I think it’s the fiction writer in me that drives me to question everything I see, hear, or read. Great fiction begins with a What-if question—What if Alien Botanists fleeing an Earth expedition accidentally leave one of their own behind? (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Paramount Pictures, 1982.) What if two people from different social classes meet and fall in love on a doomed luxury liner? (Titanic, Paramount Pictures, 1997.)
For works of fiction, answering the What-if question reasonably and intriguingly is best seller gold!
However, my habit of asking what if and applying it to reality often translates into conspiracy theory and risks any credibility I may have. I know this! Believe me, I know this!
So here I am with something so outrageous, I loath to repeat it, let alone spread it around. Still, I am on an expedition, a journey of self-discovery, via an elusive Great-aunt who used to scare the bejesus out of me. So, I must tell what I’ve learned, even if it comes across as fantastical, right?
Recently, I heard someone say, “Uncovering truth is [a] noble and beneficial thing for all humanity.” I hope he’s right.
In the months since I began this process, I haven’t found much in the way of Glenna’s life. It’s a mystery. I knew her as the terrifying old woman who licked her slobbery lips and would break out into throaty laughter suddenly and at nothing at all. She wanted nothing more than to hold me down and brush my hair or hold me down to take a nap with her, the very thought of which still sends tremors shooting through my bones.
Glenna was my Great-aunt, my mother’s aunt, the stranger nobody knew and didn’t want to know. She was the zombie wedged into the corner part of the couch at my Great-grandma’s house, slowly slouching, as the adults in the room talked, her top half bending back into the cushions as her bottom half, her legs, inched up and out from beneath her dress for all to see the very origin of her. But she was still somebody.
I worry that my mom is right, and Glenna’s story may be lost forever. However, I have uncovered plenty about other people in Glenna’s life (even if it was momentarily, even if Glenna may not have known them or said one word to them). Their stories could shed some light on Glenna’s.
In a 1940 Federal Census for State Hospital South, Blackfoot, Idaho, Glenna was one among three-hundred and twenty-two women institutionalized there.
Considering what I’ve discovered (more pieces to America’s dark history, ignored, covered up, and moved on without a backward glance) specifically surrounding Eugenics, I wanted to see if there was, in fact, a conspiracy there.
What if there was a connection between Eugenics and the insane?
In the early 1900s, Eugenics was a way to weed out the unwanted and inflate the superiority complex of jackasses (my apologies to the Donkey).
To do this, another system, overly complicated and grossly skewed, was put in place on a macro level. Nationally, a catalog of unwanted and assumed inherited traits were put on a grading scale separating the prominent and better seedlings or the-haves from the throwaway chaff or have-nots. Thus, labels like “Feebleminded,” “Imbeciles,” “Idiots,” and “Morons” became a checklist that would get someone thrown into an institution, often with a one-way ticket.
One could argue, “Yes, but this wasn’t a conspiracy. This was ignorance. People only did what they thought was right. Science hadn’t caught up to them yet.” I believe part of that, too.
On a micro level, this is what people thought. Without experience or a background in medical science, people believed what Doctors and others with authority told them. Even those who knew more honestly tried (with the information and money they had) to do what was best for individuals.
The conspiracy comes from somewhere else. It comes from people who did have more knowledge of medical science, who had money and power and wielded it for their own agenda. They were Eugenicists, Social Darwinists, aka nativists, aka K.K.K—adjacent (sans pillowcases with eyehole cutouts on their heads).
What’s more, once there were enough unwanted weeds placed in a spot where they were completely controlled, those weeds were used to progress science—to benefit the far more wanted flowers in society growing freely on the outside. Once something positive was gained and spread around to everyone else, the bad was scrubbed and crossed out into oblivion. And for some reason, everyone was okay with that.
What’s worse, the conspiracy comes from using shame and dehumanization to subdue and lie and hide the things that are, in fact, shameful, dehumanizing, and lie-worthy.
Then, generations upon generations further the agenda by devising bigger and thicker walls to hide the past behind. Finally, we pretend and move on.
I know why we do it. No one wants to be connected to any shred of something atrocious in history, so we downplay and ignore and blame other people. We construct puzzle pieces of our own to explain and fit away gaping holes in our infrastructure. We whitewash and add a pretty ribbon to the record because it makes us feel better.
But it’s a fabrication, a façade, a short shelf-life placebo, and it stops us and further generations from actually and authentically progressing.
I am here now, today because my “crazy” Great-aunt Glenna is not. Nor are any of the three hundred and twenty-two women incarcerated with her in 1940. This is why I’m writing this personal history. This is why I risk sounding like a conspiracist and weirdo. I do it for Glenna. I do it for all the State Hospital alumni, whose voices were ripped away from them before they had a chance to speak.