Let me start with full disclosure: I attended a state university where I graduated with English Honors and earned an “Excellent” rather than the usual “Satisfactory” on the Upper-Division Writing-Proficiency Examination (UDWPE) also known as the exit writing exam. I also attended the same state university for my Master’s level academic work in Women’s Studies.
Additional disclosures: I was reading this book when the ethics hearings on confirmation of now Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh where in full swing so I have some kinda feelings about ivy league education. There’s a lot to be infuriated about right now, if one has had a lifelong investment in politics like I have. Trump winning the electoral college votes to the presidency has made every damn day a living hell. His appointment of Kavanaugh who acted like a giant spoiled man-baby during the hearings were ridiculous. Kavanaugh’s conduct was in stark contrast to the poised and well-spoken Christine Blassey-Ford who had a credible story about the ugly assault she says Kavanaugh perpetrated on her during a high school party in their young adult lives. These times are heady with trauma triggers. Also, I am finally getting around to completing this review just after the scandal of rich people buying their kids into the high standing colleges has made national headlines – mostly because two notable actresses (and not their husbands) were caught up in the FBI sting that tripped the scandal into our national consciousness. The wealthy taking the best of everything and more than their fair share is nothing new, but it does seem to be getting really out of hand.
And now onto the matter at hand, The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women, is incredibly important. The US Government enacted local policies to test women for sexually transmitted diseases/infections. This policy was called the American Plan (in difference to the similarly enacted European Plan which was slightly less punitive) and began at a time when little was known about these illnesses or how to prevent them – it was the prevailing wisdom that women were the cause of contagion without much reference to the promiscuous men who were passing STDs/STIs. The advent of this policy began on the heals of the Typhoid Mary contagion took hold of the American Psyche so few thought much about infringing on the rights of unchaperoned young women. Nina McCall is one of the few women to successfully argue that her rights had been trampled and it is here that one wonders at how this book came to be.
The legal case which Nina McCall successfully won was not a victory for anyone but herself. The final very narrow decision from the court on the matter of invading privacy and unlawful imprisonment was granted to McCall, but very specifically written so as not to be used as precedent for anyone else. The American Plan as a policy is a shocking bit of history and one that dovetails quite uncomfortably with anti-abortion legislation around the country so it is extremely important to get a handle on the the far reaching impact of its insidiousness. The American Plan is a topic that I do not begrudge our author Scott W. Stern in writing and trying to working out. To this day, there are still many policies and laws which came about because of The American Plan. These current laws hurt those trying to access sex education or birth control. These laws also hurt the HIV/AIDS community having done much harm in the early days of the crisis which took so many talented artists and members of that community. I began reading this book with the sincere hope that Stern would reveal just how horrible the efforts of the decades-long government plan to imprison “promiscuous” women really was.
It was early, like in the first pages of reading this book, that I already lost it. As I read, I was constantly astounded at the long passages of nothing but weather and scenery that had damn near nothing to do with Nina McCall or The American Plan. Were these passages not insulting enough, there were pages and pages of tedious descriptions about what people wore or what they looked like or how they might be remotely tangentially related to Nina McCall that seemed to add more nonsense to the already overreaching narrative. This book was fastidiously researched for background and was likely a decent -short- master’s thesis of the subject… and it should’ve stayed in the thesis format. The very best of the writing – and it is pretty good – is actually the epilogue where the author writes about how this book and his research on the topic came to be. This is where I really lost my mind. This guy wrote an amazing piece about himself and the rest was overwrought – overworked drivel that wastes a truly important topic.
And at the same time the nation was glued to their computer and tv screens to watch the pompous man-baby ivy-leaguer, Kavanaugh get rammed into the US Supreme Court with slightly less grace than this author wrote this book. So that was truly just the icing on this shit-cake. As if it’s not ugly enough, the galling connection is that there are many women who’ve been writing around the issues of the The American Plan including privacy and gendered (discriminatory) public policy. Stern’s take is a new vantage, but in truth its not the best one and it defintiely isn’t worth reading his account. And I just read recently this tidbit that Stern sold the rights for his book to to make a movie. It’s fucking gross that such a pathetic effort is getting such positive attention. There are so many feminist writers who have been shouting from the rooftops about similar work with little or no fanfare. It really is just pathetic that this less than mediocre white guy gets so much success because this book is so poorly written as to be a waste of the very important topic it raises. And to bring it back home to the personal is political, my husband and I were both brilliant kids and we’ve got a couple of wickedly smart ones we are raising without much hope that they’ll break into the elite school set no matter how hard they try. Maybe it’s okay that my kiddos don’t climb into the upper echelons of intellectual and social strata, but it sure is insulting to live in a time and place where false meritocracy reins.
My advice: skip the book and hope the movie is better.