washingtonpost.com
A Tale of Horror In Black and White

By Amy Alexander,
whose reviews appear monthly in Style
Tuesday, November 13, 2007

UNSPEAKABLE

The Story of Junius Wilson

By Susan Burch and Hannah Joyner

Univ. of North Carolina. 304 pp. $27.50

On Jan. 20, 1932, white doctors at the North Carolina State Hospital for the Colored Insane carried out a medical procedure that "asexualized" a 24-year-old black male patient. The castration of Junius Wilson was one of more than 18,000 sterilizations of patients that took place in American mental institutions between 1907 and 1940. Though less well known, systematic and widespread than a similar program in Nazi Germany, the involuntary sterilization of individuals deemed "defective" by the government was legal in 30 U.S. states by the early 1930s. And in the Deep South, during the long period between Reconstruction in the 1870s and the slow death of Jim Crow in the mid-20th century, blacks were especially vulnerable to the irreversible procedure.

The legacy of that threat and the paralyzing fear it engendered among generations of African Americans came to light most recently in Harriet Washington's searing book "Medical Apartheid." And though it is not often scrutinized in depth by the popular press, fear of involuntary hospitalization -- and the broad distrust of doctors that resulted -- lingers, forming a psychic scar across black America that historians and behavioral scientists have only belatedly begun to examine.

With "Unspeakable," Susan Burch and Hannah Joyner reveal a gruesome picture of official abuse and neglect. In simple, powerful language, they describe the life of Wilson, who spent 76 years in the State Hospital, apparently for no other reason than that he was deaf. Born without hearing, he had spent eight years at a school for deaf black children in Raleigh, and practiced a form of "black" sign language that allowed him to communicate with other deaf black people and some whites as well. But there was also a "white" sign language, known as standard or American Sign Language. After Wilson, at age 17, was accused by a black neighbor of attempting to rape the neighbor's wife, his inability to make himself understood by white officials led to a diagnosis that he was lacking in mental capacity. That, in turn, led to his long hospitalization.

After being castrated, Wilson was assigned to the hospital's farm, where he remained for the next 30 years. In the late 1960s, he was moved into the main building, his body having passed the point of usefulness to the hospital's income-producing farm. In understated language, Burch and Joyner describe his evolution from a confused, frightened, occasionally belligerent boy to a docile adult. They show Wilson making a comfortable life for himself despite the bleak surroundings: cobbling together a support network of other patients, earning money by selling worms and buying a bicycle on which he would ride around the campus.

As time passed -- more than seven decades -- hospital workers convinced themselves that Wilson wanted to remain institutionalized, and that he could not survive outside. This "benevolent" interpretation represented a brand of racism less violent than what Wilson knew as a young man, but one that was no less insidious.

The cruel longevity of Wilson's institutionalization came to an end in the early 1990s, after the state appointed John Wasson, a social worker, his formal guardian. All but one of Wilson's closest relatives had long since died. Finally, with Wasson's help, the terrible truth emerged. Wasson began talking to newspapers, a wrongful-incarceration lawsuit was filed, and Wilson was set free. He did not actually leave, though: He spent the remainder of his life in a small cottage on the hospital grounds. A judge in 1997 awarded Wilson $226,000 and closed the case. Wilson died in 2001 at the age of 92.

Of course, no one person is solely to blame for what happened to Junius Wilson. Yet the overwhelming injustice done to him is mind-boggling, and Burch and Joyner have told his story with thoroughness and passion. "The kinds of oppression, invasion, and injustice that Wilson experienced simply defy words," they write. "Trying to narrate this story, described as a 'southern Gothic' tale, has stretched our abilities as well as our own concepts of what biography can and should be." Only here do I take issue with the authors' choice of words. What they carefully recount in "Unspeakable" is quite apart from the Southern Gothic genre, those stories of familial and official tragedy portrayed by writers including William Faulkner in the early 20th century. The stark brutality and long-lasting horror of what happened to Junius Wilson deserves its own subgenre. Call it American Grand Guignol.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company