American history is full of examples of discrimination in all forms, but never before has the wreckage from America’s infatuation with eugenics and its state-sanctioned policy of hate toward the mentally ill been put in such personal terms.
In this extraordinary debut book, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist John Erickson answers the questions that have long haunted an immigrant family: Why was a mother in her early twenties imprisoned and then sterilized? What caused her three children to be taken from her and placed in an orphanage that later preyed on children? What led her oldest son to commit an unspeakable act of violence? And, finally, whatever happened to her youngest son who disappeared from her life and was never seen by the family again?
This is a tragic story, yet strangely an uplifting one. Because just as officials believed immorality and mental illness were as genetically linked as eye and hair color, various family members would prove them wrong. In a story that will make you seethe with anger and well with tears, When Mortals Play God shows how valuable life is, and how grit and determination can sometimes relegate evil and injustice to a back seat.
John Erickson spent more than 30 years in journalism at newspapers in North Dakota, Montana, Illinois and Ohio. At the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, he led the coverage on three stories that were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, including a series that won the Pulitzer for National Reporting in 1998. In 2019, he was inducted into the Ohio Associated Press Media Editors’ Hall of Fame. John grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in journalism. He lives in Dayton, Ohio, with his wife and their two children. He is dedicating the book to his mother who, God willing, will be 100 years old in November 2021.
Table Of Contents
Chapter One: Brainerd
Chapter Six: Transition
Chapter Seven: Ernie
Chapter Eight: Michael
About The Author
Journalist Erickson debuts with a heart-wrenching study of his grandmother’s forced sterilization under Minnesota state law in 1926. Passed between 1907 and 1937 in 32 states and upheld by the Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell (1927), eugenic sterilization laws were based on farm husbandry practices and designed to “prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” Erickson’s grandmother, Rose DeChaine, was twice divorced and had two children by the time she was 20, and gave birth to her third child eight months after entering a mental institution; she became subject to sterilization because she was an alleged prostitute classified as “feebleminded.” Drawing on family and state records, Erickson interweaves profiles of Rose’s family members with analysis of the medical and sociological theories behind the eugenics movement.... [T]his is a well-researched and intimate account of a dark chapter in American history.
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Erickson explores American eugenics in this bricolage of memoir, biography, local history, national history, and genealogy, which centers on the history of his own immigrant family. His great-aunt, in her early 20s and a mother to three children, became a victim of state-sanctioned eugenic—institutionalized, designated as "feebleminded," and involuntarily sterilized. Erickson draws on this personal connection as he explains the rise of the eugenics movement and its adoption by "progressive" thinkers, and also illuminates the harm done to his own family by so brutal a practice.
John Erickson’s When Mortals Play God is a marvel of meticulous research and expansive reportage. It reveals a stranger-than-fiction saga about the impact of eugenic policies on generations of the author’s own family and sounds a shocking alarm that will awaken you from historical amnesia about the country’s eugenic past.
When Mortals Play God offers an insightful and necessary personal account of one of our nation’s most misguided and devastating chapters – the American Eugenics Movement. John Erickson’s painstaking research into his grandmother’s classification as feebleminded and her subsequent commitment and sterilization gives voice to the horrors visited upon countless American families. Erickson captures the fear, stigma, and dearth of compassion towards those marginalized by eugenic policies, making When Mortals Play God a vital wellspring in the social history of eugenics.
When Mortals Play God is a brilliant journalistic dissection of how a family was nearly destroyed during a dark era when governments embraced eugenics in a depraved attempt to prevent reproduction of the “unfit.” But in the hands of a gifted reporter and writer like John Erickson, it is so much more. A story of cruelty and calamity becomes a riveting, colorful, fast-paced saga that is both inspiring and memorable.
In vivid and evocative prose, John Erickson reveals the interwoven traumas wrought when the State of Minnesota declared his grandmother feeble-minded, institutionalized her against her will, and forcibly sterilized her in 1925 – the first year that Minnesota implemented eugenic sterilization. By detailing the ripple effects of the State’s actions, Erickson illustrates the devastating effects of intergenerational trauma. This book is a valuable addition to contemporary understandings of ableism, State control of women’s lives and bodies, and legacy trauma.
When Mortals Play God exposes the state-sponsored practice of sterilization of women in early twentieth century Minnesota. Based on extensive genealogical research, John Erickson offers a clear-eyed and deeply personal look at his family’s experience with the now discredited policy of institutionalization of individuals deemed to be feebleminded. Erickson vividly tells the stories of family members plagued by demons and misfortune and asks what might have happened under a more enlightened social policy. Erickson also offers stories of resilience and triumph, as other family members demonstrated the advocates of eugenics were very wrong about heredity. Along the way, the author recounts the painstaking and often frustrating process of reconstructing family history.
By daring to explore the dark corners of his own family’s past, John Erickson breathes life into a shameful period in American history of less than a century ago. When Mortals Play God artfully weaves his family’s tragedies and triumphs through five generations to bring home to all of us the tragic impact of a system that once allowed our government to sterilize society’s least wanted and most vulnerable – the mentally ill and handicapped.
John Erickson relied on his skills as a tenacious reporter to uncover the hard truth of his family’s past in Minnesota, a story that included suicide, alcoholism, forced sterilization, death by drowning, and murder. It is a powerful story that portrays the sheer hardship of life in 20th century America for many immigrants and their descendants. Yet it also shows the ability of one family to endure and survive.
Fans of Hidden Valley Road and Educated will be spellbound by John Erickson's account of an unspeakable social injustice and the way it has reverberated through generations of his family. Part mystery, part expose, part lyrically-written memoir, When Mortals Play God ultimately proves to be a redemptive tale of one woman's triumph over all the odds that have been stacked against her family.
In When Mortals Play God, John Erickson employs the detective work of an experienced researcher and reporter and the prose of a gifted storyteller to recount how his grandmother was a victim of eugenic sterilization in the 1920s. When Mortals Play God is a must-read for anyone interested in never forgetting how our government once sanctioned medical brutality against tens of thousands of women like Erickson’s maternal grandmother, Rose DeChaine, whose only crime was being a free-spirit who suffered from some mental-health issues.
John Erickson's compelling family saga makes clear that truth is not only stranger than fiction. It's crueler, less forgiving but somehow more fulfilling. Erickson's powerful writing and dogged reporting chronicle his family's trials, tragedies, and the hard-won triumphs that offer glimmers of hope for the human condition.
It is very clear that Erickson put in a lot of time and effort to research his own family history as well as the history of the laws and the area that his family called home. His writing allows the reader to find not only relatable humanity but love and compassion for a family that was fundamentally failed by their community, society as a whole and by the government created to establish order and protection for its most vulnerable citizens. He allows the reader to “walk a mile in their shoes.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Erickson applies his research and reporting skills to look into what may have contributed to generations of misfortune and heartbreak in his own family…. The 20th century’s evolving approaches to mental health, intellectual disabilities, developmental delays and criminal behaviors – all of that gets sucked into this cyclonic history. This book may prompt readers to consider what’s needed to improve current systems that are designed to confront and allay the legacies of suffering we see around us.
9/6/22, Post Bulletin: This book was featured in a highlight on books about family heritage.
9/7/22, Brainerd Dispatch: John Erickson and the release of the book were featured in this news piece.
11/13/22, Dayton Daily News: John Erickson and the release of his memoir were highlighted in this piece.
12/3/22, The Book Nook on WYSO Public Radio: John Erickson talked about his grandmother’s story in this segment.
11/8/22, The Weekend with Ed Kalegi: John Erickson talked about his new book in this segment.
12/3/22, The Book Nook on WYSO Public Radio: John Erickson shared his grandmother’s story in this interview about the book.
6/4/23, The Comfortable Spot podcast: John Erickson shared his grandmother’s story with host Ken Sweeney.