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The Sonoma Developmental Center near Glen Ellen, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

How Sonoma County became the dark center of America’s forced sterilization movement

For 33 years, Sonoma State Home is believed to have performed more forced sterilization surgeries than any other facility in America.

Institutions collect secrets when they stand for 130 years. The stately, tree-shaded campus of the Sonoma Developmental Center may harbor more than most.

Closed since 2018, it’s a tranquil place these days, the steady stream of neighborhood walkers diverted only by an occasional team of firefighters or police units practicing tactical operations in the empty buildings. But the facility’s 1,670 oak-shaded acres, which straddle Arnold Drive in the tiny community of Eldridge, belie a bleak past, a history that the state of California is only now beginning to redress.

Opened as a home for the developmentally disabled in 1891, the site long known as Sonoma State Home became the epicenter of state-mandated sterilization.

Between 1909 and 1952, some 5,500 or more Eldridge residents were coerced or compelled into undergoing vasectomies or salpingectomies (removal of one or both of a woman’s fallopian tubes). The procedures were justified at the time in shockingly derogatory and racist language that labeled them morons, imbeciles and undesirables who should not be allowed to breed.

The subjects included middle-aged women and wayward teenage boys, severely impaired wards and people whose primary deficiency may have been nothing more irreversible than poverty. The few victims who have publicly recounted the experience describe feelings of loss, anger and shame.

Mary Veal holds the ashes of her friend and caretaker to Marian Rose White, Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021 in front of the Walnut building at the Sonoma Developmental Center. White was sterilized at SDC.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Mary Veal holds the ashes of her friend and caretaker to Marian Rose White, Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021 in front of the Walnut building at the Sonoma Developmental Center. White was sterilized at SDC. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Marian Rose White was probably the most famous of those victims, thanks to a 1982 TV movie in which she was portrayed, improbably, by Nancy Cartwright, better known as the voice of Bart Simpson. On a still-summery September day this year, White made a return trip to the site where she had lived most of her life.

She arrived inside a decorative box, her earthly remains tucked under the arm of her dear friend Mary Veal, who worked at Sonoma Developmental Center for 20 years as a psychiatric technician.

“OK, we’re back, Miss Stinky,” Veal said affectionately to the feisty, gregarious woman she came to regard as an eccentric aunt.

Veal, 74, has had the ashes since White’s death in 2003. They usually sit in her garage in Petaluma. Her photo albums are more readily accessible.

Flipping through them, Veal laughs about White’s fascination with Liberace and the way she transferred that love to the entertainer’s namesake — the little dog White named Bebe Liberace. She still gets a kick out of the way White would double her friend’s name when she got excited about something: “Mary Veal! Mary Veal! We have to get started on our Christmas dresses!”

Marian Rose White and one of the dolls she created. (Mary Veal)
Marian Rose White and one of the dolls she created. (Mary Veal)

One of Veal’s most vivid mental images is of White bent over thread and needle, her face inches from the material as she squints at a half-finished doll through Coke-bottle glasses. Veal says White created dozens, perhaps hundreds of the oversized, color-splashed figures. She would stay up entire nights to finish them, like a cobbler at her bench, not stopping to eat unless White put food in front of her.

“I really felt because she wanted children and didn’t have any, that was the reason she made all those dolls,” Veal said. “It was really heavy on her.”

A revolving operating room

White was unable to bear children because the state of California decided she was unqualified for the role. She had been institutionalized at age 9, after her doting father died and her mother, unequal to raising a headstrong young woman with mild disabilities, committed her to Sonoma State Home.

Sometime after White’s arrival, a doctor sterilized her there, though the details are murky.

The harm done to White by the government was deeply personal, but also connects her to more than 20,000 people in California institutions who were rendered unable to procreate by an operation many of them didn’t understand, or actively oppose.

More than 25% of those operations happened in Sonoma, where a zealous superintendent turned his surgical unit into what reproduction researcher Alexandra Stern calls “something of a revolving operating room.”

Available evidence suggests Sonoma was the busiest of America’s institutional sterilization centers, and possibly the world’s. The only place in the U.S. that looks to have come close in number was Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino, which is estimated at a little over 4,500. Patton remains open.

Sonoma State Home was more than a surgical ward, of course.

The open approach and athletic fields to the Sonoma Developmental Center along Arnold Drive, Sept. 23, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
The open approach and athletic fields to the Sonoma Developmental Center along Arnold Drive, Sept. 23, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Christian Pease, a member of the Eldridge Memorial Committee and a creator of the Eldridge Portraits Project, which attempts to photograph and honor some of the home’s last residents, said the institution was regarded with admiration for many years.

Pease said he believes the institution began “as light in the darkness. Then it goes dark. And it comes back later as a bright light in the darkness.”

The light first shone when the campus opened as the California Home for the Care and Training of the Feeble Minded. Like many other rural facilities of the day, it was founded as a high-minded, bucolic refuge for young ladies and school-aged kids who required more than parental assistance. Some residents tended apple and pear orchards, played music or helped take care of younger children.

Much later, in its final decades as Sonoma Developmental Center, the facility regained its image as a safe living environment for family members with severe learning disabilities.

About AB 1007

California Assembly Bill 1007: The Forced or Involuntary Sterilization Compensation Program

Goal: To provide compensation to any survivor of state-sponsored sterilization in California between 1909-1979, and to any individual who was sterilized while under the custody of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation between 2006-2010.

Reintroduced by Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, D-Los Angeles, in January

Total appropriation through Senate Bill 129: $7.5 million

Estimated surviving victims of institutional sterilizations: 383

Current status: Money has been earmarked. Authors are working to identify additional victims who were sterilized at Los Angeles County General Hospital. Information on how victims can apply will be available later this fall online at victims.ca.gov.

Somewhere in the middle, Sonoma State Home entered its dark era. It became wrapped into a movement of population control that swept the nation in the first part of the 20th century, eventually inspiring the architects of Nazi Germany. Sterilization became the ultimate lever of that control.

California has crept closer to offering reparation payments to the subjects of those involuntary procedures, the state finally spurred to action by years of passionate advocacy, the current moment of cultural reckoning and similar legislative acts in Virginia and North Carolina.

The mechanism was originally Assembly Bill 1007, authored by Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo of Los Angeles. In July, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed two newer bills establishing the Forced or Involuntary Sterilization Compensation Program and earmarking $7.5 million for victims.

There aren’t many left. The majority of California’s institutional sterilizations occurred in the 1930s and 1940s. Survivors are rare. But the impact remains.

Marian Rose White. (John Burgess/Press Democrat)
Marian Rose White. (John Burgess/Press Democrat)

The relentless drive to end disfavored genealogical trees left shattered families in its wake.

Relatives wrestled over their decisions to consent to the sterilizations, or protested helplessly as their wishes were overruled by the state. And some of the more able victims never completely got over what was taken from them on the operating table. Some mourned like Marian Rose White, who spent days and nights making children out of cloth.

The Human Betterment Foundation

“Now that we know the laws of heredity,” a German observer told a comrade nearly 100 years ago, “it is possible to a large extent to prevent unhealthy and severely handicapped beings from coming into the world. I have studied with interest the laws of several American states concerning prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock.”

The speaker was Adolf Hitler, who became captivated by theories that had taken root in the United States.

The word “eugenics,” which refers to shaping human reproduction to maximize desirable characteristics, carries grim and distasteful connotations now. In the early part of the last century, it was often pitched as part of a progressive movement that brought reforms like food safety codes, labor laws and vaccinations.

“For the most part, these were white elites who didn’t have a lot of patience for the working class. They basically wanted to mold people into what they saw when they looked in the mirror and saw themselves.”

Be mindful of who was defining “progressive,” said Alexandra Stern, a University of Michigan professor who has guided the most complete research into California’s campaign through her Sterilization and Social Justice Lab.

“For the most part, these were white elites who didn’t have a lot of patience for the working class,” she observed. “They basically wanted to mold people into what they saw when they looked in the mirror and saw themselves.”

The American eugenicists — epitomized by the chillingly named Human Betterment Foundation, a Pasadena-based think tank — believed they could make the world a better place by using scientific principles to influence the gene pool. They saw sterilization as the most effective way to do that.

Starting with Indiana in 1907, 32 states passed compulsory sterilization laws, resulting in more than 60,000 institutional operations between 1909 and 1957, according to researchers at the University of Vermont.

The movement drew some of the day’s most influential thinkers, including former President Theodore Roosevelt, who supported racial hierarchies and sterilization; inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who emphasized the need to prevent the immigration of “undesirable ethnical elements”; and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, now hailed as a hero of reproductive rights.

The Frederickson building, viewed through a cinderblock wall at the Sonoma Developmental Center, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.  The building was used to perform sterilizations.  (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)
The Frederickson building, viewed through a cinderblock wall at the Sonoma Developmental Center, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. The building was used to perform sterilizations. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)

Horticultural pioneer Luther Burbank, the man who put Santa Rosa on the map, was also an adherent.

“Suppose we blend together two poisonous plants and make a third even more virulent, a vegetable degenerate, and set their evil descendants adrift to multiply over the earth, are we not distinct foes to the race?” Burbank wrote in a 1907 treatise titled, “The Training of the Human Plant.” “What, then, shall we say of two people of absolutely defined physical impairment who are allowed to marry and rear children? It is a crime against the state.”

Eugenics enjoyed popular appeal, too. A 1917 Hollywood release called “The Black Stork” featured Dr. Harry J. Haiselden, a Chicago physician who had made newspaper headlines by refusing to operate on children with birth defects, arguing instead to let them die. Haiselden wrote the script and played himself.

In the silent film, he urges an “ill-matched” couple not to procreate. They disregard his advice, and their baby is born with defects. The child dies and levitates to heaven, into the waiting arms of Jesus.

One advertisement for the movie read, “Kill Defectives, Save the Nation and See ‘The Black Stork.’”

The German Nazi party embraced the idea and eventually took eugenics to its extreme by murdering an estimated 6 million Jews, 1.8 million non-Jewish Poles, 500,000 Roma people, 312,000 Serb citizens, 1,900 Jehovah’s Witnesses, 70,000 petty criminals and an undetermined number of gay noncombatants.

Even after World War II ended and the world recoiled in horror as Allied forces exposed the malevolent excesses of the Nazi death camps, Sonoma State Home kept at it. Another 1,000 or so people would be sterilized there before more exacting consent requirements effectively halted the practice in 1952.

Signs at the entrance to the Sonoma Developmental Center near Glen Ellen, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Signs at the entrance to the Sonoma Developmental Center near Glen Ellen, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Americans may now find it comforting to create a firebreak between our homegrown eugenics movement and Hitler’s Germany. In truth, it sometimes didn’t look all that different.

During the height of the fervor, one founder of the Human Betterment Foundation, Paul Popenoe, wrote to the other, C.L. Gosney, to recount an incident that occurred at Mendocino State Hospital in Ukiah. While hosting a convention of the Association of Railway Surgeons, hospital officials invited the association’s president to sterilize two inmates as a “special honor.”

“Both women died in agony a few days later,” Popenoe wrote. “Autopsy showed that instead of tying the fallopian tubes, the surgeon had tied up the ureters, so they both died of kidney poisoning from being unable to urinate.”

Every 2.2 days for 33 years

Rick McAleese knows how badly Fred O. Butler’s reputation has been tarnished over the years. It just doesn’t match the personal memories he holds of his grandfather.

Butler was born in a log cabin in Russiaville, Indiana, and he and his wife, Tilly, were true salt of the earth, McAleese said. Once, the Butlers stumbled upon ripe blackberries on the vine while vacationing. Grandma Tilly’s solution was to fire up the stove and can the fruit, right there in their motel room.

Butler’s devotion to eugenics? McAleese didn’t have any window into that. “It’s not like he came over to mom and dad’s house and said, ‘OK, I’m sterilizing,’” McAleese told The Press Democrat. “For a kid that was that young, I probably didn’t know about any of it.”

Rick McAleese is the grandson of Fred O. Butler, a committed eugenicist who, as the director of the Sonoma State Home drove the program of forced sterilizations for decades. (Kent Porter/ The Press Democrat)
Rick McAleese is the grandson of Fred O. Butler, a committed eugenicist who, as the director of the Sonoma State Home drove the program of forced sterilizations for decades. (Kent Porter/ The Press Democrat)

Controlling reproduction wasn’t an idea that came to Fred Butler slowly during his 31 years as medical superintendent at Sonoma State Home. He brought it to his first board meeting, as he ran through the institution’s immediate needs.

“I said the first thing is to get plenty of water. We were very short of water,” Butler recounted in an interview with researcher Margot W. Smith in 1970, long after he had retired. “And the second was to start the program of sterilization.”

California had passed legislation to permit state-mandated sterilization in 1909, but the Eldridge facility performed none in nearly a decade under medical superintendent William Dawson.

It wasn’t that Dawson considered the practice cruel. He worried that shutting down the reproductive system of female inmates would encourage promiscuity, or even prostitution.

The approach changed dramatically when Dawson died in 1918 and Butler, his senior intern, assumed command. Butler was an enthusiastic eugenicist, and he would almost singlehandedly turn the campus in Sonoma Valley into the American hub of forced sterilizations, a status evident from data gleaned by several research projects.

Listen:

Superintendent Fred O. Butler explains the reasoning behind eugenics, in a 1970 interview. (Audio courtesy of Rick McAleese and Margot W. Smith)

Stern’s team counts 5,465 sterilization requests from Sonoma State Home between 1919 and 1952 — the equivalent of one surgery every 2.2 days, for 33 years. If it had been its own state, the professor said, Eldridge would have ranked fourth in the nation.

And yes, Butler had regrets.

“We are not sterilizing, in my opinion, fast enough,” he said in the Journal of Psycho Asthenics in 1930.

The youngest person recommended for sterilization at Sonoma was 7, according to records. The oldest was 67.

Site superintendents like Butler held tremendous power over sterilization orders, a dynamic made clear in the case of Juan Romero, a teenager from San Francisco who had been accused of a long string of burglaries.

When Butler asked Juan’s father for permission to perform a vasectomy at Sonoma, Mr. Romero appealed to the health officer at the San Francisco Detention Hospital, J.C. Geiger, saying he rejected the claim his son was feebleminded and was “violently opposed” to the idea.

Letter recommending sterilization of man despite objections from his father.pdf

The father “is, of course, an ignorant, unintelligent Spanish man, and it is impossible to convince him of the value of the operation for sterilization either for his son’s protection or for that of society,” Geiger wrote in a letter to Butler in 1931. The Sonoma director applied for sterilization, and the state approved his request.

Several months after the Sonoma Developmental Center closed in 2018, the Goddard building remained intact, as the state began to clean out the buildings and grounds, April 2, 2019. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Several months after the Sonoma Developmental Center closed in 2018, the Goddard building remained intact, as the state began to clean out the buildings and grounds, April 2, 2019. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

‘Maybe he went overboard in what he did’

Some fought back.

Concepcion Ruiz, a 16-year-old Mexican American girl, brought a $150,000 lawsuit in November of 1930, citing Butler, three probation officers and the judge who sent her to Sonoma State Home. Ruiz claimed that “despite her protests and outcries, (she) was forced into the operating room,” as the Healdsburg Tribune put it, and sterilized at Sonoma on June 15 of that year. The outcome of her case is unknown.

Six years later, a 24-year-old mother of four named Mary Arevelo escaped from Sonoma State Home with the help of her husband, who refused to consent to her sterilization.

The San Francisco courts had ruled that Arevelo “was a moron and steadily continued to bring more children into the world although the family was on relief and could ill afford it,” according to a Sonoma Index-Tribune story from 1936.

An attorney was able to secure the woman’s release with a court order demanding that Butler show a valid reason for her detention.

Defiance was an uphill battle, though. Officially, each sterilization recommendation had to be approved by the state director of institutions (the Commissioner in Lunacy, as he was known early on). The reality was less layered.

“I’ve never seen a case where one of these people said no,” said Natalie Lira, a University of Illinois professor who was a key member of Stern’s original research team.

A letter approving the sterilization of a 15-year-old girl at Sonoma State Home.
A letter approving the sterilization of a 15-year-old girl at Sonoma State Home.

Letter requesting girl to be sterilized.pdf

Letter approving request for sterilization of girl.pdf

So Butler was able to transform the facility in Sonoma County into a sterilization assembly line. That is, a disassembly line.

In the early years of the program, practically all such operations at Eldridge were performed on long-term residents such as Marian White. But California’s institutions began to suffer from overcrowding, and Butler believed he had a solution.

The focus at Sonoma shifted to young people sent to the institution “for sterilization only.”

All over the state, teenage boys who had run-ins with the law, truants and young women deemed inappropriately sexual were signed over to Sonoma State Home. There, they and their families faced a choice. They could stay locked up on the work farm indefinitely. Or they could sign their consent and be sterilized.

If they opted for surgery, they’d be sent home after a bewildering few weeks at Eldridge.

“I think my grandfather thought he was doing best for the community, and for the situation, and for the benefit of the patient. But maybe he went overboard in what he did.”

Butler was a hands-on medical chief, too. He claimed to have performed more than 1,000 of the operations himself, part of the infamous profile Butler has acquired. Stern called him “very nefarious.”

Butler’s grandson, on the other hand, describes him as stern but generous. He believes at his core that Butler was a good man.

“My grandfather was wonderful,” said McAleese, who has maintained a home in Sonoma for practically his whole life and still lives a short stroll from the Developmental Center.

“I think my grandfather thought he was doing best for the community, and for the situation, and for the benefit of the patient. But maybe he went overboard in what he did.”

After retiring in 1949, Butler became head of the Human Betterment Foundation and traveled the country, urging voluntary sterilization of the mentally defective and ill. He remained steadfast in that belief for the rest of his days.

“Now with the new population explosion, I endorse it more than ever,” Butler said in the interview he conducted with Smith in 1970, three years before his death at 94. “I think it needs to be done now more than ever in the history of the world. All types. Normals and subnormals.”

At the Sonoma Developmental Center, “Welcome” is scrawled in concrete at an industrial building Sept. 28, 2021. The center closed in 2018.   (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)
At the Sonoma Developmental Center, “Welcome” is scrawled in concrete at an industrial building Sept. 28, 2021. The center closed in 2018. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)

‘Peons breed like rabbits’

In the case files of Sonoma State Home, residents were ascribed labels such as “Idiot,” “Imbecile” and “Moron.” (The categories were sometimes further broken down into subclasses like “High Moron” and “Low Moron.”) Those descriptions were set by IQ tests, which had become hugely popular among social scientists of the era.

The problem, so easy to spot in retrospect, was the subjective, classist and racist ways in which the labels were applied. The state’s targets included men it considered effeminate, or women who loved other women, or people with epilepsy or cerebral palsy.

“For the most part, these were people who were marginalized to begin with,” Stern said. “Maybe they came from a home with one parent, or were raised by aunts and uncles, or simply didn’t conform to what was seen as a good family at the time.”

Not surprisingly, those singled out for sterilization overwhelmingly came from the lower economic classes, and especially from immigrant communities.

“For the most part, these were people who were marginalized to begin with. Maybe they came from a home with one parent, or were raised by aunts and uncles, or simply didn’t conform to what was seen as a good family at the time.”

Using sterilization recommendation forms from Sonoma and other California institutions, Stern and her team at the University of Michigan found female patients with Latino surnames were 59% more likely to be recommended for sterilization. Latino-surnamed men were 23% more likely. Italian, Scandinavian and German immigrants were overrepresented, too, if not to the same degree.

Fred O. Butler on the intellectual abilities of various ethnic groups, in a 1970 interview. (Courtesy of Rick McAleese and Margot W. Smith)

That suited people like C.M. Goethe, founder of the Eugenics Society of Northern California, who wrote to a colleague in 1935, “It is this high birthrate that makes Mexican peon immigration such a menace. Peons breed like rabbits.”

And it was Sonoma and another institution, Pacific Colony in Pomona, that powered the shift.

The other facilities involved in state sterilizations, including Napa and Mendocino, were psychiatric hospitals that housed a more varied cross section of society. Sonoma and Pacific Colony focused on intellectual impairment. The use of IQ tests, which could be ordered by probation officers, social workers and teachers (and were conducted in English), put vulnerable communities at greater risk.

The Frederickson building, at the Sonoma Developmental Center, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.  The building was used to perform sterilizations  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
The Frederickson building, at the Sonoma Developmental Center, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. The building was used to perform sterilizations (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Institutional officials of the early 20th century also had a tendency to define sexual precociousness or promiscuity as a mental defect in women, another thing that could get a girl sterilized. Popenoe’s 1926 study of Sonoma State Home reported nearly half the female inmates there had been classified as sexually delinquent.

Doctors scrutinized not just behavior, but also female sex organs. Of the 82 women admitted to Sonoma between January 1918 and August 1919, wrote Purdue University medical historian Wendy Kline in her book “Building a Better Race,” exactly half were marked as having “abnormal genitals.”

Twenty-two of them were said to have enlarged genitals, then considered a mark of sexual overstimulation.

In some cases, a rape — even incest committed by an older relative — might be the incident that triggered institutionalization.

Barbara Swarr believes it was sexuality that got her Aunt Rosie locked up in Sonoma.

“My cousins who were her age all said she was ‘very friendly,’” said Swarr, who is 71 and lives in Hayward. “It was code for ‘too easy for boys to be friendly with.’”

When Swarr’s grandmother became ill, one of Rose Zaballos’ older brothers-in-law took custody of her. But he found her hard to handle and had her committed her to Napa State Hospital for the mentally ill. Zaballos wound up at Sonoma and was recommended for sterilization. It turned out to be a death sentence.

She died on the operating table in 1939, a few days before her 17th birthday.

Butler, for one, felt loss of life was worth the surgical risk. He made his case in a paper he cowrote for the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology in 1951. Butler explained that in 2,984 salpingectomies during his tenure at Sonoma State Home, five women had died. He calculated a “loss of life expectation” per operation of 31 days.

“A salpingectomy costing less than $150 and involving 31 days of mortality, or two vasectomies costing $50 with no mortality, will probably prevent the birth of about one feebleminded child (0.9) and the upbringing of another by inadequate parents,” Butler wrote. “The net public-health value of the procedure is obvious.”

The men in Rose Zaballos’ family were not apt to talk about her institutionalized death, Swarr said. They built a thriving property business in Southern California and felt shame in the shared last name.

But the women never let the episode fade. That includes Swarr, who honors her Aunt Rosie with a framed portrait atop her piano.

“That’s the only way to keep her alive,” Swarr said, “because she never had a chance to have children.”

At the Sonoma Developmental Center, closed in 2018, the Goddard building remains intact, Sept. 28, 2021.   (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
At the Sonoma Developmental Center, closed in 2018, the Goddard building remains intact, Sept. 28, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

A woman who smelled of carnations

María Luz Sanchez Zermeños was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1901, and was living in Alameda County as Lucy Rodriguez when her husband died in 1939, documents and Press Democrat interviews suggest.

Rodriguez had nine children (she had been pregnant a total of 18 times) and suddenly found herself with no income. The state intervened and committed her to Sonoma State Home.

Some of Rodriguez’s children were adults by 1939. Those who were younger found themselves scattered to various foster-care settings around the Bay Area. At least one, Ruth Rodriguez, was institutionalized, according to her daughter Joyce Currie.

Lucy and Ruth both are believed to have been sterilized, Ruth as a young child.

Stern, who copied a massive trove of sterilization documents from California institutions — the state subsequently lost or misplaced the originals during a departmental restructuring — found records of a Lucy Rodriguez who was sterilized at Sonoma State Home on May 26, 1939, just a week after being committed.

She was labeled a “high imbecile,” with an IQ of 41.

Lucy Rodriguez was committed to Sonoma State Home, just long enough to be sterilized, after her husband died in 1939. (Joyce Blood Currie)
Lucy Rodriguez was committed to Sonoma State Home, just long enough to be sterilized, after her husband died in 1939. (Joyce Blood Currie)

The birth date on that form doesn’t match that of the Lucy Rodriguez cited above in genealogical records, so it’s hard to be absolutely certain. But the documents align with the recollections of several people who knew Lucy well, including two of her granddaughters.

Ruth Rodriguez, meanwhile, found out about her sterilization only when, as a married adult, she was raced to the emergency room one night with shooting pains in her abdomen. Medical examiners initially thought Ruth had been poisoned, Currie said. Police interrogated her husband. But doctors eventually understood the source of the pain: Rodriguez was experiencing an ectopic pregnancy.

Her fertilized egg didn’t make it to the womb, but rather it became implanted in a fallopian tube.

Because unknown to Ruth, her tubes had been clamped or removed. She knew she had gone into surgery while institutionalized, but had never realized she’d been sterilized during the procedure.

“We talked about it when I was older,” Currie said. “Because it’s something that really bothered her.”

From left to right, sisters Mamie, Lupe and Ruth Rodriguez. Their mother, Lucy Rodriguez, was sterilized by the state of California, as was Ruth. (Joyce Blood Currie)
From left to right, sisters Mamie, Lupe and Ruth Rodriguez. Their mother, Lucy Rodriguez, was sterilized by the state of California, as was Ruth. (Joyce Blood Currie)

Ruth’s yearning for motherhood was too strong to deny, though. She and her husband, Charles Blood, adopted two girls. The state of California had unilaterally excised Ruth’s ability to raise children, then restored the privilege by approving the adoptions.

Cindy Blood died in 2018. Joyce Blood Currie lives in Napa.

Unfortunately, Ruth Rodriguez was not an ideal adoptive mother. Currie says her mother physically and mentally abused her daughters, and was prone to violent bursts of rage.

It’s an example the eugenicists would have waved overhead as evidence of the need to filter out “bad parents.” And certainly, pregnancy would have been a huge burden, perhaps scarring, for any Sonoma State Home resident with profound disabilities. Even Marian Rose White, Veal said, “was an adult but also a child” who would have needed assistance to be a mother.

There are counterarguments to selecting parents, of course. A longitudinal study of people diagnosed as intellectually impaired in San Francisco in the 1930s found that 40 years later, more than 67% were living normal lives — working, raising families, paying mortgages.

“Finding individuals and telling their stories is really important. But it’s also important to keep in mind that this was a systematic thing. If we look at the kinds of processes used, the quote-unquote consent made by patients or parents — at an institution like Sonoma in the 1940s, in no way would this be considered consent by the bioethical standards of today.”

Who was a reasonable candidate for mandated sterilization, and who wasn’t? Stern says it’s the wrong question.

“Finding individuals and telling their stories is really important,” she said.

“But it’s also important to keep in mind that this was a systematic thing. If we look at the kinds of processes used, the quote-unquote consent made by patients or parents — at an institution like Sonoma in the 1940s, in no way would this be considered consent by the bioethical standards of today.”

Currie also is convinced that a good deal of her mother’s rage and instability was triggered by her experience in the institution, and the knowledge that a potentially healthy baby was left to wither in her fallopian tubes.

“I think the baby was supposed be a little boy,” Currie noted. “I was supposed to have an older brother. My mom had some psychological damage from that. She would try to fight everybody.”

Currie gets by at the age of 62 by working three jobs. Her life hasn’t been smooth. It took her years of therapy and recovery from a drug addiction to come to terms with her childhood.

That sort of family trauma is at the root of the drive for reparations.

They will come a year or two late for Ruth Rodriguez, and three decades too late for Lucy. But others may benefit yet. Stern’s revised estimates for 2022 are 383 surviving victims from California institutions, and more than 200 specifically from Sonoma — which, thanks to Fred Butler, carried out the practice later than most facilities.

And Currie has balanced the ledger. She has two children, five grandchildren and a great-grandbaby.

Her daughter manages a winery tasting room and currently lives with Joyce while she house-hunts. Currie’s son lives in Fairfield and works for Multi-Color, a company that makes wine labels.

They all get together regularly to laugh and commiserate and bicker — the run-of-the-mill connection that defines an enduring human family.

Lucy Rodriguez standing in front of a house in Sonoma that was next door to the home in which she worked — and later lived as the wife of her former employer. (Joyce Blood Currie)
Lucy Rodriguez standing in front of a house in Sonoma that was next door to the home in which she worked — and later lived as the wife of her former employer. (Joyce Blood Currie)

Susan Hetrick is happy to hear that Lucy’s modern-day family is thriving. Named Susan Noonan as a child, she grew up three doors down from the home in Sonoma where Lucy Rodriguez worked as a housekeeper — and where Lucy later lived as wife to the man who had employed her, former Sonoma police chief Art Lavin.

Hetrick, who now lives in North Carolina, agrees with others who knew Lucy that describing her as “feebleminded” or something similar would have been not only cruel, but inaccurate. She recalls a kind, generous woman who cooked like an angel and smelled of carnations, and who spoke openly of her sterilization.

“I thought it was awful,” Hetrick said. “Every little girl, they can’t wait till they grow up and can be mommies, too. And these ladies didn’t get to be mommies. Later, when I had kids, it just made me pissed off. How dare the state do this to anyone?”

Hetrick finds a bit of comfort in knowing the California government will finally acknowledge that it had no business guiding procreation, at least not in the absence of true consent.

“Lucy and all those like her deserve respect,” Hetrick said. “They may only get it in their afterlife, but that’s better than not at all.”

(Editor’s note: While the original mechanism for payments to victims of institutional sterilizations was California Assembly Bill 1007, the legislation was approved, and money appropriated, through two other bills. The original version of this story misstated the process.)

How we reported this story

Press Democrat reporter Phil Barber spent several months researching this story. He conducted dozens of interviews and reviewed hundreds of pages of documents and audio recordings to learn more about what happened at Sonoma State Home. He also consulted with DNA genealogist Bonnie Bossert to track down relatives of those who had been forcibly sterilized. Photographs for this story were shot by Press Democrat photojournalist Kent Porter, and the digital design is the work of online producer Elissa Chudwin. Print presentation was done by design desk chief Jonathan Byrd and designer Jillian Johnson Arnold.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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