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Sara Beth West

(@fiftytwowest)

is a reader and a writer, offering book reviews and interviews with leading writers and thinkers.

On Historical Sins and Elizabeth Catte's Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia

There is a moment in the introduction to Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia when author Elizabeth Catte looks straight in the camera, clears her throat, and declares:

I do not care if someone accuses me of the ultimate historical sin of judging people in the past by the yardstick of the present. I do not subscribe to the view that time is the real villain of this story, that it tormented important people with difficult questions -- like what the cheapest way was to castrate a prisoner -- that only an accident of fate forced them to answer.

And this is when you understand that Catte did not come to play. This is historical research at its most compelling and its most accessible. Fully academic yet fully human, Catte makes the historical personal, blending the past with her lived experiences in the present. Catte's first book, What You are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, proved she could be the voice for a story in desperate need of a better narrator, and in Pure America, she has done it again.

Too often in our historical accounting, we want to excuse those in the past for their misguided or evil notions, offering halfhearted finger wagging with a healthy dose of "they didn't know any better." Too often, we try to leave the past in the past as though it doesn't offer a direct through line to our present. Catte does neither of things, somehow able to complicate and simultaneously simplify the discussion around eugenics by drawing that straight line. Using Virginia as a model, Catte shows how eugenics was one prong of the long game of white supremacy, the tail of which is still flapping wildly around our country.


Pulling from archival records and legal history, Catte does the historical legwork to explain the process by which forced sterilization passed into law and more broadly, into polite society. She shows the pain this caused families, as children were separated from their parents and institutionalized, and the heartbreak of the women who never realized they had been victimized in this way, forced instead to see their inability to have children as a personal failure. And she raises questions about what we preserve and what we celebrate, as well as how history gets told and by whom.


She also examines the built environment of the area around Charlottesville (where she makes her home) to demonstrate how those "misguided" notions from the past are still being felt in the buildings and landscape of her home. From the establishment of the Shenandoah National Park to the commemoration of the Robert E. Lee statue in the heart of Charlottesville, Catte links race and class to provide an unflinching look at our shared complicity.


There are a few spots in the book that might feel strained, as though Catte has attempted to draw too many ideas under one tent. But where it dilutes the focus on eugenics (a fascinating history on its own), the inclusion of somewhat disparate pieces only serves to strengthen her argument that it's all one thing, that the history of our country is a history of how the powerful have abused the marginalized.


She confirms this intention in the Acknowledgments, writing about the ways COVID-19 continues to reveal these same truths:

This crisis belongs to the White House, but it also belongs to anyone who derives pleasure, profit, or power from a system that demands people be productive or passively killed. It belongs to bosses and business owners who need to be reminded with the force of law that their workers are real people; . . . This moment also belongs to the callousness of ordinary people who look at lives led by people on the margins and find ways to blame their hardships on unspecified weakness, leveraging self-directed myths of exceptional worthiness to explain society's winners and losers.

Catte's book, released February 2 from Belt Publishing, could easily fly under the radar, relegated to those with ties to Virginia, to the social sciences, or even to the underbelly of medical history. That would be a mistake and a loss to countless thoughtful readers who will find much to think on in this fascinating work.

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