Take My Hand

Written by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Review by Pamela Schoenewaldt

Take My Hand illuminates a horrendous national shame of the recent past. In the early 1970s, more than 150,000 low-income women and girls, predominately of color, were sterilized by tubal ligation. Millions more received the contraceptive Depo-Provera, then unapproved by the FDA and carrying significant side effects. Medical professionals systematically bullied and lied to clients about both procedures. Girls as young as nine were permanently sterilized without parents’ informed consent or sometimes even knowledge. Readers familiar with Nazi “eugenics” practices and the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study in which nearly 400 Black men were given syphilis as human guinea pigs will see parallels.

The novel follows Civil Townsend, a young Black nurse at a Montgomery, Alabama, family planning clinic, eager to offer fertility choices which she believes will help lift women from poverty. Discovering brutally coercive practices and blatant racism, Civil throws herself into the case of Erica and India Williams, eleven- and thirteen-year-old sisters whose illiterate father was pushed to consent to “shots” and then discovers his children have been sterilized. When Civil turns whistleblower, her life is upended. Patterned after a successful lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center, we see her tireless work with a young lawyer to reveal these practices and change federal policy.

Perkins-Valdez interweaves Civil’s involvement in the Williams case and the larger legal battle of 1973 with her own journey of redemption and return in 2016. Now a respected ob-gyn, she seeks to re-connect with the Williams girls and those who shared her struggle. Readers may find the 2016 chapters more distracting than illuminating, and Civil’s own motivations are sometimes murky, but as our nation lurches towards racial justice, Perkins-Valdez holds up an essential story of where we’ve been.