I met J. Albert Mann when I was a guest lecturer at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program for Writing for Children and Young Adults. We instantly bonded over our love of historical fiction and I was delighted when she was a Friend Friday guest for What Every Girl Should Know: Margaret Sanger’s Journey. Jennifer is not afraid of tackling tough topics and her newest novel, The Degenerates (Simon and Schuster’s Atheneum Books for Young Readers), due out in March 2020, is proof positive of that. Read on for more of her story.
All my life I’ve played a “what if” game—relocating myself to other moments in history. What if I had been born in a hunter-gatherer society? As a woman, I’d be a gatherer. This always makes me happy because I think I would have made a good one. I love being outside and I’m great at finding things. What if I had been born during the Great Depression in the United States? Like so many readers of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, I wonder if I could have been as strong as Rose of Sharon in the shocking, but strangely hopeful ending of that novel. I began writing my latest young adult historical fiction The Degenerates by playing this very game.
What if I had been born during the height of the Eugenics movement in the United States?
As someone born with a spinal disorder causing extreme body difference, I might have been institutionalized for life.
The early Twentieth Century saw the emergence of a powerful union between science and social policy called Eugenics—the pseudo-science of human improvement or human breeding. The initial idea of eugenics was to use the budding science of heredity to eradicate human disease and vice. What it quickly became was a social system that rounded up the usual historical suspects—the poor, the disabled, and the marginalized (including people of color, indigenous people, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community) —and locked them away in large institutions.
To rid the gene pool of “unworthy” human traits, and thereby, “unworthy” humans, there began a collection of people with physical, mental, intellectual, and moral differences through massive standardized intelligence testing, the court system, the culling of orphanages, and the finger-pointing of neighbors. The United States gathered its “other,” segregating them into institutions. All of this was done in the name of human betterment using the “science” of Eugenics.
The United States was not alone in its eugenic programs. From Latin America to Europe to Asia, the eugenic movement flourished. Adolph Hitler, using the “science” of eugenics and its ideas on “better” humans murdered six million people deemed to not be “better” humans.
The Degenerates (Atheneum Books for Young Readers) is the story of four young girls who (in 1928) were locked away in one of these institutions: the Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Youth (which later became known as the Fernald School).
In my attempt to understand history—and my place in it—I might imagine what it would have been like to live my entire life imprisoned in an institution such as this, but thousands and thousands of Americans didn’t have to imagine it. They lived it. The Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Youth opened its doors in 1850 and didn’t close them until 2014. The structure, patterns, and routines of this institution, along with many others like it across the United States, changed little in these 164 years. The world went on…forgetting about the people inside these massive institutions. Unfortunately, today we are still undoing the damage created by ideas such as eugenics, punishing the gorgeous diversity in the variation of humanity rather than celebrating it.
J. Albert Mann is an award-winning poet and the author of six published novels for children. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and is the Director of the WNDB Internship Grant Committee. The Degenerates is set to publish with Simon & Schuster’s Atheneum Books for Young Readers in March 2020. jalbertmann.com @jenannmann