Theories of Relativity
by Steve Jackson
March 2, 1994
Original Article: https://www.westword.com/news/theories-of-relativity-5053738
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 Nebraska, 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.
Richard demanded Herb’s release. State home officials agreed, with one proviso: Herb would first have to be sterilized by vasectomy. State law, they said, gave them the authority.
Faced with the alternative, Herb chose the operation. As he later told Betty, he just wanted to be free.
Within a year of his release from Beatrice, Herb was drinking coffee in a Lincoln drugstore when he fell head over heels for Betty Moen, a twenty-year-old farm girl from Minnesota. Betty certainly wasn’t the prettiest girl in Lincoln. She had lost nearly all of her teeth in a childhood accident and was a hundred pounds overweight. But Herb thought she was beautiful.
“And I was pretty desperate for someone to love me,” Betty recalls. So she was willing to overlook the fact that he was several inches shorter than she was and wasn’t the brightest guy on the block. “But he was gentle and kind,” she says, “and I liked him.”
Betty says she even shrugged it off when Herb tearfully confessed that he wouldn’t be able to give her children, though he didn’t say why. They were married six weeks after they met.
Marriage seemed to agree with the Wiatts. They saved their money and fixed Betty’s teeth. She shed her extra pounds. He worked himself to exhaustion doing menial labor for minimum wage, but never complained.
The couple bought a home in a little neighborhood northwest of Lincoln. It looked like every other house on the block–a cracker box laid on its side, differentiated only by color. The houses were prefab jobs, thrown up in a day on tiny pieces of barren prairie. No trees. No grass. Nothing much except hope.
It was the 1950s, and in the booming postwar economy, even a day laborer like Herb could afford a mortgage of $75 a month, as well as an old Chevy parked at the curb. The neighborhood was a great place for kids. Tricycles and bicycles littered the front yards. The baby boom was in full swing, and it seemed to Betty that every woman in the neighborhood was pregnant or already had a bushel of kids. Every woman, that is, but her.
As her frustration grew, says Betty, she began asking her husband about his sterility. Ashamed and embarrassed, he finally broke down and told her about his years in Beatrice and the price he had had to pay for his freedom.
“It wasn’t his fault,” Betty now says of that turning point in the marriage. “But I wanted children, and I guess I took it out on him. I could be pretty demanding, and looking back, we probably shouldn’t have been married. But he wouldn’t ever fight back; he just sat there and took it.”
Herb even remained quiet when, after she read a magazine article on artificial insemination, his wife announced that she would be going to a doctor to get pregnant.
So one day in the fall of 1954, a bright graduate student from Holland who was working on his doctorate in soil sciences at the University of Nebraska received a call from a local doctor. He had responded to dozens of such calls and was donating sperm to help pay his way through school.
Nine months later, on June 8, 1955, a blond, blue-eyed, fair-skinned baby boy was born to Herbert and Betty Wiatt. They named the child Greg.
The first recorded case of artificial insemination in humans was in 1890. Its proponents heralded it as a means to breed a more intelligent, congenitally superior and better-behaved human being. Toward that end, most donors were physicians, successful leaders of the community or promising graduate students. But the records were locked away or destroyed, donors remained anonymous, and women like Betty Wiatt were told to keep the means of their conception a secret, even from their children.
From the time he was twelve years old, however, Greg Wiatt knew something was amiss. He was already taller than his father, and his fair Dutch features stood in sharp contrast to Herb’s darker visage. It was also becoming evident that he was smarter than his dad.
“I couldn’t get over how different we were,” Greg recalls. “It wasn’t just the way we looked, or that I could read and he never learned. It was something I couldn’t really put my finger on, but it made me feel distant from him, and that made me feel guilty. One day, I just flat-out asked my mom. Was I the product of some love affair? Was I adopted?”
Betty hesitated when her son asked his questions. Her husband adored Greg. When the boy was an infant, Herb spent all of his free time playing with him. And she had often found them snuggled up on the couch sound asleep. But as Greg grew up, things changed.
“Herb was aware of their differences,” she remembers. “And I knew that it hurt him that he couldn’t find a way to stay close. I think he was intimidated, and the older Greg got, the less like a father Herb acted.
“Herb and I were drifting apart, too, but I didn’t want to see him hurt. So I told Greg, `There was no affair. And I gave birth to you. You are my son.'”
For the time being, Greg accepted his mother’s assurances. But, he says, they didn’t relieve the guilt over his increasingly distant relationship with his father, or his distress at the disintegration of his parents’ marriage. The couple adopted two Korean orphans to assuage Betty’s desire for more children after several later attempts at artificial insemination failed. But the marriage continued to falter.
In 1970 the Wiatts declared bankruptcy. Sixteen-year-old Greg came home from school to discover that, except for a wreck of a car, everything the family owned had been sold.
The next few years were tough on Greg. He quit high school, only to return after deciding he didn’t want to wind up at the same dead end as his father. He moved out of the house and got in trouble with the law, picking up two felony convictions for dealing marijuana. At one point, he found himself in the mental ward of a Lincoln hospital, which in turn started him on a two-decade love affair with mood-altering prescription pills–Valium, Lithium and Prozac.
“I was lost,” he recalls. “I didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. My parents’ relationship was falling apart, and I blamed myself, and society, and `the establishment,’ and anyone else I could think of: cops, judges, whoever.”
One night in 1978 Greg received a call from his mother. She had thrown Herb out of the house and was getting a divorce. Herb, she said, was sitting on the front lawn, refusing to leave, and the sheriff was on the way.
Greg drove over and found Herb Wiatt perched among the few things he owned. His father, he says, didn’t cry or say a word, but just sat there looking lost and bewildered.
After Greg got his father an apartment near his, life seemed to return to normal. Then Herb suffered a stroke and was hospitalized. Greg found his father at the hospital, barely conscious. He turned his animosity toward his mother.
“I hated my mother for what she had done to him,” Greg says. “I thought about how hard he had worked to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table, and I knew he was going to need someone to take care of him. It was payback time, so I went to court and had myself appointed his legal guardian.”
Greg moved to Colorado, bringing his father with him. But Herb soon pleaded to return to Nebraska. It was the only place the old man felt comfortable. Left alone, Greg says, he blamed himself for not being the son his father wanted, and began numbing himself with cocaine.
By 1983 Greg was in a Boulder drug rehabilitation program. One day he telephoned his mother, whom he hadn’t talked to much following the divorce, and asked her to come visit. At that point, says Betty, she realized she had to make a decision about whether to tell him the truth about his father and his birth.
“I was pretty sure I knew what was at the bottom of Greg’s troubles,” Betty says. “I remember looking at him sometimes and seeing only half a person, the half that was me. I myself wondered about the other half, the other man–who he was and what he was doing.
“So it wasn’t hard to guess that Greg was having a hard time finding himself. Even if he didn’t know the truth about how I got pregnant or what had happened to Herb, I think he felt that something was missing deep down.”
Betty confided the family’s history and her theory about Greg’s problems to his counselor. It made sense, the counselor said, and urged her to tell her son the truth. But she still had doubts. “The whole thing about artificial insemination was that you were supposed to keep it a secret,” she says. “But more than that, I had promised Herb that I would never tell Greg the truth. It was very important to Herb–pretty much all he had left. But Greg needed to know.”
That morning Greg was asked to report to his counselor’s office. It was his 28th birthday, and he thought there might be a surprise waiting. He had been off drugs for three weeks, he says, and felt better than he had in years. But he wasn’t prepared for the sight of his mother sitting in the office, her hands in her lap and tears running down her face.
Betty made Greg promise he wouldn’t tell Herb that he knew. And, says Greg, it was an easy promise to make. Her confession had given him a new appreciation for the courage of Herb Wiatt. And learning the truth, he says, allowed him to forgive his mother. Now, he says, he understood the terrible pressure she had been under to keep such a secret, and how it had helped destroy their family.
Greg tried to make up for the gulf between him and Herb by driving frequently from Denver to Lincoln to spend time with his dad. As it turned out, there wasn’t much time. On Thanksgiving Day 1983, Herb Wiatt suffered another stroke and died. He went to his grave believing that his son didn’t know–and would never know–that he wasn’t his natural father.
Following Herb’s death, says Greg, “I was consumed with conflicting emotions of anger and curiosity. Anger because I couldn’t believe that this had happened to my father. He was a good man who should have been allowed to have a family of his own. I began to see this conspiracy between what was done to him and my birth–society didn’t want people like my dad, but it did want blue-eyed, blond-haired, `smart’ kids like me.”
Greg couldn’t help wondering about his genetic father. “I mean, I was relieved that I wouldn’t inherit [Herb Wiatt’s] tendency for strokes–many of the men in his family died young,” he says. “At the same time, I knew nothing about this other guy. What was his genetic history? Did he have to deal with the depressions and anxiety like I did?
“I began to think that if I could just talk to my genetic father, I could satisfy this huge curiosity and maybe learn to deal with what happened to my `real’ father at Beatrice.”
Betty had not been able to tell her son much about his genetic father, only what she had been allowed to know: that he had been a graduate student at the University of Nebraska. But she gave Greg the name of the doctor who inseminated her. It was enough.
In November 1984, says Greg, he contacted the doctor who inseminated his mother. The doctor, who had retired, was kind and understanding; he had his wife go down to the basement and pull up the old records, and then told Greg what he ethically thought he could. Over the next few weeks the two men established a friendship as Greg gently pushed to know more.
Unfortunately, the doctor soon died of bone-marrow cancer. Greg attended the funeral, believing his quest was over. Several days later, however, he received a letter in the mail.
“Inside was a single piece of paper, and the only thing on it was the name of a man,” he says. “But I knew it was the name of my father.”
Using records at the University of Nebraska, Greg tracked the man, Wybe Kroontje, to the small town of Blacksburg, Virginia, the home of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, where Kroontje taught chemistry. Then Greg returned to Colorado and asked a group that conducted searches for the birth parents of adopted children to play intermediary.
At first the possibilities seemed good. The professor had seemed curious, according to the intermediary, and asked for a little time to think it over. But a week later he called back and left a message on the intermediary’s answering machine. He wanted no further contact.
Greg asked for the message tape and spent hours listening to the heavy Dutch accent of his father. He waited a few months before sending a polite letter asking for a few minutes of the professor’s time. This time the reply came in a letter from the man’s lawyer:
“We appreciate your interest in pursuing this matter, but my client does not share that interest. We extend to you our very best wishes and hope that having made this contact, you will now be willing to accept and honor my client’s request.”
For years, says Wiatt, the rejection festered: “Every time I thought about it, I got angry,” he says. He knew that it would be healthier to drop the whole thing, but he just couldn’t let it go.
If anything, Greg now felt more alone, more angry, more out of place than ever. His moods, he says, swung between manic highs, in which he would begin grandiose projects that he could never complete, and dark depressions that left him trapped in his apartment. He turned back to drugs and alcohol to ease the stress.
He might have stayed numb for the rest of his life had he not discovered Lethal Secrets, a 1989 book by Annette Baran and Reuben Pannor that examined the consequences of artificial insemination. The book noted that donor offspring often internalized the anxiety of their parents and felt somehow responsible for it.
“It was like the book was talking to me,” Greg recalls. “Every page, every story, seemed to have something that had happened to me or described something I had felt. I learned that I was not alone and, in fact, was just one of millions.”
Armed with the book and his own extensive research, Greg became an activist for the rights of donor children, adopting the authors’ position that artificial insemination should not be kept secret from donor children–that donor children had a right to know their genetic history. He joined Donor’s Offspring, and soon became its president.
The founder of Donor’s Offspring, Candace Turner, says she started the group in 1981 to counsel children and families and establish a registrar of children, their parents and donors to effect reunions “and put an end to the secrecy.” According to Turner, Wiatt’s anger and guilt are common to the children of artificial insemination.
“Every one I’ve met or been contacted by, including myself, has experienced the same basic emotions and questions,” says Turner, who learned at the age of thirteen that she was the product of what she calls “donor insemination” in 1962. “But because of the secrecy, we often didn’t know the cause, and therefore some spend their lives trying, and often failing, to cope.”
Wiatt’s efforts to locate his father were a “marvelous” bit of detective work, Turner says. “But it shouldn’t have been necessary. Why all the secrecy?”
Though Wiatt says his work with Donor’s Offspring was rewarding, he adds that his volunteer efforts and occasional appearances on talk shows to discuss the politics of artificial insemination weren’t helping him deal with his anger. He needed some sort of closure to let him get on with his life.
In July 1991, he says, he was in Florida on vacation when he suddenly got the urge to see the place where his genetic father had spent most of his adult life, and to learn what he could about the man. He drove north to Virginia and checked into an old motel in Blacksburg.
He spent the next two days looking through the town library’s newspaper clippings and the university archives. They were laden with the accomplishments of Professor Kroontje. He had been a community and academic leader, and the founder of one of the largest nonprofit retirement communities on the East Coast. (Kroontje declined to comment for this story and referred Westword to his lawyer; his lawyer did not return telephone calls.)
When Greg had read and copied as much information as he could find, he got in his car, prepared to leave town.
“I didn’t intend to make contact,” he says. “I just wanted information. But as I was driving out of town, I saw a telephone booth and decided, `What the heck,’ and pulled over to call the guy.”
Without saying who he was, Greg invited himself over to the house of the professor. “He probably thought I was a former student or an old colleague who wanted to pay his respects,” he recalls.
He drove to the retirement community the professor had started and pulled up to a modest townhome. A tall, blue-eyed man, his blond hair turned to white, emerged from the front door as Greg approached with his hand outstretched.
“I told him, `I just wanted to shake your hand,'” Greg recalls. “But he kind of looked at me like he was trying to jog his memory. He asked, `Do I know you?'”
“I just said, `Lincoln, Nebraska,’ but he shook his head. He knew a lot of people in Lincoln, but nobody my age.”
Then Greg mentioned the doctor’s name. “His eyes got wide and his face was pale,” he says. “He looked like he had seen a ghost.
“So I just grabbed his hand and said, `I just wanted to shake your hand and thank you for the gift of life.’ I didn’t wait for a reply. I just walked back to my car and drove away.”
During the 1950s and 1960s, institutionally based sterilization programs ended in many states and diminished in the rest. The 1970s marked a period in which the pendulum swung toward the protection of the rights of the mentally retarded and the mentally ill to make decisions, when capable, regarding their bodies.
In 1972 the Nebraska legislature voted to abolish the sterilization programs at state institutions such as Beatrice. In 1975 the Colorado legislature passed a law prohibiting the sterilization of mentally retarded persons over eighteen without their consent. To ensure that the consent was given voluntarily and with full knowledge of what the procedure entailed, the statute required the appointment of a psychologist or psychiatrist, as well as an expert in the field of mental retardation, to oversee each case.
In 1978 the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that no minor child could be sterilized without a lawyer being appointed to serve as an advocate for the child, and without clear and convincing medical evidence that the child’s health would be otherwise endangered. The case was followed by another in which the court determined that the same protections applied to the mentally ill and mentally disabled.
As recently as 1991, the Colorado legislature further strengthened protections for the mentally retarded and mentally ill, including their right to seek sterilization if they so chose.
Nevertheless, the idea of sterilization as a quick means of dealing with complex social issues “has remained a surprisingly persistent idea among a strong, but minority, voice,” says author and physician Philip Reilly.
There is no validity to the idea that criminal behavior or poverty is linked to genetics, says Reilly. “So far, such things seem to be more related to environment and opportunity,” he says. And although there are genetic ties between some forms of mental retardation and mental illness, Reilly says research indicates that sterilization would have a minimal impact on the frequency of these conditions.
Some sterilization proposals have come to target new groups: welfare mothers and prison inmates. In 1981 a Texas legislator asked his constituency whether they favored sterilization for women on welfare. They voted yes by a 3-2 margin. In Maryland, in the early 1980s, legislation was introduced to make welfare payments to women with two or more illegitimate children contingent upon the mothers’ sterilization. It failed by a thin margin.
In 1993 the Colorado legislature considered a bill in which mothers on public assistance would receive $300 in exchange for agreeing to birth control implants. That portion of the bill was eliminated after extensive lobbying by the Colorado Catholic Conference. “It was offering impoverished women cash not to reproduce, and we felt that was morally wrong,” says Doug Delaney, director of the conference and its chief lobbyist.
This session, Delaney is fighting another piece of legislation: Representative Jerke’s proposal regarding state prisoners. Jerke, a LaSalle farmer, wants to offer prison inmates seven days off their sentences if they agree to be sterilized. The number of days, Jerke says, was arrived at by figuring the cost of surgery against the $50 per day it takes to house prisoners.
Jerke says his motive is one of compassion: “Compassion for the children of inmates who are at risk; compassion for inmates who know that they can’t care for more children; and compassion for the taxpayers who have to support both.”
Delaney, however, sees the legislation as a moral, not an economic, issue. Because prison populations and welfare parents are drawn disproportionately from the ranks of minorities, the poor and the uneducated, efforts to offer them even voluntary sterilization send an ugly message, he says.
“We’re saying we don’t want the children of these people to be part of our society, whether or not there is any validity to the argument that a criminal’s child will also be a criminal,” Delaney says. “Or that a child whose mother has to resort to welfare will also automatically end up on welfare. Disguise it any way you want, but it’s another attempt to selectively pick who we want in our society. The problem is: Where would we stop?”
On February 8 the inmate sterilization bill passed out of the House State Affairs Committee by an 8-2 vote (one of the nay votes was cast by Representative Charles Duke, a Republican from Monument who wanted the bill to include castration for sex offenders). It is currently in the House Appropriations Committee for funding. From there it should go to the Senate for approval before the full legislature votes on it.
The morning following the committee vote, Delaney, who had been quoted in opposition to the bill, received a call from Greg Wiatt, who told him, “I want to help.”
Wiatt says he made the call even though seven months earlier, he thought he had finally put his past behind him. He had poured all his pills into a bowl and flushed them down the toilet, he says.
But in January Wiatt read newspaper articles about the government’s use of radiation during experiments on mentally retarded persons. Though unrelated to his own experience, he says, the reports sparked his interest in government attempts at social engineeering.
Wiatt haunted libraries and bookstores, reading up on America’s sterilization programs and their connection to what was once known as the eugenics movement. He looked up the meaning of eugenics–“the movement devoted to improving the human species through the control of hereditary factors in mating”–and of its cousin eutelegenesis, the seemingly innocent attempt to create gifted individuals through artificial insemination.
And he became convinced, he says, that “it’s all linked–what happened to my father, the human experimentation that is still going on.” That, he says, is why he contacted Doug Delaney. He thought Herb Wiatt deserved at least that much from his son.