Illustration used by the Eugenics Society

“Containment and Control, Not Care or Cure”: An Interview with Elizabeth Catte on Virginia’s Eugenics Movement

In Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia, Dr. Elizabeth Catte expertly investigates and contextualizes the local history of eugenics in Staunton, Virginia. The story of the former Western State Lunatic Asylum—now renovated as a luxury hotel and pricey condos—demonstrates how race, gender, class and capitalism intersect in the American eugenics movement to uphold white supremacy, control women, and exploit disabled and impoverished people. Catte stresses that this history is not “forgotten,” but rather has been purposely omitted by those in power. Furthermore, her book reveals that eugenics still influence our society today. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Catte about her latest book, Pure America.

What’s the number one thing you hope readers walk away with?

I think of Pure America as a local history of the eugenics movement. I wanted to better understand how eugenics shaped what my region is today, particularly with regard to culture and tourism sites that are very important to local identity.

I actually don’t have a goal for readers in mind when I write books. Instead, I try to write in accessible ways, model good historical thinking and citational practice, and keep the length compact while still reaching for big ideas and synthesis. I think those aspects increase the odds that readers can take what they want or need to from my work.

Elizabeth Catte's headshot
Elizabeth Catte (Photo taken by Josh Howard)

“Eugenics is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It just depends on how much we’re willing to interrogate how power works in the world we live in today” (21). We are struggling through a pandemic that has some people openly and shamelessly advocating for eugenics. How does your book help us understand what is happening in America today?

Eugenics is still with us, even though the language, methods, or outcomes might look different than the early 20th century moment I write about. The United States allows the “market” to produce eugenic outcomes, particularly with regard to healthcare. Detained people, whether in ICE facilities or state prisons, are still vulnerable to involuntary sterilization. Disabled people still fight for lifesaving care. Black people who are pregnant are three times more likely to die in childbirth. In the United States, it is shockingly easy to whip up resentment towards the mere act of another’s survival and I think understanding the eugenics movement can bring us closer to accepting that truth.

Thank you for recognizing the labor of archivists in the book. What surprised you the most about the research process for this history? Is there a contemporary effort to document the stories of these former patients and victims through oral histories or some other means?

Virginia is one of two states that allowed survivors of eugenic sterilization to claim financial compensation, and a range of organizations, from universities to the ACLU, collected some testimony from victims on the long road towards reparations. Reporters also laid a good foundation for these efforts and produced a lot of victim-centered reporting in the 1980s and 1990s, when there was a push by the ACLU to challenge Buck v. Bell through Virginia’s courts. But no, there has not been, to my knowledge, a coordinated effort to interview former patients.

First page of pamphlet which announces HUMAN STERILIZATION TODAY at the top
1938 pamphlet supporting sterilization for “Human betterment.” (Human betterment foundation/Library of Congress)

People still discuss eugenics as a furtive, taboo subject and talking about archives and archival labor was a good way to help dispel that myth. The records are well preserved, the finding aids are great, and there is almost too much information available. I am very comfortable asserting that the reason it’s difficult to place eugenics within public memory isn’t to do with lack of information, scholarship, or helpful experts.

There has been some recent discussion about the challenges of researching traumatic events and its toll on your mental health. Did you experience this? Do you have any advice or coping mechanisms for researching difficult topics?

You probably predicted I would find a way to work the Haitian anthropologist Trouillot into this interview, but he has a line in Silencing the Past that sticks with me: “Hard facts are no more frightening than darkness. You can play with them if you are with friends. They are only scary if you read them alone.” Pure America was not a great book for my mental health, but I felt that not writing it would be worse, because then I would just be alone with my thoughts. And I do feel better now that it’s written, but I also wish there weren’t so many obstacles in the way of getting real care for our mental health. Long walks and baths are great but we should also be thinking in terms of therapy and medication if that feels right and so many of us don’t because it seems financially out of reach.

White supremacy and capitalism are intricately tied together in this history, and you brilliantly thread the role of capitalism to the modern day drive for profit in renovating Western State Hospital into a hotel and condos. Can you talk about how this history can help understand how white supremacy and capitalism affect disabled people and incarcerated people?

State officials in early 20th century Virginia had a great enthusiasm for extracting labor from confined people. Noting how profitable state prisons were, they supported arranging state psychiatric hospitals in a similar way. Patients who were able were expected to work and eventually state hospitals in Virginia became places that could not function without the labor of patients. In the process, patients built some lasting assets, including some of the residences that were redeveloped and sold as upscale condos here in Staunton.

a double helix on a blue background, book cover
Book cover of Pure America. (©<ahref=”https://beltpublishing.com/products/pure-america”>Belt Publishing)

Virginia still mandates that public institutions, like state universities, use products created by prison labor where possible. In Virginia, around 58% percent of incarcerated people are Black, while Black people are only 20% of the state population. Most recently, the state has forced incarcerated people to make protective products, like masks and physical barriers, even as they are disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19 themselves.

Graph shows the steady rise of incarcerated Black people vs decline in white people
People of color are overrepresented in prisons and jails. (©Prison Policy Initiative)

Federal law also allows disabled workers to be paid a subminimum wage. The belief that disabled workers are less efficient than non-disabled workers, and that they derive therapeutic benefits from working, still persists in law. I know that a lot of disability rights advocates are hopeful the next administration will close that loophole.

You make two statements in the introduction that I would love to see more of in historical writing: that we can absolutely judge people in the past by today’s standards, and that the stories of the victims in the book are not “forgotten” but purposely omitted by those in power. Why do you think these statements are controversial?

These statements dispense with what has been a very useful distraction for some — the eternal puzzling out of what is in the hearts and minds of people in the past, with the powerful always being given the benefit of a doubt. Keeping our perspectives fixed in such a way is of great advantage in maintaining the status quo, and it means that even as we try to pick things apart, we are always having the conversation on terms the powerful prefer. I decided to have a “turn to the camera” moment in Pure America and just explicitly say that I think the eugenicists I write about are rotten people, not particularly smart or even interesting, and that I’d present evidence they lied and bluffed and enjoyed hurting people. Joseph DeJarnette, the eugenicists who lived in Staunton, is described as a “flawed humanitarian” locally and the man was just a creep, even in his own time. And yet I think I did a decent job bringing depth to that, certainly adding more nuance than “flawed humanitarian” conveys.

In 2015, Sarah Handley-Cousins wrote a great essay for Nursing Clio about tourism at former institutions for mentally and physically disabled people. What are your thoughts about dark tourism and paranormal investigations at sites like Western State Hospital?

We have the opposite of dark tourism happening at Western State. For example, I once saw advertising materials that described the site in the past as a “resort-style asylum” and the public narrative of the former hospital is very much about a specific era that tried to forward a more humane philosophy of patient care. But I think the two are connected, because I suspect that the current owners and their development team might argue they need all that optimism and those happier stories to offset the broad impulse to think of these places as haunted and spooky.

All of this is related to the question of what to do with these sites after they close. We can’t museumify them all, and we both know that turning something into a museum doesn’t guarantee it will meet educational objectives. Do we give them new life as a commercial development, like in Staunton, and scrub away the darkness? Do we make darkness the major focal point, as Sarah describes? Do we tear them down and try to use the space for something the community needs?

I think a separate but related problem is that disability history is rarely part of communities. In Staunton, our mental health industry will be 200 years old in the next five years — two hundred years and not a single place I can visit in this community to learn more about that, even just a historic marker. We have thousands of former patients buried in an off-limits, neglected cemetery behind a hotel that received major historic tax credits. I think communities need to do a better job taking this history seriously, letting it in and assimilating it into their community narratives, not polarizing it as gruesome stories or defensive revisionism.

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