Emmys: 'The Eugenics Crusade' reveals America's long, dangerous experiment with 'bettering' human gene pool
Michelle Ferrari's film shows before Nazi embrace of eugenics, the 'scientific' notion flourished here
Emmy nomination balloting opened Monday, with a variety of documentary categories up for consideration.
Among the nonfiction feature films contending for recognition is The Eugenics Crusade, a film directed by Michelle Ferrari that's part of the esteemed American Experience series on PBS.
The film explores the origins of the eugenics movement, which proposed that the human family could and should be improved by forced selective breeding. The idea as it developed in the United States and elsewhere was to weed out the "feeble-minded," along with the poor, alcoholics and others thought to be polluting the human gene pool.
By limiting the birth of people who were deemed to be unfit you were, by definition, enhancing the stock of human society.
Eugenist thought influenced legislators in the early 20th century to enact compulsory sterilization laws in a number of states, and in 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Virginia law that authorized the sterilization of Carrie Buck, a woman considered "feeble-minded." Eugenists would later find a receptive audience for their thinking in Nazi Germany.
Nonfictionfilm.com spoke with Ferrari about The Eugenics Crusade, which won her a Writers Guild Award earlier this year.
How did you get interested in this question of eugenics?
Michelle Ferrari: When I was a child, my grandfather had a trophy on his dresser that I was a little obsessed with. It was a Fitter Families trophy from a contest in Spokane, Washington.
It wasn't until I was in college and taking a course in American history that I learned a little bit about eugenics and the Fitter Families contest... I would say that's how I initially became interested in it.
MF: And then American Experience and I were just talking about ideas for a new project, and the executive producer had come across Wendy Kline's book about Anne Cooper Hewitt [an heiress who was sterilized without her consent]. And they were interested in developing something around that story. And together we decided that it would be more interesting to tell the full sweep of the story as opposed to just focusing on Hewitt who is not very representative as a sterilization victim.
As we see in the film, Anne Cooper Hewitt was quite atypical, actually--a wealthy young woman (her mother had her sterilized to secure her inheritance).
MF: Quite atypical, yes.
And yet in other respects it fits into the general motives of eugenics--controlling reproduction.
MF: Certainly, yes.
What are the origins of the eugenics movement?
MF: The origins, I would say, really begin with Darwin's work and Francis Galton, who was a pioneering statistician in Britain and a cousin of Darwin's, became really fascinated by his cousin's work and began to wonder whether or not it would be possible to engineer evolution. And he did a lengthy study about gifted men--people who held high positions in British society who were educated--and concluded from this study that intelligence was inherited. And proceeded from there.
From one perspective there's sort of a curious idealism behind the movement, at least as this manifested in the United States, of a potential to kind of perfect or better the human species.
MF: It's a combination of optimism and elitism. I would say. Which is to say that it's a group of people who are quite privileged and see a way, or think they see a way, to eliminate suffering, but in typical fashion have blinders on and don't see the ways in which they're shaping the terms of debate and how success is defined. What is a life worth living?
Largely speaking, the proponents of eugenics believed social ills had a genetic component. It's kind of absurd from our contemporary point of view to think poverty, for instance, is a result of one's genes.
MF: In some respects some of the conclusions seem absurd. In other cases we've gone kind of around the block on them. So, for example, they thought that alcoholism had a genetic component and thought to sterilize alcoholics. That idea was [later] dismissed and then through genetic science, has been reinvigorated.
Yet we haven't returned to the point of saying, 'We're going to prevent so and so from reproducing because they've got a drinking problem or they're an alcoholic,' which is another step altogether.
MF: Yes, altogether. And I think that very much has its roots in the moment in which eugenics was popular. It was the progressive era and there was a great relief in the utility of the state to improve society and improve conditions within society. And the progressives were willing to hand off a lot of power to the states in order to achieve their goals.
The terms seem risible to us now, but there was a time when the "feeble-minded" were divided into categories of "mental deficiency": idiot, moron and imbecile. And these categories supposedly bore a person's suitability to reproduce.
MF: I think mental deficiency was not well understood, obviously, and a lot of people who wound up in institutions had conditions that we would never institutionalize someone for now. They ranged from probably mild Aspergers to full blown autism, but also learning disabilities. Probably a lot of 'morons' had dyslexia.
The eugenics movement prompted legislatures in several states to enact compulsory sterilization laws. How many people wound up being sterilized as a result of these laws?
MF: The numbers are a little bit murky, but somewhere between 60 and 70,000... By and large they were people who were caught up in the dragnet of the state in some way. So let's say you were arrested for loitering or drunk-and-disorderly conduct, or you were an orphan, and you were brought in to the system in some way, either as a criminal or a ward of the state. You would be given these intelligence tests and provided a diagnosis and frequently the only way out of institutionalization if you were branded a moron or less was sterilization.
At the same time as the eugenics movement is rising, the United States is seeing a surge of immigration, many of the new arrivals coming from Southern and Eastern Europe. Those two things start to blur, and eugenics becomes really a bulwark against immigration.
MF: This is where what arguably began as kind of primitive science, as science not well understood, becomes pseudo-science, because Madison Grant (author of 'The Passing of the Great Race') basically took the ideas of eugenics and kind of used them to try to justify his fury over the transformation of the United States and in particular his city of New York.
For him [immigration] was an onslaught and an insult. And he became very enamored of the ideas of eugenics, in part because it gave him a way to justify the refusal of these strangers who he found impossible to live around, much less with. And the 'Passing of the Great Race' is a bunch of nonsense.
Lest anyone think Grant was not influential, Hitler gets his mitts on Madison Grant's book--I don't know if it was a German translation or what--so the historical consequences of this are huge.
MF: Yes, Hitler refers to 'The Passing of the Great Race' as his bible.
I think it's important to stress that eugenics was a worldwide movement. It's not that Hitler got all his ideas about eugenics from the United States, but he was inspired by the way we had translated our understandings of genetic science, limited as they may have been, into law. And the laws in California were particularly draconian, were a great inspiration to him. California is the state which had the highest rates of sterilization anywhere in the country.
There's a quote in the film from Charles Davenport, one of the main advocates for eugenics in the United States, who says, 'Can we build a wall high enough around this country so as to keep out these cheaper races?' That line leaps out as relevant to today, of course. Was it hard not to insert editorial comments into the film?
MF: American Experience is a historical series and we're telling historical stories, and I have always been interested in history because of the way it deepens my understanding of the world that I live in and the resonances that I feel with the contemporary moment. But I really did feel, perhaps more than with any other movie that I've worked on, that the resonances were quite loud enough without any intervention on my part.
Today, we may be in more of a position to essentially achieve what eugenics was about through gene editing, for instance.
MF: Absolutely, yes, although now I think it's a matter of private aspirations, and the means to accomplish one's ends, but it's unlikely to wind up in the hands of the state, if I were to make a guess or a prediction... The ability to perfect or create a perfect being will be limited to those who can afford to do so.
Scientific advances offer the prospect of being able to select out any number of 'conditions' that parents may consider undesirable in their offspring.
MF: Which we're absolutely doing. I mean, Iceland has basically eliminated Down Syndrome, and we're well on the way to doing the same. And it's a fraught question from my perspective because when you speak to parents who have Downs children, they generally report it as one of the most rewarding experiences of their lives. But the vast majority of people who have amniocentesis and are told that they're going to have a baby with Downs, abort.
A final question. What would Emmy recognition for The Eugenics Crusade mean to you?
MF: It's very nice, always, to be recognized by your peers. I will say that I try not to pay much attention to them until such time as it becomes crucial that I do so. I also tend to think that there's so much content now, particularly in the documentary space, and competition is fierce and there's a lot out there that's really great. I'm thrilled that American Experience submitted the film and I'll be even more thrilled if it's actually nominated. Yeah, it would be lovely.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.