By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Greg Wiatt paces the floor of his tiny Denver apartment like a revivalist preacher preparing to tear into a congregation of sinners. As he begins to speak, he punctuates his remarks by stabbing a finger toward the ceiling. In a fit of anger, he slams a 1938 book called Heredity and Politics onto the coffee table.
Wiatt, a 38-year-old salesman, knows the book by British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane forward and backward. Its central warning--about the dangers of trying to improve human hereditary traits by controlling which people are allowed to reproduce--rings painfully true for him.
For the past decade Wiatt has tried to unravel questions about his own genetic past, mysteries that he says have contributed to a life marked by bouts of depression and drug addiction. His odyssey began when he learned why Herb Wiatt, the husband of his mother, Betty Wiatt, and the man who by all rights should have been his biological father, was unable to get his mother pregnant.
Mildly retarded, Herb Wiatt had been placed in a Nebraska state mental institution by an abusive stepfather in 1937, at the age of eleven--and had won his release more than a decade later only by agreeing to be sterilized. Betty Wiatt waited until Greg Wiatt was in his twenties to tell him that he was the result of artificial insemination.
His mother's confession spurred him to action. He became president of the national advocacy group Donor's Offspring, and for the last several years he has lobbied for the right of donor children to learn more about their genetic history, appearing on television talk shows to tell about his search for his biological father.
Now Wiatt has a new cause: renewed political efforts to institute government-sponsored sterilization programs. He's been working against a bill in the Colorado State Legislature that proposes to give state prisoners early releases in exchange for their agreeing to be sterilized. The measure, says its Republican sponsor, Representative Bill Jerke of LaSalle, is intended to spare inmates the pain of having children they can't support. But it has more sinister connotations for Wiatt.
As Greg Wiatt has learned in recent months, Herb Wiatt was only one of thousands of people sterilized at state hospitals and other institutions throughout the first six decades of the twentieth century. From 1907 to the 1960s, more than 60,000 Americans were involuntarily sterilized, according to Philip R. Reilly, a lawyer and physician who wrote the 1992 book The Surgical Solution--A History of Involuntary Sterilization in the United States. "And those numbers are conservative--the ones I could prove in a court of law, so to speak," says Reilly, who also is the executive director of the Shriver Center for Mental Retardation, in Waltham, Massachusetts.
The idea of sterilizing "defectives" became so popular that two thirds of all the states passed laws allowing the procedure, usually in the large state homes for the mentally ill and the mentally retarded. Certain states, such as Ne-
braska, even defended the programs as "voluntary"; their clients, officials said, were given a choice between remaining in the institutions or being sterilized and released. Other states, like Colorado, simply allowed parents and guardians to make such decisions for their charges. Patients at regional centers for the mentally retarded in Wheat Ridge and Grand Junction and at institutions for the mentally ill in Pueblo and Fort Lupton were often sterilized, usually with their parents' consent, according to Marcia Tewell, an advocate with the Association for Retarded Citizens in Denver.
For Wiatt, whose interest in his own past has bordered on an obsession, attempts by Jerke and others to weed out undesirables through government programs are reminiscent of such past programs--along with a series of painful personal memories.
The terrible secret Herb Wiatt initially kept from his wife, Betty--and which Betty then kept from her son for more than two decades--helped destroy his family, says Greg. More than fifty years after Herb was dropped off at the Beatrice State Home in Lincoln, Nebraska, his "son" has yet to come to grips with his own uncertain past.
Before he died in 1983, Herb Wiatt told his wife about the years he spent at Beatrice, and how he got there. A small, dark-haired boy, he was considered a bit on the slow side, and for most of his life, he said, he had been beaten and verbally abused by his stepfather. At age eleven, he punched his fifth-grade teacher, leading school officials to deem him "unmanageable."
Angry, his stepfather picked up Herb at school and drove him to the Beatrice home, where he paid a $75 fee and left the boy to the state. When family members later inquired as to Herb's whereabouts, his stepfather told them that he had run away.
For the next eleven years, Herb told Betty, he struggled to hold on to his sanity. No one tried to educate him or give him love. He was simply lost in the system.
He would have remained lost if not for his older brother, Richard, who had left home before Herb "ran away," but returned and began asking about the circumstances of his disappearance. One night in 1948, his stepfather confessed.