Elizabeth Catte Connects America’s Past With Its Present in New Release, “Pure America”

Historian Elizabeth Catte tackles the legacy of eugenics in her new book, Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia. Catte granted permission to be referred to as the family member of a person with schizophrenia and spoke with Lacey Lyons, a self-advocate with epilepsy and mild cerebral palsy who writes and teaches disability rights in Nashville. They covered the connections between our past and present, and ways citizens can honor those whose lives were altered by the precedent set by Buck v. Bell, which ruled, “three generations of imbeciles were enough,” and provided framework for involuntary sterilization. (The plaintiff in the case, Carrie Buck, was an eighteen-year-old who had been involuntarily sterilized at the State Colony of Epileptics and the Feebleminded in Virginia, where both she and her mother, Emma Buck, lived. Carrie had been sterilized after she was raped and gave birth to a daughter, Vivian. The decision has never been reversed by the Supreme Court.) “I’m an advocate for the past,” Catte said. “Not every way of making connection will work, but it’s important to try.”

What makes Pure America relevant?

There are lots of vantage points to look at when we’re trying to understand the legacy of eugenics. The pandemic has illustrated the connection between our past and present. It’s a stepping stone. Eugenics has a legacy, but we’re not good at thinking about what that legacy might be, and the ways that it lingers on in our lives.

How do you think readers with disabilities and readers without disabilities might read your book differently?

When I was writing this book, I thought a lot about Molly McCully Brown’s poetry, since she lived near the Lynchburg colony. She writes, “It is my backyard, not what happened to my body.” My father had schizophrenia; I live with the knowledge that one day, I might wake up with an inherited illness. Because of that experience, I can see the projections of the legacy of eugenics onto the future. I’ve reconciled the duality in that possibility by writing this book.

You write, “… there is a long history in America of imprinting racial, gender, and class projections onto the concept of disability.” What are the implications of this line for allies without disabilities?

It’s important to remember that the categories of diseases and disorders that constitute disabilities shift over time. In writing my book, the through line is the emphasis on productivity. People with disabilities always have to prove they are worthy by becoming more productive citizens. That through line is imprinted all over Carrie Buck’s life. People look back at her life and say that she “overcame.” Overcame what? Without knowing how to navigate the flexibility of what constitutes a disability, people resort to cliches. It’s important we quash those ideas as soon as they arise.

What are some effective responses to critics who say, “It was a different time?”

By saying “it was a different time,” critics have already privileged the perspectives of the decision-makers. They’re not looking at the people whose lives were affected. What I say to people is, “Time is not the real villain of these stories.” It’s not productive to try to figure out what was in somebody’s soul at the time of their action. That’s a distraction.

You acknowledge that what you hate most about Western State Hospital in Virginia is the feeling of complicity it gives you. How might readers of diverse abilities respond to that acknowledgement and move forward with allied counterparts?

I kept asking myself the question, Is it intentional that I do not understand what I am benefitting from? If we can’t have conversations about what happened in the past, the present doesn’t have much of a shot. Drilling down to how power works in our communities is very important.

How are ideas of eugenics perpetuated in modern rhetoric?

An overwhelming number of these ideas experienced a resurgence in the early days of the pandemic. Politicians were preoccupied with factors like a patient’s pre-existing conditions, weight, and lifestyle. This moment has unburdened me of the responsibility of having to find proof these ideas still exist. It’s been an incredibly disheartening time, to see how quickly these ideas are freshened up. We can blame the initial response on the White House, but the moment belongs to anybody who derives pleasure or power from passively killing people who can’t derive their worth in a productive way. Lots of people are complicit in that.

You write of people with disabilities in the early 1900s that “the root of their harm — the reason they were holding society back — was that they were ‘expensive.’” In what ways do disability rights activists continue to push back against this idea?

The argument was made that eugenics was necessary because people with disabilities were expensive. But where did those figures come from? In the Virginia colony, working patients contributed to their care through their labor. Often, they were earning more money than it cost to confine them. These myths are based on hysterical forms of math by eugenicists. They resented the fact that it was expected of them to engineer the survival of people they felt did not have the right to be alive.

Why is it important to remember that “the precedent set by Buck v. Bell remained, as it does to this day?”

Though it’s legally murky today, the big, sweeping Supreme Court law that codified eugenics has never been overturned. The nation has never cared enough to overturn it. This is a moment in which states might begin thinking about material actions to take in regard to sterilization. A lot of these operations took place in the 1920s through the 1940s; there are people still alive who had operations legitimized by Buck v. Bell. It takes your breath away that it is still the law of the land.

What are some action steps people can take after learning about the history of eugenics in America?

The patients were buried anonymously; it was dignity denied. I would advise people that if there is a location near them, they work to create a historical marker or landmark to the community. I understand that’s a very specific suggestion that might not be possible for everyone to do, but it’s easy to see. I would encourage people to do this as a public memorial to those who were denied dignity in life.

Catte’s book delivers that dignity and serves as a strong introduction to the history of eugenics in America.

Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia
By Elizabeth Catte
Belt Publishing
Published February 02, 2021