Will Freedom Die In Pursuit of A Genetically Pure America?
In 1930, thirteen-year-old Anna Olson’s social life ends when she has the first of two seizures, which in the eyes of some means she has “bad genes.” Unfortunately, Joan Bridenbaugh, a local social worker, is one of them. She is a eugenics fanatic who believes the United States should adopt the harsh strategies the Nazis use to eliminate defective people. Joan wants to sterilize Anna and put her in a state institution for epileptics. Anna’s parents fight tirelessly to stop her.
When Anna’s father perishes in a fierce snowstorm, and her mother succumbs to influenza, Joan makes her move. Standing in Joan’s way are family friends who believe Anna should live with them. The two sides clash in a dramatic custody battle that reveals the dark undercurrents of the eugenics movement. As she waits for the judges’ decision, Anna is on pins and needles, fearing the worst is yet to come.
The 1930s image on the cover of American Genes* is an abstract tree, a common eugenics symbol. There were several interpretations or uses of the tree.
- One was to show how a healthy tree, representing a healthy society, could be damaged by a harmful vine choking off its growth. The two hands cutting away the deadly vine is eugenics at work. In the 1930s and today, the eugenics goal is to limit genetically inferior people from having children, who will be dependent on society for care.
- The second interpretation is a family tree, which shows how one person with defective genes could produce dozens of offspring who were also flawed. The most infamous of these interpretations was Goddard’s book about the Kallikak family.
- Finally, trees appeared in various other forms in eugenic posters, newspapers, and books during the height of the eugenics era. The tree analogy was common in both American and Nazi propaganda.
* Cover image licensed by Wikimedia Commons.
Here are some of websites and documents for those who want to dig deeper into eugenics.