I think most people are aware of the eugenics movement through Hitler’s experiments in WWII Germany. But fewer people know that the United States had its own eugenics “pioneers” from the late 1800s to the 1940s. The goal was to eliminate undesirable genetic human traits through selective breeding. This evolved to forced sterilizations of people with mental or physical defects.
The hotspot for practicing eugenics was California. Hitler actually cited the state’s successful sterilization laws in his book, Mein Kampf. California was his model.
California was not alone. Thirty U.S. States practiced selective breeding. Indiana passed the first eugenics-based compulsory sterilization law (1907).
Across the USA, original proponents included respectable folks and organizations like the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation, John Harvey Kellogg, and Alexander Graham Bell.
But any good intentions for improving the human race actually went downhill as people played God by deciding who was worthy of reproducing and who was unfit.
California led the country in sterilizations for seventy years (1909 – 1979), often without consent. They performed 20,000 procedures in state-run hospitals and institutions, equalling one-third of the total across thirty states. That includes 60,000 men and women.
Sterilization programs occurred in other countries as well, such as Scandinavia, Britain, and Canada. Besides the disabled, targets of such procedures have included immigrants, the poor, and racial minorities.
In 2021, the California government issued a program to compensate victims of forced sterilization. But is there really a way to compensate for such loss?
My first introduction to eugenics in the USA was Susan Meissner’s novel Only the Beautiful. Stepping into the world of the fictional Rosie in 1938 was truly an eye-opener—and heart-wrenching.
This was also the first time I’d read about synesthesia in fiction. According to the Cleveland Clinic, synesthesia is “when your brain routes sensory information through multiple unrelated senses, causing you to experience more than one sense simultaneously. Some examples include tasting words or linking colors to numbers and letters.”
The Encyclopedia Britannica describes it as a “neuropsychological trait in which the stimulation of one sense causes the automatic experience of another sense.”
In the novel, Rosie sees colors when she hears certain sounds.
I actually know two people with this condition. They see colors associated with certain numbers and letters. These are women who by all worldly standards are living (or have lived) full, rich lives with successful careers. Definitely not “unfit.”
But in the 1930s, somebody with synesthesia was considered defective, and became a candidate for forced sterilization.
Susan joined me on a previous blog post featuring her novel The Nature of Fragile Things, about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Read more about eugenics & synethesia here:
- American Psychological Association—Everyday fantasia: The world of synesthesia
- NIH —National Library of Medicine—Eugenics & Human Rights
- National Women’s Law Center–Are there forced sterilizations today in the US?
- History.com–History of eugenics
- New Yorker–The Forgotten Lessons of the American Eugenics Movement
- New York Times–The Long Shadow of Eugenics in America
- Library of Congress—Early American Eugenics Movement: Topics in Chronicling America
- NIH-National Library of Medicine—U.S. Scientists’ Role in the Eugenics Movement (1907–1939): A Contemporary Biologist’s Perspective
- University of Washington: History of Women in the US—First Wave Feminists
A heartrending story about a young mother’s fight to keep her daughter, and the terrible injustice that tears them apart, by the USA Today bestselling author of The Nature of Fragile Things and The Last Year of the War.
California, 1938—When she loses her parents in an accident, sixteen-year-old Rosanne is taken in by the owners of the vineyard where she has lived her whole life as the vinedresser’s daughter. She moves into Celine and Truman Calvert’s spacious house with a secret, however—Rosie sees colors when she hears sound. She promised her mother she’d never reveal her little-understood ability to anyone, but the weight of her isolation and grief prove too much for her. Driven by her loneliness she not only breaks the vow to her mother, but in a desperate moment lets down her guard and ends up pregnant. Banished by the Calverts, Rosanne believes she is bound for a home for unwed mothers. But she soon finds out she is not going to a home of any kind, but to a place that seeks to forcibly take her baby – and the chance for any future babies – from her.
Austria, 1947—After witnessing firsthand Adolf Hitler’s brutal pursuit of hereditary purity—especially with regard to “different children”—Helen Calvert, Truman’s sister, is ready to return to America for good. But when she arrives at her brother’s peaceful vineyard after decades working abroad, 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 Rosanne, Helen discovers a shocking American eugenics program—and learns that that while the war had been won in Europe, there are still terrifying battles to be fought at home.
“A book is always in many places at once. That is its singular wonder.
A book takes one voice speaking and makes it many.
A book can shine far brighter and longer
than I ever could on my own.” —Rosie, p 372
I love how this quote captures the far-reaching impact of one book. This novel is one of those books that will shine bright and long. Despite its dark subject matter.
Only the Beautiful has a unique structure. It’s divided into two parts, each with two timelines, for a total of four timelines in the novel. So it’s a split-time novel—doubled, actually. I’m not sure there’s a technical term for that. Four timelines may sound daunting but you only have to deal with two at a time. And it all fits snugly.
The first page drew me right in. I cared about Rosie immediately.
Part 1 is Rosie’s story, before and after she is sent away from the Calverts’ home at age seventeen. She ends up at a mental institution, pregnant and alone.
Rosie sees colors when she hears sounds. Later she learns there’s a name for it: synesthesia. After years of silence about this “ability,” she learns how and why it’s more of a liability than an asset. The result is a huge irrevocable loss.
“People will always distrust what they don’t understand.
And what they distrust, they cannot love.” — Rosie, p 165
Part 2 is Helen’s story. As a nanny in Austria, she sees firsthand the devastation Hitler causes by institutionalizing children with disabilities, taking them from their families by force.
What Helen doesn’t realize is that atrocities are happening back in the states, too, akin to Hitler’s eugenics tactics. Back in the US, Helen finds herself in the thick of a similar nightmare—but this one has a closer personal connection. To Rosie.
“With giving, there is cost, isn’t there?
There is always cost. Sometimes it is an easy sum to hand over.
And sometimes it exacts from you
the whole measure of your heart.” — Helen, p 381
Why write a novel on such abominable events? First, we must know history so we don’t repeat it. Plus, empathy is the best cure for apathy. And apathy is no better than than support for evildoers.
I hear the echo of Johannes Maier saying, “Power like that can’t be stopped,”
and my own voice saying back to him, “Of course it can.”
It can. It is stopped. All the time.
Not with a magic wand or hopeful thoughts or wishful thinking or mere words,
but with courage and resolve
and the refusal to allow those without voices to remain unheard.
This is what makes us sublimely human, isn’t it?
Not unsullied genetic perfection,
but when we stubbornly love and honor one another.
Just the way we are.” — Helen, p 372 – 373
Note: there are some mild swear words and a “mild” sex scene. Please don’t let this keep you from reading this book.
Join me for some Q & A with author Susan Meissner.
Questions about Only the Beautiful
This is just a sampling of our questions. I’m leaving out a lot to avoid spoilers!
When Susan was writing The Nature of Fraile Things about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, she learned that San Francisco hosted 18 million people at the World’s Fair in 1915, only nine years after the earthquake devastated the city. In a beautiful exhibition hall was a eugenics booth with a sign about “Race Betterment.” Concerned, she decided she needed to learn more about it.
The book Eugenic Nation was a great resource and an eye-opener to the concept of manipulating the genetic pool through forced sterilization. Such practices, prevalent in the U.S. in the 1930s, caught Hitler’s attention.
Hitler already had his own agenda but no way to execute it yet. However, he got direction from doctors in the U.S. When he wrote to eugenics leaders, they wrote back. When he invited them to Germany, some went.
Hitler sterilized 350,000 people in 3-1/2 years as compared to the 60,000 in the United States over several decades. This was in addition to his years of conducting unethical experiments and euthanasia.
Susan didn’t start out planning to draw a parallel between the eugenics programs of Europe and California, but it was the natural thing to do.
Susan admitted to having trouble alternating Rosie’s and Helen’s stories initially. Her efforts turned into a train wreck. So she divided it into two parts, the tales eventually converging in Helen’s search for Rosie.
Susan had learned about synesthesia years earlier. The condition fit her criteria for the story. Synesthesia is hereditary, an aberration, and wasn’t a household term. Even though the type Rosie had was the most common, it certainly wasn’t commonly known nor understood.
NOTE: Brigitta is a young girl in the European family that Helen nannied for years.
Susan left Brigitta’s ailment ambiguous on purpose. The point was, under Hitler’s regime, anybody who didn’t meet his standards of perfection was useless.
Research takes five to six months, then writing the novel can take eight months to a year. Susan generally doesn’t do any writing during the research phase. This particular book was researched and written during Covid, so most of the research was online.
However, Susan was finally able to travel to the old Sonoma hospital that inspired the book’s hospital. An hour from San Francisco, it’s all boarded up now. She fictionalized the hospital in order to have full rein over it. She did the same for Dr. Townsend, too. He was based on eugenics doctors at the time, but he was his own character.
Several of them were hard to write, Dr. Townsend in particular. He actually thought he was doing good. Johannes was weak, conflicted, and gave up too easily. Susan had more empathy for Celine, even with her rough edges. But they were all people who failed others, which made them each difficult to write.
NOTE: Debating these characters’ challenges, strengths, and weaknesses makes for good discussion, especially when you consider what’s at stake for each one.
With a flower bulb, you can’t see the beauty initially, just like when a child is born, you don’t see all the potential. A bulb has to be planted and tended do, just as a child must be loved and nurtured to grow and develop. Also, the amaryllis blooms in winter. And for Rosie, an amaryllis would produce color in her mind.
There are no happy endings with eugenics. Case in point is the true story of Carrie Buck from Virginia, the basis of a well-known 1927 Supreme Court case. Her child was taken and died at age eight.
However, Susan wanted to create a satisfying, life-affirming story. She wanted to generate hope—not sugar-coat the evil, but have the character rise above it.
Susan: “Yes, but I need to know the area first. It has to become a part of me.”
NOTE: Susan has been a California girl most of her life, living in San Diego until about a year ago when she and her husband moved to Washington.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you like dual timeline and/or family-oriented novels, you might enjoy A Hundred Magical Reasons (formerly Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum). This novel spotlights L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and his friendship with a young girl and his impact through the decades. Set near Holland, Michigan, this pre-published novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. Read more and watch the book trailer here.
If you like small town stories about family dynamics and secrets, you might enjoy my re-launched novel All That Is Hidden. Set near North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains in 1968, the story spotlights the bond of family and the connections of a tight-knit community. Northern exploitation threatens as a father’s hidden past catches up to him and tests family ties. Learn more and watch the trailer here.
All That Is Hidden awards:
- Winner of the Artisan Book Reviews Book Excellence Award
- Semifinalist in Serious Writer’s Book of the Decade contest
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Susan Meissner bio
Susan Meissner is the critically-acclaimed author of 21 novels. Her engaging stories feature memorable characters facing unique and complex circumstances, often against a backdrop of historical significance. A multi-award-winning author, her books have earned starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist.
She was born and raised in San Diego, California, but spent some of her adult life living in Minnesota as well as in England and Germany, before returning home to southern California in 2007. Susan attended Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego.
Prior to her writing career, she was a managing editor of a weekly newspaper in southwestern Minnesota. She enjoys teaching workshops on writing, spending time with her family, reading great books and traveling. Susan makes her home in the San Diego area with her husband Bob, who is a retired chaplain in the Air Force Reserves, and their yellow lab, Winston. Learn more on her website.
Next time I’ll share my Bookshelf—All My Books In One Place. An index of all the good reads of the past two years.
Meanwhile, have you read Only the Beautiful or any others by Susan Meissner? Did you know about the eugenics movement in the US? Answer in the comments below.
Sign up for my monthly newsletter to receive tips, recipes, freebies, giveaways, and the prequel for All That Is Hidden: www.StandoutStoriesNewsletter.com