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  • Writer's pictureElle Pedri

Only the Beautiful and the U.S. Eugenics Movement


This summer, I’ve enjoyed my longest streak of leisurely reading. Between postpartum brain fog and a house reverberating with the bustle of visiting relatives, writing was a non-starter. So, I dove into reading, free from any preoccupation about written word count.

Only the Beautiful by Susan Meissner was published on April 18, 2023, by Berkley. It’s a new release I’d been eager to read since hearing it dealt with eugenics. Stories that weave familial drama, controversial medical ethics, and a redemptive message are my catnip.

Plot Summary

Only the Beautiful is historical fiction with dual timelines and two main protagonists.

We meet our first protagonist, sixteen-year-old Roseanne (Rosie), in 1938, California. She has lost her parents and brother in an accident. The state places her under the guardianship of Celine and Truman Calvert, the owners of the vineyard where Rosie has lived her whole life as the vinedresser’s daughter. But Rosie has a secret, which her mother advised her to guard: she sees colors when she hears sounds. But loneliness and search for understanding cause Rosie to divulge her secret. When she becomes pregnant, Celine sends her to an institution for unwed mothers. There, Rosie nurtures the hope for a new beginning with her baby. Yet, it soon becomes obvious that the institution is more than a place for delivering out-of-wedlock babies.

Our second protagonist, Helen Calvert, is Truman’s sister. It is 1947, and Helen has recently returned to America after witnessing firsthand Adolf Hitler’s brutal pursuit of hereditary purity—especially with regard to “different children.” When Helen arrives at her brother’s peaceful vineyard after decades working in Europe, she is shocked to learn what really happened nine years earlier to the vinedresser’s daughter, a girl whom Helen had long ago befriended. In her determination to find Rosie, Helen discovers that while the war had been won in Europe, there are still terrifying battles to be fought at home.

Characters

Within the first few pages, it is easy to empathize with Rosie, an orphan with an uncertain future. Rosie endures a series of obstacles. At first she stumbles because of her naivete and innocence. Then, she learns and applies rules to protect herself and her child from the ruthlessness of the medical and social environments she inhabits. Part One ends with a question mark about Rosie’s fate, but her growth arc is evident.

Helen is a sober adult who’s been emotionally scarred by her experience in Austria during WWII. Her instinct to rescue vulnerable children is triggered when she glimpses in her country the same evil she previously confronted without success. Solving the enigma of what became of Rosie and her daughter is Helen’s opportunity to atone for the past. Wartime Helen—ideologically naïve—becomes a grounded Helen who attempts to defeat evil at home.

Ultimately, Helen’s and Rosie’s narratives entwine, leading to a cathartic ending.

Plot

The narrative was what I expected from a book dealing with cultural/societal evil. Eugenics, involuntary euthanasia, teenage pregnancy, exploitation of children, and adultery are themes that the story explores with varying depth. There was a happy ending (thank you!) and surprises along the way. While I guessed what would happen to Rosie at the institution, there was enough tension to carry the plot from one surprising detail to the next.

Writing

The voice was unobstructive (as I prefer in historical fiction) and let the plot shine.

Takeaway

The novel was an enjoyable read even if at times challenging because of its subject matter. It left me hungry for more information about the eugenics movement in the United States (as I relate below). The story also highlighted that it is easier to point out or confront evil that is foreign than the one that dwells closer to home or in our own hearts.

The American Eugenics Movement

Additional Information. Susan Meissner has said in an interview that Only the Beautiful was inspired by a 1927 Supreme Court case, Buck v. Bell, involving a young woman named Carrie Buck.

Carrie Buck, born in Virginia in 1906, lost her father very young. When Carrie was three, her mother was committed to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble Minded, and Carrie was placed with a foster family. At seventeen, Carrie was raped by a nephew of her foster mother and became pregnant. Her pregnancy became evidence of her “feeblemindedness,” an amorphous label that the medical field applied to what it viewed as hereditary sexual promiscuity. Carrie gave birth to her daughter, and soon after, was like her mother committed to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded.

In 1924, Virginia had passed a law authorizing the sexual sterilization of institutional persons “afflicted with hereditary forms of insanity that are recurrent, idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness or epilepsy”. Supporters of the law decided to test its constitutionality. They chose Buck because they believed that she had inherited her feeblemindedness from her mother and, that similarly, her daughter was showing signs of slow mental development. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, where in the majority opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes stated that the “principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.” He famously concluded that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Buck v. Bell led to the forcible sterilization of almost 70,000 people in more than thirty U.S. states. The decision also had international reach. At Nuremberg, lawyers for the Nazi doctors claimed Buck v. Bell as U.S. precedent in their clients’ defense. Sadly, the public made no connection between U.S. laws and Nazi crimes and forced sterilization practices persisted until the late 1970s.

Although Buck v. Bell has never been expressly overturned, its reasoning has been discredited by subsequent case law.

Sources

Lombardo, Paul. Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Antonios, Nathalie, Raup, Christina, “Buck v. Bell (1927)”. Embryo Project Encyclopedia (2012-01-01). ISSN: 1940-5030 http://embryo.asu.edu/handle/10776/2092.

Cohen, Adam. Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. New York: Penguin Books, 2016.

Smith, J. & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Carrie Buck (1906–1983). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/buck-carrie-1906-1983.

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