No Hedging: On Elizabeth Catte’s “Pure America”

April 10, 2021   •   By Anna Aguiar Kosicki

Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia

Elizabeth Catte

NEARLY 100 CONFEDERATE monuments were removed from public display in 2020, though hundreds still remain across the country. Debates continue to rage: do these statues usefully confront us with a shameful heritage, or do they reify the inequities that their subjects fought to maintain?

These debates, of course, must always take into account the intent of those who raised the statues in the first place. As Elizabeth Catte writes of a statue of Robert E. Lee in her new book, Pure America, “The city leaders who celebrated the placement of Lee’s statue in 1924 […] hoped [that it] would be a lasting articulation of their power.” When the historical context of Lee’s statue is revealed, the case for it as an educational tool crumbles. By understanding the historical contexts of physical monuments and institutions, we can see how deeply the legacy of racism, colonialism, and violence informs our daily lived experience — whether that legacy is still on proud display or now hidden from view. The latter is true of Western State, the psychiatric hospital at the center of Pure America, where “between 1927 and 1964, surgeons sterilized around 1,700 people without their consent.”

Pure America is a painstakingly researched dive into Virginia’s past and present that deftly oscillates between granular specificity and a nuanced theoretical approach to eugenics. Catte begins by exploring her own sense of place in her home state, and this personal narrative serves as a prism through which readers come to know the set of policies and the cast of characters that defined eugenics during the 20th century.

“There will be no ‘man of his time’ hedging here,” Catte promises at the outset: “I think most eugenicists were bad people.” In her historical profiles of Albert Priddy, Joseph DeJarnette, and George Freeman Pollock, she makes clear that they were not neutral cogs helplessly turning in a racist machine; they actively fought for their eugenic ideals in the highest courts. And their legacy is alive today. In order to reckon with that legacy, we cannot let its founders get off easy. In addition to making a theoretical intervention in eugenics scholarship, Catte argues for a distinction between “forgotten history” and intentionally obscured history: “[F]orgetting is passive, organic, even gentle at times. Intentionally crowding a collective history with elements that are specifically designed to ease discomfort or conceal controversy is active, intentional, coercive.” She resists the rhetoric of the “secret history”: how could a court case whose decision remained on the books until 1974 be a secret history? Pure America, then, is an attempt to focus on the key players, to bring light to what has been forced into the shadows.

¤

If Catte’s story has a protagonist, she is Carrie Buck. Buck, born in 1906, was committed to Western State on claims of “feeble-mindedness” and was the plaintiff in Buck v. Bell, a 1927 Supreme Court case in which the bench ruled that it was legal to sterilize people for eugenic reasons. Buck’s story is an excellent conduit for a broader survey of the rhetoric of eugenics — the direct politicization of her personal experiences exposes how culture, science, the law, and economics intertwined to create eugenic systems of control. Eugenicists were deeply invested in Darwinian ideas of reproduction and conceived of humans as breeding stock of variable quality. In a crude application of the “survival of the fittest” framework, the groups that they viewed as biologically inferior had to be systematically bred out. Darwinian rhetoric allowed the eugenicists to present their ideological convictions as scientific fact. As acclaimed medical sociologist Jonathan Metzl observes in connection to diagnoses of schizophrenia, “cloaking our observations under the seemingly objective rubric of biological science renders [our ideological and political assumptions] all the more difficult to discern or critique.” This also applies in the case of feeble-mindedness, the primary medico-social phantom of the eugenicists. The feeble-minded were understood as a perpetual underclass characterized by an anti-social personality that could not be improved. This malleable biopolitical category was extended according to the needs of the state and of the wealthy and privileged.

Carrie Buck was born into a poor family but showed no signs of feeble-mindedness. Her foster family pulled her out of school at a young age in order to work as a maid, but before that she maintained average-to-good grades. However, once news of her pregnancy reached her foster family, who took her in when her mother was institutionalized, they fabricated a history of deviance in order to make the case that Buck herself must be sterilized and institutionalized, in part to avoid the shame of having failed at a rehabilitation project. In Buck’s story, just as in those of many women who were sterilized during this period, the authority of the medical gaze won the day. Although she took her fight against Western State all the way to the Supreme Court, “expert” doctors were brought to the stage to advocate for eugenic sterilization. Catte’s intense focus on Buck in the first section allows her to demonstrate in detail how various forms of eugenics operated, and to zero in on how these policies gained credentialed approval in glaringly unjust ways.

Buck’s sterilization was in part justified because those in power were interested in creating a contingent labor force of feeble-minded women, who worked as domestic workers and didn’t pose the “threat” of children born out of wedlock. Catte’s analysis of this phenomenon cannot help but remind us of the logic of the contemporary prison-industrial complex; in both cases, the targeted populations are presented as pathologically incapable of integration into a modern society with a productivity prerogative, and, once they have been institutionalized, become a crucial source of labor. In the archived writings of policy-makers and public figures of the time, there is perpetual worry that the feeble-minded would become public charges and put a drain on public resources. Catte’s historical investigation uncovers how even during the Progressive Era, long before Reagan’s eugenic campaign against the “welfare queen,” budget concerns became a driving motivation for forced labor. While much writing about eugenics aims, rightly, to expose the racist, sexist, and ableist assumptions of worth and potential that drove the movement, Catte consistently, seamlessly links these -isms to an economic base.

Later in the text, economic motives interlock with eugenicist ideals in the formation of Virginia’s National Parks. Sociological studies by Miriam Sizer, which were commissioned by the hopeful operators of Shenandoah National Park and relied on a labor force of educated white women, concluded that the people who had been living in the Virginian mountains were essentially feeble-minded savages. They urged that these people be moved to institutions such as Western State in order to slow or stop the “deterioration of stock” that occurred due to environmental circumstances. Subsequently, thousands of families were moved off their land in order to generate profit through the National Parks system.

¤

Catte’s history bumps right up against the present day. She traces the relocation of those in Shenandoah Park, the institutionalization of those in Western State, and the capital that flowed readily into Virginia as a result of eugenics right to her own doorstep when she spends the night in the Blackburn Inn, the luxury hotel that occupies the plot of land where Western State once stood. At the end of a long passage in which Catte reckons with what it meant for the developers of the Blackburn Inn to advertise a quaint, sterilized version of the land’s history, she concedes, “the hotel is really nice. It’s really fucking nice.”

Pure America is not a manifesto. It is an uncompromising assessment of how eugenicist thought, the law, and the economy bolstered one another in 20th-century Virginia, with a focus on the demonization of poor white people. However, it’s hard to read Catte’s incendiary prose as anything but a call to action. Catte does not offer a plan for what someone wishing to resist contemporary eugenics should do, but she does not have to. Instead, she provides the reader with a clear sense of history and a description of how oppression is cemented through credential-laden institutions.

Catte sets the reader up with a toolbox. Armed with these tools, it takes little to look around and find examples of how eugenicist thought has contributed to the marginalization of many groups of people today. As other public history efforts, such as the much-discussed 1619 Project that directly drew ire and attempts at suppression from the Trump administration, do, Pure America reveals, plainly and critically, how the discriminatory powers of the past have remained entrenched, which complicates both our histories and our present, and in and of itself is an act of resistance.

¤

Anna Aguiar Kosicki is a writer, feminist, sociologist, and organizer. Anna is currently based in Pittsburgh, was previously based in Chicago, and will soon be based in New York.