Take My Hand By Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Book/Novel Author: Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Book/Novel Title: Take My Hand
“Deeply empathetic yet unflinching in its gaze…an unforgettable exploration of responsibility and redemption.” —Celeste Ng “Highlights the horrific discrepancies in our healthcare system and illustrates their heartbreaking consequences.” —Essence Inspired by true events that rocked the nation, a searing and compassionate new novel about a Black nurse in post-segregation Alabama who blows the whistle on a terrible injustice done to her patients, from the New York Times bestselling author of WenchMontgomery, Alabama, 1973. Fresh out of nursing school, Civil Townsend intends to make a difference, especially in her African American community. At the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic, she hopes to help women shape their destinies, to make their own choices for their lives and bodies.But when her first week on the job takes her along a dusty country road to a worn-down one-room cabin, Civil is shocked to learn that her new patients, Erica and India, are children—just eleven and thirteen years old. Neither of the Williams sisters has even kissed a boy, but they are poor and Black, and for those handling the family’s welfare benefits, that’s reason enough to have the girls on birth control. As Civil grapples with her role, she takes India, Erica, and their family into her heart. Until one day she arrives at their door to learn the unthinkable has happened, and nothing will ever be the same for any of them.Decades later, with her daughter grown and a long career in her wake, Dr. Civil Townsend is ready to retire, to find her peace, and to leave the past behind. But there are people and stories that refuse to be forgotten. That must not be forgotten.Because history repeats what we don’t remember.Inspired by true events and brimming with hope, Take My Hand is a stirring exploration of accountability and redemption.
Dole -Perkins-Valdez informed the reader about government programs operating in the early 70’s to manipulate poor and uneducated people to make decisions to sterilize themselves and their minor children. The tragedy was made worse, because some of the children were not even sexually active or have started their menses. All of this was done, under the guise that it was in the best interest of the child! The problem was the people were lied to and/or their options were not fully explained to them. Poor, uneducated and mostly people of color were denied the freedom to make an informed choice. This book came out this year and it is relevant, because Federal and State governments are again headed to deny people their right to make personal choices regarding their bodies. The founding fathers thought it was wise to separate church and state. I agree. We are human and history has shown that some decisions that we make are made from greed, unrecognized prejudices/biases and ignorance!
Take My Hand is a fictional work based on actual events. In 1973, Mary Alice Relf, age 14, and her sister,12-year-old Minnie Lee, both mentally disabled, were surgically sterilized after their illiterate mother signed with an “X,” mistakenly believing she was authorizing the provision to her daughters of birth control shots. It was not an isolated incident. In the 1970’s, many poor women who received government assistance, particularly women of color, were coerced into agreeing to sterilization when threatened with a loss of benefits. Nurses told the girls’ mother they would be given “some shots” and convinced her to sign a consent form that she could neither read nor understand. Ultimately, a federal court held that federal funds cannot be used for involuntary sterilizations and enjoining the practice of threatening women with the loss of benefits if they refused to accede.Perkins-Valdez says that when she first heard the Relf girls’ story and became aware of the case, her reaction was “outrage. I couldn’t believe it and wondered why more people don’t know the story.” Her inspiration for Take My Hand was envisioning and wondering how the spirits of the Relf girls might want her to frame their story. She commenced three years of research and “everything” that she learned surprised her. The Relf girls were sterilized just one year after the shameful, four decades-long experimentation on Black Tuskegee men with syphilis came to light and marked the culmination of decades of eugenic policy — egregious and racist — including a push by Margaret Sanger to control the reproductive lives of Black women. She also discovered that reproductive justice has not been achieved in post-Roe v. Wade America.Despite her extensive research, Perkins-Valdez could not find any accounts from the nurses who worked at the clinic in Montgomery, Alabama, where the Relf girls were sterilized. So she created Civil Townsend, a nurse, to serve as the lead character and narrator of the book. Perkins-Valdez wanted to understand what it would be like to be a nurse working at a clinic where such atrocities were taking place — how they could make sense of what was happening there and would react to such an incident occurring “on their watch.” The book opens in Memphis in 2016, with a sixty-six-year-old Civil addressing her daughter, Anne, who has just graduated from college. She says she must tell the story of India and Erica as a “reminder to never forget.” Civil has learned that India is very ill and she is going to go visit her, but first wants Anne to understand how her “story is tied up with those sisters.”The action then moves back to March 1973. Civil is only twenty-two years old, and has just graduated from nursing school and begun working at the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic along with two other young, new nurses, supervised by Linda Seager, a stern “white woman working in a clinic serving poor Black women.” Civil is the daughter of a local doctor who wanted her to go to medical school and join his practice. But Civil is idealistic and chose to be a nurse because in the medical hierarchy they “were closer to the ground. I was going to help uplift the race, and this clinic job would be the perfect platform for it.”Early in the book, Civil reveals that she had an abortion in the spring of 1972 — before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion. Perkins-Valdez says including that event in Civil’s history frightened — she was scared about readers’ reactions. She had to research how Civil would locate an abortionist, where she would have the procedure, whether she would be provided with after-care, including pain medication, etc. The location she uses in the book is the site where abortions were provided illegally. But she concluded that Civil takes the job at the clinic in order to give women more reproductive freedom than she herself enjoyed. “It made sense that she would have been through that, because that part of the motivation for working at that clinic is so important to her,” Perkins-Valdez notes. “She doesn’t want the women to go through what she went through.” The decision to include that aspect of Civil’s history was the correct one because it enhances Civil’s motivations andprovides context, dimension, and emotional depth to Civil’s story and, regardless of the reader’s stance on abortion, makes Civil more sympathetic because she thinks about her choice, the procedure, and what might have been. She is not yet at peace with her decision or her relationship with the father.Civil quickly discovers that birth control is an instrument of oppression of Black women. Clinic staff aggressively pressure them to use birth control and Depo-Provera, then an experimental drug, is being routinely given to clinic patients. At first, Civil assumes it is safe but is troubled to find out that it has not received FDA approval.There is an outreach component to Civil’s duties and early in her tenure at the clinic she is assigned an off-site case. She dreads the journey out into the country the Williams’ home. No running water. Outhouse. Unpaved roads. A wooden shanty with no telephone. Civil meets Erica, age thirteen, and her sister, India, who is mute. They live in unimaginable squalor with their widowed father, Mace, who is just 33, and his mother, Patricia, age 62. “Walking into that house changed my life,” Civil relates. “And yes, it changed theirs, too. I walked right up in there with my file and bag of medicine, ready to save somebody.” She discovers that India is being given birth control even though she is a mere 11 years old, is not sexually active, and has not even begun menstruating. And Erica, just 2 years older, insists that she has never even kissed a boy and admits that she bleeds all the time, a side effect of Depo-Provera. Civil is enraged.Civil’s acts to help the Williams family. She is young, naive, and ignores the medical protocols she was taught in nursing school, her involvement and relationship with the family members growing increasingly personal. She is determined to help them find better housing, unabashedly using resources available to her to do so, even as she recognizes that she is jeopardizing her career by not maintaining the requisite professional distance from the family. Her clinical practices are also risky. And she feels that her efforts are making a difference, but Ms. Seager will not be deterred, making the Williams sisters pawns in a dangerous game of power in which Seager asserts her will. What happens to the Williams sisters becomes “the greatest hurt of” Civil’s life — a watershed moment that impacts her, as well as the entire Williams family, and alters the trajectory of their lives and relationships.Perkins-Valdez knew that Civil and the girls had to hail from different socio-economic classes. Indeed, college-educated Civil explains that she and her family “managed to live dignified in undignified times,” and she had advantages that the Williams girls did not. Perkins-Valdez recognized early on that she was writing a book about Black class dynamics and wanted to explore what it would be like for the two families to encounter each other. She does so skillfully, describing in detail the day-to-day details about the families’ lives and letting the images of their disparate living conditions illustrate how different their experiences of living in the same small area of Alabama has been. She expertly allows their voices to effectively make the point that the 2 families are living in 2 different Americas, neither of which is a land of freedom or equality for persons of color or the poor.Perkins-Valdez’s research brings validity and depth to the powerful story, and her characters are fully developed, their stories related with compassion and insight. Erica and India are clever, believable young women, as well as heartbreakingly sympathetic, and Mace, their father, is fascinating. He’s a man searching for a way to create a better life for himself and his family who has been beaten down by a system rigged against him, the death of his beloved wife, and his own flaws. Patricia, the girls’ grandmother, is wise and appropriately skeptical, but also loving and appreciative.Civil is looking back over a period of 44 years, evaluating her life and her choices as she stands on the cusp of retirement. She has enjoyed a successful career and flourished as a mother, but news of India’s illness, along with contemplating the next phase of her life, compels her into something of an “apology tour” during which she meets with her baby’s father for the first time in many years and is reunited with the Williams sisters. Civil is as objective as anyone can be about her decisions and actions all those years ago, admitting her own faults and acknowledging that her life can be divided into 2 parts — before she met and after her involvement with the Williams sisters. “Now I know why I came on this trip. I needed to make my peace. Ain’t nothing like peace of mind.” The story is evenly paced and vividly credible, inviting readers to become deeply invested in Civil’s richly emotional narrative to see whether she is finally able to reconcile the past.Valdez-Perkins says she hopes that Take My Hand “will provoke discussions about culpability in a society that still deems poor, Black, and disabled as categories unfit for motherhood.” The book is both timeless and eerily timely given that the right to reproductive freedom is far from assured in the United States with the U.S. Supreme Court on the brink of overturning Roe v. Wade and many states are enacting laws that restrict or completely annihilate reproductive choice. Thus, in addition to being a beautifully crafted, absorbing, and thought-provoking tale that will surely be on lists of the best historical fiction published in 2022, it is also an important book.Thanks to NetGalley for an Advance Reader’s Copy of the book.
Wonderful book loosely based on a real life event. I would never have known but for this book. And to know this goes on today in certain circumstances.
An important work of historical fiction. It broke my heart in so many ways. This book shed light on so many things I knew nothing about. It’s rather terrifying to know this is based on true events. Gut wrenching and horrifying…but it actually happened.This book was inspired by the case of . . In 1973, 2 sisters (12 and 14) in Montgomery, AL were sterilized under a federally funded program. This case brought to light then reality that thousands of poor women of color across the country were being sterilized, some of them not even knowing/understanding what they agreed to.Targeted sterilization?! Sterilizing minors!? L Yeah, it was a thing. It sounds unbelievable but it’s not. Once it came to light, people were disgusted and some very brave souls stood up against it and made a difference.This was an excellent book, and while it may be triggering for some, it’s an important story that needs to be told. I highly recommend it.It would be a great bookclub read because there is so much to unpack here. Lots of good discussions to be had. It would also be such a good movie.
This book put me in the midst of the time in which we all found out about medical injustice and unethical behavior in the name of science and to the detriment of people of color. We realize these injustices continue to happen today. This book causes you to think, what would I do when faced with making a decision that could cost me my job but save the patient?