30. Wild Card: The Degenerates by J. Albert Mann
List Progress: 25/30
Morons. Idiots. Imbeciles. Feeble-minded. These are some of the many terms used to refer to the lead characters of the YA novel The Degenerates. Young teens London, Alice, Maxine and Rose are patients at the Walter E. Fernald State School, originally known as the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded, and this is where they will live the rest of their lives. The novel takes place in 1928, at the center of the American eugenics movement, and the girls’ imprisonment is seen as a necessity for the good of society as a whole, removing corrupted parts of the population to benefit humanity. But the patients are people, with inner loves and hopes and dreams, and they deserve better.
Author J. Albert Mann drew much of the doctors’ and nurses’ dialogue for the book from historical documents, to show exactly how the physically, mentally and socially disabled were seen by dominant society. The girls are fictional characters, but their world is a very real one. The book begins with London, fourteen, rebellious and pregnant, being dragged to Fernald for “moral feeble-mindedness”. She meets and befriends Alice, and sisters Maxine and Rose. The four of them cover a wide swath of situations, but they are united in being “undesirable” to greater society. Their lives follow strict, rigid routines where doctors, nurses and attendants tell them when to eat, sleep, use the bathroom, and the rare occasions when they can talk to one another. And they are the lucky ones, compared to the severely disabled women kept in the Back Ward and treated no better than animals. Or the babies with congenital deformities left to be poked and prodded at for the duration of their short lives.
The Degenerates can be a hard book to read, and I was surprised at how graphic it was allowed to be for a YA novel. Aside from the occasional burst of violence, it has a strong tendency towards the scatological, to highlight how little dignity is allowed in these young women’s lives. But I did really enjoy it, even as I squirmed sometimes. The point of view alternates between the four by chapter, including to Rose, who has Down Syndrome (or in the contemporary parlance, is a “Mongoloid”). This gives her a lot more agency than is usually afforded to mentally disabled characters, and she often reflects on how she can use people’s low expectations of her to her advantage. One of my few quibbles is that she loses a bit of focus by the end of the book, because she is a great character. (Another quibble is that Mann has clearly never lived through a Massachusetts winter. The barefoot runaway in late December would not have kept the use of her toes, if she kept them at all.)
But all small critiques aside, I am glad I read this book. Fernald was closed in 2014, and while there were many reforms between 1928 and then, we cannot pretend that disability rights in America are anywhere near where they should be. The Degenerates shows us one of the darker chapters of this history, and states a clear demand for the future. Hopefully one that will be listened to in time.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, very much so.