The unkindest cut of all

Last week a breathless world learned from the New York Times that Cindy Crawford has agreed to become the marketing symbol for Kellogg’s Special K. The nation’s newspaper of record seemed to think this a good thing. Cindy is not as into the heroin chic / anorexia look as other supermodels; she even has a baby, just imagine.

Well, that certainly gives me hope for the millennium. But I’ll bet my last spandex thong Cindy doesn’t know the founder of the diet feast, John Harvey Kellogg, was an eccentric early-20th-century eugenicist who strongly believed in "race betterment," which meant, among other things, sterilizing people thought inferior.

Partially financed by corn flakes profits, the eugenics movement took state legislatures by storm. The U.S. Supreme Court gave its blessing to forcible sterilization, and Michigan and 27 other states gave the authorities the power to do so. Tens of thousands were sterilized, and all this deeply influenced Adolf Hitler, who blatantly copied our laws. Didn’t learn about that in U.S. history, didja? Didn’t think so. Well, Fred Aslin didn’t have to be told. I first wrote about Fred’s horrifying story in August 1998. He was one of nine children in an Upper Peninsula family whose father died during the Great Depression. His mother may or may not have had a drinking problem, but in any case she couldn’t adequately provide, financially or otherwise, for her children.

So the state threw her into a mental institution and placed most of the children into the Lapeer State School and Training Center. They were beaten and mistreated, yet, incredibly, the three boys did extremely well. "Fred is the best reader in the group," one teacher wrote. "Fred is one of the most talented musicians I ever had." Yet, when he was 18, as U.S. troops moved across Europe defeating the Nazis, whose appalling crimes against humanity we profess to hate, they forcibly sterilized Fred Aslin and his two brothers. "I told them I didn’t want it," he says today. "They said, ‘You don’t have a choice.’ They said if we were allowed to produce children, they would be feeble-minded just like us," says Fred, now a hale 73. "This is an intelligent man who is in no way retarded," his young lawyer, Lisa McNiff, told me. I knew already; that was clear after chatting with Fred and exchanging e-mail. His lawyer thinks it is clear why they wanted to sterilize the Aslins – and why they got away with it so easily. "They were Native Americans. And they were poor." After the atrocity, they released him into society, where despite all the strikes against him, he did very well. That is, after he nearly got killed defending the country that had done so little for him. He was drafted, sent to Korea, and a sniper gave him a bullet that destroyed one lung, nicked his spine and still causes him pain in his shoulder.

When he recovered, he went on to run a farm, marry a widow with two sons, and raise them as his own. "I’d like to get my hands on the people who did this to him," one of them, Frank Hall, fumes today.

Fred and his brothers just tried to put Lapeer behind them. Then, two years ago, he used the Freedom of Information Act to get his records, and was moved to anger by the lies he read. His court-appointed "guardian" didn’t even attend the hearing where a judge rubber-stamped a request to sterilize Fred, who wasn’t allowed to be present either.

According to state records, he is still, officially, a "mental defective." All he wanted at first was an apology from the state. Then, when he couldn’t get that, he wanted to sue.

Sorry, he was told, the statute of limitations has run out. Never mind that millions of dollars in compensation were voted for the survivors of Nazi atrocities last year; if you were abused by the state of Michigan, tough. But McNiff may have found a way around that.

Five years ago, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled on the case of a man whose eye surgery had been bungled, but who didn’t discover the truth about what had happened for 26 years. Statutes of limitation, the court ruled, "do not ... extinguish a cause of action before the plaintiff is aware of the possible cause of action." On Groundhog Day, Lisa McNiff will appear before Michigan Court of Claims Judge Peter Houk and ask him to grant that Aslin has the right to sue the state for what was done to him 55 years ago. Though the Michigan Attorney General’s office is opposing his right to do so, it is hard to imagine, if there is any justice, how he can be denied.

Even if the court says no, Fred has won a couple little victories. After I wrote about him in 1998, people started paying attention. Local TV stations sent camera crews. ABC-TV’s "20-20" has done a piece, to air later this month.

And last month, he met with James Haveman, director of Michigan’s Department of Community Health. Afterward Haveman – an Engler appointee – was so moved he wrote Aslin a letter. "I would like to offer my personal apologies ... it is clear that the treatment you and others received was offensive, inappropriate, and wrong. Thankfully, we have learned from the horrors of the past." Well, maybe. Two years ago, when I first wrote about the Aslins, creatures in the Legislature were talking about bringing sterilization back. They have shut up since, which may be Fred’s finest legacy.