be sterilized. She’s uneasy about the prospect but does not question it outright until she’s given the assignment to write up a petition for Ivy to be sterilized. Ivy’s grandmother has agreed to the procedure, but Ivy is unaware, thus beginning the most unsettling part of this novel as Jane faces first a personal, and then public, debate over whether the eugenics program is moral.
NECESSARY LIES is an absorbing look at a forgotten portion of recent American history. Through her captivating portrayals of strength and perseverance in Jane and Ivy, Diane Chamberlain shares the untold stories of the many women who suffered under North Carolina’s Eugenics Board.
Erin Flaaen works in marketing at Simon & Schuster.
From 1933 to 1973, the Eugenics Board of North Carolina authorized the sterilization of “mentally defective or feeble-minded” women, often without their consent or through coercion. In this heart-wrenching novel, a new social worker is forced to make this painful decision for her clients, while a young tenant on a tobacco farm tries to hold her splintering family together.