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“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.

“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.

Read entire article at Nursing Clio