"Pure America" author Elizabeth Catte sees "the shadow of eugenics on almost everything"

"People who want to control women have taken tremendous advantage of their anatomy," Catte says

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published February 28, 2021 7:30PM (EST)

Pure America by Elizabeth Catte (Photo illustration by Salon/Josh Howard/Belt Publishing)
Pure America by Elizabeth Catte (Photo illustration by Salon/Josh Howard/Belt Publishing)

Elizabeth Catte isn't interested in excuses. She's a historian; she understands the concept of different eras just fine. It's in the job description. But the author of 2018's "What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia" refuses to take a sympathetic tone about the atrocities of the past in her stunning new book, "Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia."

"Here is something about this book that might get me into trouble," she writes early on. "I think most eugenicists were bad people. There will be no 'man of his time' hedging here." What she does, instead, is eloquently present a chilling chronicle of the system of forced institutionalization, forced sterilization and forced labor emanating from Virginia's Western State Hospital throughout the 20th century. (Virginia, by the way, was hardly unique — 32 US states had eugenics programs.) Catte reveals, via historical records and intimate individual stories, a displacement of entire families that was as mercenary as it was sophisticated. She reckons with the legacy of the physical spaces where so many of the most vulnerable were callously abused with the justification of "bad heredity." 

Masterfully written, "Pure America" is a book that is rooted in the past but doesn't blink in its gaze at the present day. There is no "man of his time," because that time is not fixed. And those individuals who, as Catte puts it, once "claimed as scientific law the truth of their own genetic perfection" roam and riot among us still. Salon spoke to Catte recently about the scars of America's eugenics movement, and how it's not hard to spot the modern day equivalents all around us. As usual, this interview has been edited and condensed for print.

I love that you open by calling BS on the "it was another time" excuse.

That is an argument that is connected to the myth of neutrality in terms of historical narration. It appears quite forcefully in these debates communities are having over Confederate monuments. It appears in the controversy over the 1619 Project. What frustrates me as a historian is that a lot of these "It was a different time" arguments pretend they are leveraged on behalf of historians. They're saying, "Oh, history is neutral. Real historians don't take issue with the personality or the heart and mind of people in the past. They look at facts." And that is so bulls**t. What is more accurate to say is that historians pay a lot of attention to context and they really pay attention to things like nuance. There are ways that we can do that without privileging the perspective of people in the past who were doing really awful things.

I'm very wary of the last five years in terms of the re-entrance of that attitude. I see a little bit happening in stance then with these figures like Joseph DeJarnette. It's something that I always want to cut through when I can, and so I thought, let's put a moment in there where I kind of turn to the camera and say, "No, we're not doing anything like that in this book whatsoever."

You say there's going to be language in this book that was used by people at the time, and it is offensive now, but you're quoting people. And also you're going to shut down this idea that it was another time. 

It's in conversations that are happening in lots of arenas right now, where we're trying to pull apart, what is the difference between intent and impact? It's good to revisit that in the past when we can. For example, I can say that the eugenicists might have believed that they had humanitarian motivation. That was what they believed, but that doesn't mean that their actions had any humanitarian impact. And it doesn't mean that we should continue in the present to center that motivation as the primary story of what is going on here.

This is a story that begins in Reconstruction. It is an argument that we see still being played out right now in different ways: How can we use "science" to frame morally terrible things?

There's the failure of Reconstruction. In Virginia, it's really transparent in terms of seeing motivations at work. There's a great feeling that power needs to be consolidated once again in the hands of the typical power brokers — the elite white people, state leaders, scientists. Any person added to the mix is this sort of like academic expert: the scientists, the researchers, the rational actors. And so power starts to consolidate in Virginia around figures of that type, people who will lead the state in the fight for the future that won't be waged on the battlefield, but will take place through the reputation of these new institutions like universities.

That dovetails with this moment in time where faith in psychiatric medicine is changing a lot due to a lot of different reasons. There are more immigrants coming into the country; more people equals more disease. Conditions like dementia were seen through the lens of mental illness, substance abuse was seen through the lens of mental illness.

State hospitals like Western State really became these warehouses for people, become sites that absorb a lot of concern that might be misdirected. For example, when a state like Virginia said, "Why can't we move our state forward?" you needed to point to people to kind of people who might end up in state hospitals and say, "It's because of those people. It's because of criminals. It's because of disabled people." 

Virginia really emerged as a place that said, "We're going to fix these problems and we're going to do it scientifically and rationally." Of course the benefit was that a lot of the beliefs that underpinned it, these "scientific" ideas, were ripped totally from the past. It allowed states like Virginia to keep one foot in the Old South and one foot in the New. That was a tremendous asset for white elites to cosmetically bend the future in a way that specifically looked suspiciously like the past. That is, I think, the foundation all of this, at least in Virginia, sits on top of. It's this desire to consolidate power and to cosmetically invent the course for the future that looked like the past.

As you put it, there's also the economics of it. That cool-eyed argument of, "If we're sterilizing people now, think of how many potentially hundreds of 'unfit' people we then don't have to deal with." 

Their argument was very simple, that if we curtail the reproduction of certain people, then the "better" people will feel more inclined to have bigger families, and a balance will be achieved. Eugenicists have the most deranged, hysterical "facts" that I've ever seen. Even under the terms that they were trying to use, it was just unrealistic. The extra irony there is that it wasn't just that they were sterilizing people or confining people to the hospital. They were also putting them to work for their state. Any kind of economic argument that it might be possible to make would also have to include on the backend the extracted labor from those very same people. It's the idea that some people are just born to be a drain on society's resources and that the state should be conservative in helping them survive. That was articulated very fully in the eugenics movement and it's still articulated fully today across a range of political debate.

There was so much in the book that was shocking to me, like when you get to the point of what happened with the sweeps. Walk me through what a sweep was.

Sweeps did not occur specifically in the part of the mountains became the Shenandoah National Park because that area was already proliferating with state workers and social workers. There was no need to do the sweep there. But elsewhere in the mountains, there were these totally chilling events where a social worker would approach the judge and ask for commitment orders for entire families, entire communities. Once those were secure, they would get the assistance of the police, drive to the community and round up as many people as they could physically cram in waiting vehicles. Then they'd take them off to state hospitals where presumably they would be confined, sometimes sterilized as well. 

It was a a fear that was on the surface of poor people in these communities. For example, that store owner I quoted reported that everyone believed that they were about to have it done to them — meaning to be rounded up and taken to the state hospital to be sterilized. It was connected to this movement where what we now call welfare was solidifying. People were having more options in terms of public assistance that they could claim. This is the early era of the New Deal. Money, special assistance, were becoming things people could avail themselves of. There was a backlash to that, and that backlash manifested in some areas as capturing the attention of the state and being placed under surveillance ,and then having their lives changed by these sweep events.

I want to ask you about Britney, because I can't help thinking that this is a story about women who have their agency taken away from them, and how it is done for profit. This is not just history. This is happens to people now. 

There's a very long history. We're still not out of this moment where the mental health needs of women, real or presumed, are illegitimate. Those are similar connections. Out of the gate, people assume that women are less rational actors, that they're more prone to fluctuations of their moods, that things like menstruation and childbirth affect women negatively to such a degree that they can't be in control of their own bodies. All of those permutations, we can still see them today. Conservatorship is interesting because what was happening to a lot of women who had come to the state hospital in Virginia is that they would have a procedure done to them, maybe sometimes not. And they would really want them to get back out into the public, to go work — under supervision. There is an idea that they needed this corrective influence of a guardian or continued supervision of the state hospital system.

For example, the superintendent of the state hospital would get progress reports about women out in the community. The goal was to get them working as cheaply as possible in the homes of people, and having these lives that were led under surveillance. A lot of these stories end with, "I ran away, again." Lots of stories where women tried to marry as quickly as possible to interrupt that guardianship. One of the saddest parts about the story that is even less well known is what happens to people after they left these institutions, and the surveillance that they still remained under for well into adulthood.

And the fact that they were a more valuable commodity if they could not bear children.

Yes, absolutely. No pregnancy to interrupt your productivity. Also, imagine that these are young women who are working in homes or from their own homes where brothers and fathers also live. Who have impulses and who might take advantage of those impulses with or without the consent of the woman. A. pregnancy would mean scandal. Having women who were sterilized was seen as a tremendous asset for relieving both of those concerns.

That is a story that continues. I'm wondering what you were thinking last year when these stories started coming out about detained migrant women being sterilized here.

I was not surprised at all to see that happened. Even before eugenics sterilization became legal in Virginia, there were all these coincidental medical procedures happening to women, where physicians were saying, "Well, she had a reproductive complaint and we cured it, but now she has infertility." People who want to control women have taken tremendous advantage of their anatomy. This was just the same type of situation. I'm not surprised to hear that things like that are happening in ICE facilities and not surprised to hear that there will be little accountability for that.

It really just echoes what we see in the book, where women aren't even being told what has been done to them. Women don't even know.

A lot of times they do not know. Another chilling aspect of that also is, imagine how little health care and how little care these women were allowed to take with their bodies. They get to be fifty or sixty years old and not understand that they had been sterilized. I'm presuming that if these women had regular access to health care, and were able to take care of their bodies, they would eventually, hopefully, cross paths with a physician or a nurse or someone knowledgeable who could have raised this possibility for them. Instead of, for example, trying to have children, not really ever understanding why that couldn't be. That's just another layer to that.

How do we reckon with this now? How do we look at this in a way that isn't just, "Luxury condos where we elide over the part where this was a lunatic asylum, or hotels where people were brutalized"? How do we remember these things in a way that understands and does justice to these people and the history of it, but also preserves?

There were a couple of different things that are really important to think about. The first is, the action that these kinds of memories can invoke. Action related to increasing access to healthcare. When people ask me today, "How do we interrupt contemporary eugenics?" it always starts with healthcare and universal healthcare. You have a for profit healthcare system in the United States and a market system of government that allows people to die of preventable diseases, that profits from medical racism, that has byzantine systems to prevent people from accessing services, that can deny lifesaving medical treatment to disabled people. The eugenic implications of those systems are vast. Anything that we can do to provide access for people is going to be in confrontation to the history of eugenics.

There are also a couple of things that we can do in terms of fixing, through federal intervention, employment laws. In laws that determine access to public benefits for disabled people. We can make it so that SSI and Medicaid don't factor into a spouse's income when determining eligibility or benefits, which disabled people would say means that they cannot marry. We can also close loopholes in employment laws that make it possible to pay disabled people the minimum wage. Those are things that are achievable now and in the next four years that we can start moving towards. 

But also, what do we actually do with the facility? That was a difficult question to marry in with those broader political questions. I tend to think that places like Virginia — and I'm sure this is true to other states as well — don't do a particularly good job saving and preserving sites that are connected to the history of disability.

It's rare to see a marker or memorial or similar things within a community, to do with the history of disability and of its mistreatment. I think in reference to the situation in the book with the luxury condos, I would be far more laid back If there were other places in the community or wider space where that history lived and could be memorialized, where we could be thinking about it in tangible ways. But we can't. Related to that, every state hospital, I think in Virginia, would have cemeteries associated with them. We can also try to do a better job by the people who are buried at these sites who often were denied dignity in death as well as life. In general, I would like to see more emphasis on looking and scouting and placing disability history at the center of community, similar to the way that architectural history gets treated.

I don't think that the solution is going to be create a museum to awful medical moments in every community or anything like that, but it is a history that needs to be more visible. That needs to be supported. The state is very willing to, for example, hand out things like preservation tax credits to preserve buildings for private owners. So we need to help communities leverage those same benefits to talk about history that is less palatable.

Reading your book, I was also thinking of everything that I have heard over this past year from various figures about the expendability of the elderly in the midst of a pandemic, and the perpetuation in the public discourse as a legitimate argument, that there are people who are expendable. And there are people who, because they are not economically lucrative for us, are expendable.

The discrimination that exists in those arenas, combined with this moment where people are becoming incredibly comfortable rationalizing their decisions in economic terms. People are going to die because "We need to keep the economy open." It's a very uncomfortable argument, with eugenic implications. I continue to be distracted by how comfortable people are kind of entering into these conversations. There are people who are adopting this mind frame that we all can have a say in who is going to survive and who is not going to survive. That is so distressing to me.

This is not the past. This is the United States of America right now, and, how we talk about immigrants and how we talk about the elderly and how we talk about the disabled.

Is it eugenics to send restaurant workers to work knowing that they might contract a potentially fatal illness? I don't want to go overboard saying everything is eugenics. If somebody wants to call it discrimination, if someone wants to call it ableism, if somebody wants to call it racism, those are great terms too. But you do write a book like this and start to see the shadow of eugenics on almost everything around you. 

Suddenly, you're watching the Britney documentary a little bit differently.


By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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