On February 18, historians Elizabeth Catte (Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia) and Adam Cohen (Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck) discussed one of America’s great miscarriages of justice, the Supreme Court’s infamous 1927 Buck v. Bell decision, which resulted in more than 8,000 people being involuntarily sterilized in five Virginia state hospitals. The authors explored what this history means today and how eugenics are interconnected with racial, gender, and class prejudices.
Watch the recording of the event here and read the transcript below:
Co-hosted by Encyclopedia Virginia
“In this grounded, well-rendered, and highly disturbing account, Catte examines the period from the late 1920s to 1979 at the Western State Lunatic Asylum….A well-told, richly contextualized investigation of an appalling episode in American history.” ―Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“In a lacerating analysis of the links between economic policies and eugenicist thought, Catte examines coerced labor at Virginia’s psychiatric institutions, the destruction of a historically-Black neighborhood in Charlottesville under the guise of urban renewal, and the transformation of Western State into an upscale hotel and condominiums. This provocative and impeccably argued history reveals how traumas of the past inform the inequalities of today.” ―Publishers Weekly, starred review
“In this detailed and riveting study, Cohen captures the obsession with eugenics in 1920s America… Cohen’s outstanding narrative stands as an exposé of a nearly forgotten chapter in American history.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Imbeciles is a revelatory book. Eye-opening and riveting. In these pages, Adam Cohen brings alive an unsettling, neglected slice of American history, and does so with the verve of a master storyteller.” —Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here
JANE KULOW: Welcome to Shelf Life from the Virginia Festival of the Book, featuring livestreamed author events on Thursdays. I’m Jane Kulow, director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us.
A couple notes before I hand the program over to our speakers. Please share your questions on Facebook or Zoom. This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time during the event by using the Closed Captions tab at the bottom of your Zoom window. If you haven’t already read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy it from a local bookseller or check out a copy from your library, visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore the full schedule of upcoming events. Now, I’m pleased to introduce today’s speakers.
Elizabeth Catte, author of Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia and What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, is a historian and writer living in Virginia. Elizabeth’s work has been published widely, and you can learn more at ElizabethCatte.com.
Adam Cohen, author of Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, is a journalist and lawyer, and a former member of The New York Times editorial board.
These books, both highly-acclaimed, present the history of the Supreme Court’s infamous 1927 Buck v. Bell decision, which resulted in more than 8,000 people being involuntarily sterilized in five Virginia state hospitals. What does this history mean today, how do we remember it, and how do eugenics interconnect with racial, gender, and class prejudices?
Liz, Adam, welcome, and tell us more!
ELIZABETH CATTE: Hi everyone, thanks for joining. I’m Elizabeth Catte. If you’re tuning in on this snowy day, I hope everybody in Virginia is staying warm. I am the author of Pure America, and I’m going to talk to you just a tiny bit about the book that I read [each of these authors has read the other author’s book], and Adam will do the same. I think that today, we would have more of, like, an entry-level discussion to these topics because they can be very intimidating, very heavy.
My more recent book is Pure America, available through Belt Publishing. It is a book that tries to give Virginia’s eugenics history a sense of place. It explores the world of specifically Central Virginia, as it was built by leaders and institutions that were really steeped in ideas about racial and genetic purity. It’s about how they leveraged these ideas against the bodies of Virginia citizens, but also how they leveraged these ideas in claims they made against land and space and communities. So I wanted it to be a local history of a moment that is widely researched but perhaps not well remembered.
I was inspired to write it because I live in Staunton, Virginia. Until recently, I lived right down the road from one of Virginia’s five state hospitals, the former campus of Western State Hospital, which has a significant connection to Virginia’s eugenics movement. It is now sort of restored to life as a historic preservation project.
So every day I came face to face with this hospital, knowing the history of eugenics because I am a historian who studies twentieth-century history. And every day I’d ask myself, when will I not be able to drive past this site and think these intrusive thoughts? Will this trauma of seeing this past in this place ever leave me? Can I see it the way that my community sees it, as this site that has a very positive history and a positive place in the community? So this is a book about living within the constellation of landscapes with similar histories: so, Staunton, the Shenandoah National Park, Charlottesville, and the University of Virginia. And it’s about how I tried to sort of make sense of that presence of the past in my own life and everyday experiences, and raise some important questions, I think, about to what extent our communities are still shaped by that past.
I’m so glad today to have this conversation with Adam Cohen because his work was helpful to me as I was writing my book, particularly his perspective and background as someone who knows quite a bit about legal studies and has a background as a lawyer. So I’ll let Adam introduce himself and tell you about his book.
I’m really thrilled, and thank you to Jane and Sarah and everyone from Virginia Festival of the Book and Virginia Humanities for putting us together today to have this conversation.
ADAM COHEN: Thank you so much, Liz. What a wonderful introduction. I’m a huge fan of your book. It was wonderful. I love the way you began really rooting it in your location in the state of Virginia. I was struck by how we really began in such different places, but I think in many ways we ended up in a similar place.
As you alluded to, I began writing Imbeciles because I’d been covering the Supreme Court for years and was very interested in that institution. In particular I was interested in something I’d observed over the years, which is that although it has a reputation as being the champion of the underdog and the defender of our rights in Brown v. Board of Education, almost invariably in Supreme Court history, it has come out on the side of the rich and powerful and against the weak. We see this again and again. We’re certainly seeing it with the current Court. But going back to slave times when it ruled for the slave holders and going back to Jim Crow when it upheld Jim Crow laws, I was looking for a story to tell that would show that.
I knew Buck v. Bell just a little bit from law school. There was that famous phrase “three generations of imbeciles are enough,” which as law students we kinda couldn’t believe the Supreme Court said. I was also going to school in Boston at Harvard where Oliver Wendell Holmes was a revered figure, and his portrait was on the walls everywhere. He wrote those words, and he was the one who wrote the decision condemning Carrie Buck to being sterilized.
So that was how I kind of backed into eugenics. Having backed into it, I was fascinated by it, as I know you were just from reading your book. Just the horrible things that we did, the way in which it was embraced at a societal level. A majority of states had eugenics sterilization laws. The Supreme Court upheld it. Once I got into the world of eugenics, I haven’t left it. In fact, I tried to do a little something like you have so beautifully and eloquently for Virginia with my alma mater. I wrote a piece for Harvard Magazine looking at Harvard’s history, and it’s just shocking to me that one of the big residential houses there that a big percentage of the students live in is called Eliot House, named after President Eliot of Harvard. Well he was one of the main eugenicists who supported eugenic sterilization. He was vice president of the International Eugenics Congress.
So in a way I’ve tried to do a little bit of what you’ve done, which is really interrogate the past by looking closely at the present. As I say, I really enjoyed your book, and I’m looking forward to talking about it.
ELIZABETH CATTE: I think it’s kind of safe to say that—I don’t know if you would call it an irony, but one of the quirks about eugenics is that it is so widely researched and so well documented. And yet we are still kind of struggling to piece out what the legacy of eugenics is. And we’ll sort of talk about in our conversation today, some of the things in Virginia—and you can add to that too—that people have done to do either reparative justice, restorative justice, public memory, things like that. But it’s still a topic that is far from settled in the ways that we sort of live with—I say live within or beside this past.
I wanted to start our conversation—and again, I want to make this open to people who might not know very much about the history of eugenics or even the history of Virginia in this time period. But let’s start by talking about Carrie Buck, the central figure in Buck v. Bell, and this person that really kind of captured both of us.
This is a Supreme Court case that was advanced in Carrie Buck’s name in Virginia. We have a historical marker to Carrie Buck here and to Buck v. Bell, and she appears in history textbooks. The textbook version of her life really kind of captures only who she is between 1924 and 1927, which is when Virginia, and then eventually the Supreme Court, are testing the constitutional validity of eugenic sterilization laws. That’s sort of all we get of her life. So I hope we can talk a little bit about who Carrie Buck was beyond this moment in her life and what it was about her that captured the attention of these eugenicists who were very much investing in trying to get eugenic principles into law.
ADAM COHEN: It’s such a fascinating story, and I have to say such a sad, sad story. She was a young girl who was growing up really on the streets of Charlottesville because her mom was poor and her dad was out of the picture. This couple came along, the Dobbs. It was an idea back then of “child saving,” that if middle-class families would just take in these poor waifs and raise them right, that this would be better for them and better for society. They take in Carrie Buck, but they have no intention of really saving her or helping her. They put her to work as their maid. They do not treat her the way they would treat their daughter. They eventually take her out of school after fifth grade, which is just terrible and leads to a lot of her problems.
And then the nephew of the wife actually rapes Carrie Buck, and this is really what is the horrible event that sets her sad trajectory in motion. Once she becomes pregnant, she’s an embarrassment and also a potential witness against a member of the family for a crime. So they find out that it’s quite easy to get someone like Carrie institutionalized under Virginia law by declaring her feebleminded or epileptic. They decided to say she was both, although she’d never had a seizure. Just why take chances? And they did very quickly get her sent to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, where Carrie gets there just at the wrong time, just when Virginia has passed a sterilization law, just when the head of the Colony is looking for a test case. Because Carrie’s mother is already there, and she now actually has a child who they’re able to say is mentally feeble, feebleminded, they’re able to say, “Oh look, she’s part of a family pattern.” So they set her up, and she becomes the test case.
As an author—I’m sure you had the same thing—I was so eager to get as much of her story in her own words as possible, not to be creating her story for her, but telling it. And it was sad how little there was. At the court proceeding where she’s declared feebleminded, she only says one sentence in the record and things like that. The one place I did find her voice—and you did too, I saw, reading your book—is after she’s released from the Colony, she writes a lot of letters back to the Colony. They are in files at the Virginia State Archives. You can read them. And what you’re struck by immediately is that she’s a really good writer. Her sentences are great, her words are great, her handwriting is great. This is not a feebleminded person. So the frustration is, boy, I wish we had heard more of her voice. An amazing, tragic story.
ELIZABETH CATTE: Her daughter Vivian, of course, survives at least for eight years. I’d have to refresh myself on the dates, but I think Vivian, her daughter, and sort of Virginia’s Eugenics Sterilization Act, have almost the same birthday, so to speak. They happened within days of one another in April 1924. So yes, she is many kinds of a victim, but bad timing certainly is one of the hardest to bear and to look at her life.
One of the things that I think is really remarkable about Carrie Buck’s life is—well, like you said, her mother Emma is, of course, already at the Colony. She had been institutionalized about ten years—a couple of years before Carrie Buck was there. I struggle to imagine what it was like to have that reunion with her mother there in the Colony. One of the only photos that we have of Carrie Buck, of course, is that famous photo taken by a researcher named Arthur Estabrook who was not a very good person. But he worked for an organization called the Eugenics Record Office, which was like a national clearinghouse for eugenic research and eugenic researchers. It’s admittedly a great photo, so at least there’s that. It’s of Carrie and her mother Emma, sort of like crossed arms, on the ground of the Colony just preceding this moment, this uncertain moment in her appeals process.
You’ve alluded to this a little bit in your answer. Carrie was labeled as a member of sort of a new class of people who were treated as if they had almost a pseudo-disability, people who were referred to and labeled as feebleminded. Prior to this moment and sort of the solidification of eugenics sterilization laws, you see the formation of these laws coming, and you see people singled out for hereditary disabilities.
So mental illness, they believed many types of mental illness were hereditary. Neurological conditions, like epilepsy, for example, were thought to be hereditary. Conditions like people who were deaf and people who were blind, those were thought to be heredity conditions. These laws were specific in singling out sometimes people who were criminals. But also new is this invented class of feebleminded people who were particularly menacing in this moment of time.
What exactly were states like Virginia, and who were they talking about when they talked about feebleminded people? How did they diagnose this condition of feeblemindedness?
ADAM COHEN: Great question. It was such a catchall phrase where they could really throw in anyone that they didn’t like. And they didn’t like people for lots of reasons, as you allude to. There were references in Carrie’s record to how she was too attracted to boys in school and the fact that she grew up poor. There was at some point, as you mentioned, a sort of rudimentary IQ test administered to her when she got to the Colony. But really, they were going after what they saw as the dregs of society. This was a movement. The eugenics movement said that we’ve now learned from Darwin that man evolves the way animals evolve. And if we can just take this into our hands, we can make a better human race. Let’s not leave it up to chance. Let’s eliminate the people who should not be reproducing.
So that was kind of the charge. What kind of people do they not want reproducing? As you eloquently write in your book, a lot of it was poor white people, people who lived “in the holler,” so to speak. And Carrie fit that model because she was growing up poor on the streets. So they were looking for people like her, and feeblemindedness was the category. They said that they were morally delinquent.
When you were talking about Emma, just one thought occurred to me. The most poignant letter of all of the Carrie letters that I read was a letter that I know you read also. It’s where once she’s finally established herself and her life and she gets married after years and years and she’s really settled, the first thing she does is she writes to the Colony to see if she can take her mother out of the Colony and give her a home with her. She was such a loving, kind, decent person. But all of that is lost in this category of feeblemindedness where they just say, “You’re bad and if you reproduce you will make the human race worse.”
What’s sad is because it was so malleable, there was really no way to fight it. I mean, how do you prove you’re not feebleminded? There’s not enough of a definition. As you also mentioned, there were these categories. The Eugenics Record Office, which we both write about, which was based here in New York where I am, actually came up with a statute that became the sterilization law in many states, and it had all these categories. If you could fit someone into one of them—if they were indolent (meaning lazy), if they were poor, if they were alcoholic—there were so many categories. So pretty much it was just a way for them to empower those who were abhorrent of this ideology of creating “a better race.” They could put people in the category if they wanted to.
ELIZABETH CATTE: I think one of the things that’s sort of Machiavellian about this new category of people and why white people in particular became very menacing in this moment is eugenics is trying to bend itself around a reality that it’s—and I think Paul Lombardo puts this really well. He’s another legal scholar who’s written extensively about eugenics. Eugenics is a bottom feeder. It takes what it wants, and it takes who it wants.
So eugenicists, many of them were trying to bend reality around this fact and present it as sort of a clinical scrutiny when, in fact, it wasn’t. So that’s why white people were particularly, I think, useful in making this case because it meant that somebody could believe in an invisible threat. And that was the most menacing kind of threat, a threat that you couldn’t see. And to a certain extent, elite white people of this time, they would consider any black person to be eugenically compromised by the realities of their race. I think they needed to take that one step further to poor white people. Particularly poor white women like Carrie Buck were particularly useful for bending around this reality and sort of making this group very malleable, as you say.
Also, I think it’s worth mentioning—one of the complications in talking about this past is a lot of people that we will be talking about, and that we have talked about in our books, we wouldn’t call them disabled today, likely. And that’s a good thing. I think that’s a good thing to recognize in certain contexts. On the other hand, it’s certainly true, I think, that they would have lived their lives as disabled people in the sense that they lived within institutions, they were held underneath a coercive system. In some cases they were dependent on the State for benefits and for their survival. Their friends would be disabled. Many of them were advocates for people who were disabled.
So when we talk about somebody like Carrie Buck not being feebleminded, it’s not a point of pride or anything like that, that we’re speaking about like a “gotcha” to the State. It’s just a fact that you cannot understand these categories that were trying to be applied, unless you acknowledge the fact that this was a way to medicalize a lot of preexisting beliefs about people who were poor, non-white, disabled, and people who were immigrants.
I’m so glad to get a conversation and your take on this. A lot of legal scholars are pretty comfortable today calling Buck v. Bell a sham trial. Was that your understanding when you started to study the case? Had that kind of perception of the case kind of trickled through sort of the things that you were studying in law school? When did you become aware that this was a sham trial? And what do we even mean when we say that Buck v. Bell was a sham trial, and why does it matter?
ADAM COHEN: Right, great question. First, just about law school. What’s shocking to me is we didn’t learn the case in law school. It was the chatter in the hallways. I took constitutional law with one of the leading constitutional law scholars in the country. Did not come up. This same scholar has written the treatise on constitutional law. It’s over a thousand pages. It’s half of a sentence in a footnote. That is all that was in that version of the treatise that we had in law school about Buck v. Bell. No one talked about it.
In fact, there was also a major, major biography of Louis Brandeis, who was one of the justices who signed the majority opinion. He was the great progressive, so it was really shocking that he signed it. So I got this 900-page biography written by another major legal scholar to try to figure out why Brandeis did this. He doesn’t mention it—does not talk about it in 900 pages.
So the degree to which the legal academy and legal scholars have just decided “we’re not going to talk about this” is absolutely shocking. I think there’s a whole discussion about why that is, because it’s absolutely relevant, and we learn so many things in law school that have very little importance at all.
That said, the fact that I didn’t learn anything about the case or the sham trial in law school, you’re right. When I actually read the record, it was shocking that she was given a—well, the only reason there was all this process at all—in many states they just started sterilizing people like Carrie Buck. They just went ahead and did it. There was a lawyer who I write about a lot in my book, Aubrey Strode, who was, for whatever reason—and I tried to figure out what it was—quite conservative as a lawyer. And he said to the Colony, “I don’t want you sterilizing anyone until we take it to the courts, as far up as the Supreme Court if it gets there. But we want to have the endorsement of the courts before we start doing it.” He was protecting the institution.
Okay, that’s good, there’s going to be a trial. But yes, when you read about the trial, she’s given a lawyer who is actually a former member of the board of the Colony who’s a huge supporter of eugenics sterilization. So at the trial, at the proceedings, he says things that are not in her interest. I actually read the Supreme Court briefs that he wrote that led to this decision. The briefs were written, clearly, in a way that helped the other side. So this is part of the tragedy of Carrie Buck, that she was not educated, didn’t know a lot about the law, couldn’t defend herself—and they gave her really someone who was on their side, not on her side.
Of course we also have to think back to the time. There was no ACLU at that time. The ACLU was just forming, but they were not involved in disability rights. Now, we have all these public interest lawyers, all these people would come out of the woodwork to support someone like Carrie Buck—to volunteer to represent her. One thing that I saw doing the research is there were almost no institutions of any kind in American society that pushed back against eugenics. The New York Times was writing favorable features about “check out your genes before you get married.” The American Bar Association was supporting eugenics sterilization and things like it.
In fact, the only institution in America that was pushing back was the Catholic Church. When you looked at battles in the legislature to get bills passed, all the progressives would show up to support eugenics sterilization. The only people as an organized group that would show up to oppose it were nuns and priests and lay Catholics who opposed it on religious grounds.
So this is the context in which they gave her a lawyer who wasn’t on her side. It was a sham trial. But also no one in society, really, was speaking up for people like Carrie Buck.
ELIZABETH CATTE: So Irving Whitehead, who was Carrie Buck’s guardian for the purposes of these proceedings, I think he was a former member of the Colony’s board—someone who is close friends with the attorney that you mentioned and eventual Virginia lawmaker, Aubrey Strode. Certainly Albert Priddy, who was the superintendent of the Colony, was very invested in securing the law. He’s had some previous legal trouble in the past connected to illegal sterilizations that he had performed. So possibly one of the reasons, I think, that these figures did want to be conservative about the law is there is this kind of funky but also very interesting case that happens in Virginia about ten years prior to the Mallory [Mallory v. Priddy]case, where there is some potential to have some legal consequences for physicians at state hospitals for operating outside the law, literally, and pretending that they were simply curing women of reproductive complaints when really they were sterilizing them.
Also we need to talk about the fact that there was no mention in any of the proceedings that Carrie Buck was a victim of rape, correct?
ADAM COHEN: Right, right. She was pregnant at the hearing, like seven or eight months pregnant—didn’t come up.
ELIZABETH CATTE: Yeah. So there’s no mention of the circumstances of her pregnancy. Of course, her family history is mentioned, and it’s mentioned by early versions of social workers, the Red Cross, all the physicians. I think also, Adam, I can tell this to you and maybe you know what it means because you have this background. They were so bad at what they were trying to do. It’s so frustrating to read. I certainly did this when I started studying, operating under the assumption that these people were Machiavellian, that they had to be very deceptive and sort of “dark horse” to do what they were doing.
But it was quite obvious and quite, I don’t know, shocking the degree with which they didn’t take this seriously, at least in the early version of the appeals. They’re asking the most ridiculous, unimportant questions. They’re letting their expert witnesses—like Joseph DeJarnette, who I write about a lot—kind of butcher these genetic principles that he’s meant to be called in there to testify about.
So it’s just a really, really painful set of documents to read. And, of course, if you look into the Supreme Court you’ll see the record of the appeals that came prior to that. Again, like you said, there’s that one line from Carrie Buck when she’s asked, “Do you have anything to say about this operation performed on you?” And she says, “No sir, I do not. It’s up to my people.”
Of course we know that Carrie was the first person legally sterilized in Virginia, in the fall of 1927. And that’s sometimes all we get of Carrie Buck’s life when we look at the surface of this case. What I found so fascinating was what came after, and you were so good about writing about this too. What was life like for her after she was released from the Colony, because we know that she was released just weeks later, just weeks after her operation was performed. She was sort of part of a system—and maybe you can give some legal background on this. We just call it the parole system. So essentially people were writing to these state hospitals, like the Colony, and saying, “I would like a girl that’s been sterilized to come and work for me. Can you supply one?” Those workers became women like Carrie Buck.
What about her life, after the Colony, is also reflected in these ideas that are circulating throughout eugenic ideas as well?
ADAM COHEN: Yeah, I know. It’s a great question. She got such an unfortunate start in life even before all this. She’s being raised on the streets by a mother who has no economic prospects, no way to support her. So she’s part of a really oppressed economic class already before the State comes in and sterilizes her, brands her feebleminded, brands her a former Colony inmate. So what kind of a life is she able to put together?
I was actually struck, reading the history and reading her letters, how much she was able to accomplish. She gets out of there. And yes, it’s this state of peonage. The letters are tragic, where she goes to work in a household, as you say, and then if she doesn’t get along with the women of the house, she gets thrown back to the Colony. At one point she writes to the Colony and she says, “I don’t think that it’s going well for me here. They’re going to say some bad things about me.” You just feel for her. She’s constantly hanging by a thread, being sent back to the Colony. But she marries twice. She and one of her husbands support themselves picking apples in a very pretty part of Virginia. She does domestic work—somehow manages to put together a life.
One little detail that was, for me, so poignant is they say that when she finally ends up in the retirement home, she’s very popular and well liked, and people thought of her as someone who was very intelligent. She would get very excited every morning when the daily newspaper came, and she loved doing the crossword puzzle. As a crossword puzzle fan myself, I just thought, you know, here’s this woman who she’s not mentally defective, she seems to greet the day with a smile and an attempt to kind of move forward despite what the State has done to her. I think, all in all, she kind of persevered in a way that she should never have been made to persevere.
ELIZABETH CATTE: One of the more shocking stories I read about Carrie Buck’s life is just a small story. I don’t know if this is completely true. It comes from the interviews that K. Ray Nelson did with Carrie Buck.
After she was released, she was living with a family as a domestic worker. She had to keep in contact with the Colony because that’s where her mother lived. And she was always trying to make arrangements for her mother to be released into her care eventually. Unfortunately, that never happened. Her mother died at the Colony. And Carrie has this moment where she shows up to visit her mother and has to be told that her mother is dead.
John Bell, who was the successor of the Colony, was someone who corresponded with Carrie, eventually taking over this role as somebody who could keep her updated about her mother. Several years after she’s released, John Bell writes to her and says, “Carrie, great news. Somebody’s going to write a book about me. I would like to put your picture in this book as a success story for me.” So he’s writing this to a woman who’s employed as a domestic worker in sort of a very coercive situation. Portraits, they’re something that are expensive and not very common at this time period. And he’s asking her to kind of go out of her way to have a portrait of herself made, so he can include it in this biographical book about him and his role as somebody who is a leader of the eugenics movement at this point. He says, “Also, I would like a picture of your daughter if you have one.” Which is very, very painful too. Just sort of so, so insensitive. But Carrie sent him back her wedding picture.
I think about that story all the time, and these moments she was able to have, even though she lived in this dehumanizing system that didn’t stop even after she left the Colony.
I think we’re getting questions on the chat, but I wanted to make time so I could ask you this. I would love to hear your take with your background. An interviewer asked me this, and I fumbled with the answer because I think about these things a little bit differently. Why does it matter that something like Buck v. Bell is still law of the land? We know that Virginia—and I can only speak to Virginia—removed laws that permitted eugenic sterilizations in the 1970s. But this Supreme Court case is still technically our law. Why does that matter? Or does it matter? It’s sort of a defunct case. Why are we supposed to think about that? Are we in danger of having that return?
ADAM COHEN: It very much matters that the Supreme Court has never overturned this. It is not as dead as people think. As recently as 2001, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is just one level below the Supreme Court—it’s a federal court that makes law for a big part of the Midwest—cited Buck v. Bell in a case about sterilizing a mentally challenged woman. So this is very much still being used against actual people.
But also, eugenics is very much alive. We see it in the discourse now. Donald Trump talked repeatedly about his good genes in his reference to other countries and so forth. We had a congressman from Iowa who talked about the kind of babies we should be having in America. There is a big strand of eugenics out there. Science is now getting to the point that we’re going to be able to do so many things with the genetic code before people are born. The “designer baby” thing is very real. The Court is going to face a lot of questions about what people can do genetically, and then at some point, what they must do genetically. It’s pivotal, I think, as we enter this century of the gene. We wipe this off the slate. These are terrible, terrible values for our nation to embrace, but the Supreme Court has embraced them and continues to. So I think that the potential for mischief is very large, and I’m just shocked that they—they had an opportunity in the forties when they had another sterilization case and they didn’t [overturn it]. I would like to see them overturn it for sure.
ELIZABETH CATTE: There have been attempts by the ACLU to move in this direction that have been denied in Virginia. My own take—and I’ll mention this briefly—is I think that possibly maybe the Supreme Court is waiting for most of the victims of eugenics sterilization to die so that their status as victims, possibly, is not elevated in states that have not, like Virginia, decided to sort of pursue financial compensation for victims. I don’t know that. That’s something that possibly I would be interested to know more about. Because California is the state with like 20,000 people who were sterilized. For the last couple of years, they’ve always seemed on the precipice of doing something retroactive in terms of compensation for survivors of eugenic sterilization. So possibly that might be, but I’m not a legal scholar, so.
ADAM COHEN: Could be, could be.
ELIZABETH CATTE: We have just a few minutes left. I’m going to take a question from the Q&A, and this is a big question. This is the question about Nazi eugenics, which comes up a lot. The question is, “To what extent do we think Nazis were influenced by this country, America’s eugenics movement, if at all?”
This is sort of the simplified version of the chronology of eugenics that American eugenics exists as a social movement in the 19-teens, twenties, and thirties. Then sort of Nazi science comes along and pushes that knowledge into an even darker abyss. Nazi eugenics and Nazi science kind of borrow from America, but put it towards almost unimaginable ends. Then eugenics science in America kind of goes back in the shadows to some degree. But that is an oversimplification.
What do you think? Is it fair to say that Nazi Germany was influenced by—I have a different take, maybe, as a historian that Nazi eugenics sort of looked at American eugenics and said, “We want to do that,” and that’s sort of the story there.
ADAM COHEN: There is a lot of evidence that they absolutely did. There is correspondence, which I’ve read, between the head of that Eugenics Record Office, Harry Laughlin—who was a Nazi sympathizer, I’d say, but an American running this institute on Long Island—and the Nazis. He accepted an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg—which was watching his work closely—in 1937. That was after the Nazis had taken over and purged all the Jews from the faculty. They were looking at him and giving him an award because they were absolutely following his research and using it.
Just since we’ve mentioned the Nazis, to me one of the most poignant things I learned in the whole research of the book involved the Nazis, and it’s this: I wasn’t aware how much eugenics influenced American immigration law, the Immigration Act of 1924, which cut off most immigration from Eastern Europe and all immigration from Asia and other places. Harry Laughlin, who I just mentioned, testified before Congress saying that people from these parts of the world were genetically inferior, less intelligent, and all that. So we actually cut off immigration from a lot of the world because of these eugenic ideas.
The thing is, a decade after this, Anne Frank’s father wrote a series of letters begging to get visas to bring his family into America, and they were turned down and turned down because of this 1924 law. So of course, he ends up not being able to save his family and Anne Frank dies in a concentration camp. It was when I realized that Anne Frank died in a concentration camp not only because the Nazis thought Jews were genetically inferior, but also because the US Congress did. That was why they passed the law that prevented immigration from that part of the world.
So the connections between America and the Nazis in that era were so much stronger than we realized.
ELIZABETH CATTE: I know that the person I studied, Joseph DeJarnette in Staunton, one of his more well-known quotes, if he is well known at all, is “The Germans are beating us at our own game,” in the 1940s. Even superintendents at state hospitals in Virginia were very invested in what Germany was doing and tried to have some kind of camaraderie and connection to the race science that was developing.
I do not mention the German connection in my book. I think one of the reasons why is that I wanted to think about this history on its own terms, too. That’s also very good to do. This is a story that is very American, and it doesn’t need to be connected to anything darker on its own, to stand as one of the country’s great injustices. Edwin Black’s book about eugenics is a great one, very well documented, to read for anybody who does want to know more about those German connections.
I see we’re at 12:42, so I’ve been told to sort of wrap it up around this time.
ADAM COHEN: Feel free to keep going till noon if you’re game to keep going.
ELIZABETH CATTE: Are you game, Adam?
ADAM COHEN: I am. There seem to be a lot of questions, so we’ll stay just a little while.
ELIZABETH CATTE: Okay, well, dealer’s choice then. Which one would you like to answer? Can you see them?
ADAM COHEN: Well, you pick another. I’m having a little trouble.
ELIZABETH CATTE: Okay. So I think this is an interesting one. We’ve circled around it a little bit. It says, “Why do you think that it took ninety years before the Virginia General Assembly monetarily recognized the victims of the sterilization loss?”
Your book came out in 2016?
ADAM COHEN: Yes, correct.
ELIZABETH CATTE: So this had just happened.
ADAM COHEN: It just happened, yes.
ELIZABETH CATTE: So I can’t remember if you included it as a postscript in your book or not, or if it was happening while it was in production.
ADAM COHEN: I did mention it. Yeah, I mean, it gets to how we change our minds about history. It’s how we come to wrestle with history. I mentioned how I’m really unhappy that Harvard, which was a leading institution, that the professors there wrote the textbooks that were being used around the country to teach genetics in a eugenic way that were leading the nation in that direction. They still haven’t reconciled with their past. Where is the plaque on Eliot House saying—just before I got on this phone call, just out of curiosity, I went to the Harvard web page where they describe the Eliot House, which is the very big dormitory at Harvard and the history of it. They talk about how wonderful Charles Eliot was and that’s why, of course, we named a house after him. They don’t mention eugenics.
It’s such a slow process, as we’re seeing with race as well. So I think at a certain point, it became distant enough in Virginia’s past, and I think enough people were upset about it that a coalition formed. But it’s a slow process. And you pointed out, I thought so well in your book, just how little it all meant in the end. Yes, Virginia did come up with a program. But the money amounts were so small. You end your book with this great statistic about how if you added up all the money that the victims in Virginia received from this restoration project, they would barely be able to buy, I think you said, three condominiums in the condominiums that are built in the hospital.
ELIZABETH CATTE: Yeah.
ADAM COHEN: We did so little. But you’re closer to it, so you might have more to say about it.
ELIZABETH CATTE: I wrote that line, and then I’ve thought about it recently. I don’t even think they would be allowed to own property because they would be considered disabled. And disabled people generally are prevented by the realities of the benefit systems of owning significant assets. So that’s another way of trying to kind of control the lives of disabled people, by restricting the amount of income and assets they can hold to keep their benefits working. Monetarily that works, but also not reflective of the realities in some ways of people with disabilities.
There are these kinds of statements of regret that start happening around the 75th anniversary of Buck v. Bell. The General Assembly wants to say this was wrong. They don’t want to apologize for it, but they will acknowledge that they contributed to injustice in Virginia, and that they allowed a failed science to infiltrate law and science and medicine and policy in their most prestigious institutions. They do make the statement of regret. And then it kind of sort of goes back into the background for a while. And that was around 2002, I think.
I think the magic that worked in Virginia in terms of financial compensation is that North Carolina goes first. So another state has to go first, even though Virginia really likes being first at things. But North Carolina goes first. Their history is unique in some ways from Virginia’s in the sense that North Carolina disproportionately sterilized black women. So that case in North Carolina was meant to contain elements of reproductive justice and racial justice as well. So there were lots of people who were very interested to see how that would play out.
In Virginia, another thing that happens is restorative measures get bipartisan political support. They are, in fact, supported by some conservative institutions. So I think that is the political magic that works in its favor in 2015. There’s a broad political coalition willing to support the idea that survivors of eugenic sterilization can claim compensation. But also in actuarial terms in the background, the amount offered was $25,000. Since the peak of Virginia’s sterilizations occurred in the 1920s and ’30s, I think that it’s fair to say that they were betting that there would not be too many survivors around to make claims. I think the initial budget that they figured up was going to be about $400,000. So unlike North Carolina, for example, where sterilizations were still ongoing in the 1960s and 1970s, there would be more survivors there. Virginia thought it had different circumstances and sort of low-balled its figure, based on the historical circumstances of its eugenics program contra the ones in North Carolina.
But yeah, $25,000 per person. I checked with the Department of Behavioral Health when I was writing the book and asked them how many claims they had paid. When I checked, which was last year, the total was about twenty-eight. That’s likely to be it because the program is several years old by this point. So that’s how much regret costs in Virginia, about $700,000 for this history, ninety years after the start of these programs. So I think that’s another reason some of the questions about legacy are really complicated here. They’re happening so late.
You see this happening in different aspects of history too. But when the memory-holders, the survivors, when their numbers grow so small, that’s when you really see the memory of events and willingness to confront things, but also the acceptance of events. That’s when things start to change sometimes. I think that possibly might have some bearing on this case and the history of eugenics in Virginia as well.
ADAM COHEN: There is a question that leaps out at me, Liz. It’s a what-can-we-do question, which I always like. “How do we as historians best go about giving the historical narrative back to the victims going forward, as both of you have done with Carrie Buck? How can we ensure the victim’s voices do not get lost through the academic literature?” It’s just a great question. I think it’s just something we all have to commit ourselves to and just push as hard as we can.
One thing I’ve tried to do is to speak out when I can about correcting historical records. There has been a whole debate about Planned Parenthood. It was the 100th anniversary of her [the founder of Planned Parenthood] being arrested in Brooklyn for handing out pro-contraception literature. The New York Historical Society a few years ago did a panel on her life and the work of Planned Parenthood. They invited mainly people who were big fans of hers, and then I was invited to talk about her eugenic record. I really did speak out and I said, “She did a lot of, I think, good things. But she also said horrible things about slum mothers and how we have to stop slum mothers from reproducing.” When the moderator of the panel really tried to push back because she’s a big, big defender, I actually had brought a book that the founder wrote and read her chapter on slum mothers.
I’m not at all saying I’m the reason for this because many people have been speaking up. But low and behold last year Planned Parenthood changed the name of their headquarters in New York City, removing the founder’s name. I think we need to see more of that. We need to sort of speak out. There is now a group that’s working on Harvard and trying to get them to admit some of their past.
Another place that we’re working on is the Museum of Natural History in New York City, which actually hosted this horrible International Eugenics Congress where they told the world that some races were superior and some were inferior and all that. This major museum—which I used to go to as a child; it’s a wonderful museum—has never reconciled with its past. But I believe now they’re in the process of doing that.
So how do we get the story retold? How do we get the voices of the victims told? I think it’s really that we need to shame large institutions. We need to work it into every conversation. We need to say we’re not going to talk about Harvard in the 1920s without talking about what President Eliot was doing. We just need to speak out and try to center this more in the conversation. But you’re an historian; you probably have many thoughts on this as well.
ELIZABETH CATTE: I have some specific thoughts for Virginians, and I hope there are enough Virginians on this chat to make sense.
I will say one of the complications here is that medical privacy laws extend after death. So when we talk about including victims in the records, largely we have to acknowledge that those are self-identified victims. Because if we know the circumstances of their life, then it’s usually because they’ve volunteered to be known in some way, shape, or form. There’s lots of people who had this happen to them that didn’t want to publically speak. There are amazing self-advocates like Mary Francis Corbin, who I write about in the book. But largely we have to kind of understand that it’s a complicated thing, where we’re also talking about an anonymous group whose identities might never be known.
But for Virginians, I will say one of the things I’m very interested in, is that Virginia doesn’t preserve history that relates to disability very well. It’s hard to see the history of eugenics out in our communities. It’s thought about as the history of ideas, the history of science, and the history of laws, all things which are very hard to see. That’s why I took the direction in my book to talk about places.
I will say that in Virginia it’s certainly true that many of these state hospitals have cemeteries where people were buried who were confined in those institutions. The one in my community, people are buried in anonymous graves. The cemetery is in horrible shape, and nobody in the community wants to claim it. It has a complicated legal title. I think, in terms of one thing that people can do, is be on the lookout for the way that that history exists in your community, especially sites, where dignity in life and death are denied. That’s an element that I would raise in terms of how you can do right in this context, in the present.
Of course, Adam, you’ve mentioned so many ways that these ideas animate. Things in the present in laws and policies and in rhetoric about politicians and political priorities today. But just looking at this very specific window of history there are also things that we can do to make sure that this history is better preserved, better documented in communities, and is more visible generally for people to understand what happened.
ADAM COHEN: Should we do one more?
ELIZABETH CATTE: Okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure.
ADAM COHEN: Okay.
ELIZABETH CATTE: I think this is really important. Somebody asked, “Did people, did inmates, did confined patients, did they know that they were being sterilized?” The answer is yes, but also many no.
ADAM COHEN: Many, no. It was sometimes called an appendectomy because they actually often told people that they were getting an appendectomy. As you know, there’s an absolutely tragic story of Carrie Buck’s sister, who was also one of the first people sterilized in Virginia. She’s not told that she’s being sterilized; she’s being told she’s being given an operation. Many years later, as an old woman, she writes to the Colony to say she needs some help because she’s applying for Social Security, and she doesn’t know how old she is. The director who was relatively new—it had nothing to do, obviously, with her sterilization many decades earlier—he finds out how old she is, but also finds out that she’d been sterilized. As an elderly woman she’s told for the first time that that operation she had when she was, I believe, sixteen, was the reason her entire life she’d been unable to have children. Of course she’s tearful and heartbroken about this. Because she not only was never able to have children, but her entire life thought it was somehow her fault that she wasn’t having children.
Her story is just one example of absolutely many people who went through life never knowing what the State had done to them.
ELIZABETH CATTE: One of the only early sorts of concessions that Virginia made in terms of repairing harm from the eugenic sterilization laws I believe was in the late ’80s or perhaps early ’90s. It was connected to the ACLU’s lawsuit that Virginia tried to bring to kind of get this process going to overturn Buck v. Bell. Virginia had started a hotline where patients who had spent time at the five state institutions could call in and request to see their medical records, so they could find out whether or not they had been sterilized while they were confined to these institutions. Just kind of imagine driving down the road and hearing this ad on the radio. Because part of the settlement of this lawsuit included that they had to broadcast this message a certain number of times. So hearing this message and thinking, “That might be me,” and then calling in and finding—just how anonymous and cold that process is, even later on today for people to find out that information about themselves.
So yes, exactly what you said, Adam. People did know, but then many people didn’t know. That also made advancing claims against the state—like the ACLU’s lawsuit—it made that difficult as well. Maybe it speaks to the earlier question about why it took so long. Even in the lives of people who experienced this, there are degrees of uncertainty about why it happened to them.
ADAM COHEN: Yeah. Well Liz, I think one thing we can agree on—and we’ve agreed on a lot—is that we’ve barely scratched the surface here. There’s so much more to say and to read about, and I would encourage everyone—including people who have written in great questions we haven’t had time to answer—to read more.
But I do think we need to wrap up. I want to thank everyone who tuned in, and I want to thank our wonderful organizers, including Jane Kulow and her wonderful staff. Please consider buying Liz’s great book, Pure America—which I enjoyed very much and learned a lot from—and my own book, Imbeciles from your local booksellers. You can also check out future Self Life events from the Virginia Festival of the Book, taking place on Thursdays at noon. You can learn more at vabook.org.
Thank you all very much.
ELIZABETH CATTE: Thank you so much. I hope everyone has a good afternoon. Thank you.