Eugenics is often associated with Nazi Germany, but the pseudo-scientific movement is a dark and often-overlooked part of our national past. “The Nazis came to America to learn,” notes Judy Tate of the American Slavery Project. And the epicenter of American eugenics research was very closeby.
The Haunted Files, coming Wednesday to the Sheen Center, is a one-night immersive experience that draws on real files from the Eugenics Records Office, on Long Island’s North Shore. It will ask theatergoers to look deeply at some very difficult history in our backyard. Work conducted at the ERO helped to codify and provide “scientific” underpinning to many still-prevalent concepts: racial hierarchies, IQ testing, strict border divisions, and even the idea of “illegal” personhood.
Tate and the American Slavery Project adapted The Haunted Files from an exhibit of the same name, staged in 2014 at NYU’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute. To drive home the message that our histories continue to haunt us, curators Noa Fuller and Jack Tchen tried to make the past as concrete and as tangible as possible. A room that “looked like a suburban home office,” according to Fuller, was laid out as if someone had just left for a walk, complete with a half-filled coffee cup, a cigarette in an ashtray. Visitors were encouraged to comb through the space like detectives, to go through drawers and papers and books on the walls. When they did, they found real files from the ERO and came face-to-face with grim realities in an otherwise benign-looking room.
The theatrical adaptation will employ a similar gallery element. Visitors will first view real artifacts from the Eugenics Records Office, again co-curated by Fuller and Tchen, and they’ll be asked to fill out a questionnaire that mimics eugenicists’ categorization methods (the survey is peppered with questions like, is the bridge of your nose low, medium, or high?). Then they’ll watch a play that Tate described as “a duologue,” two intertwining monologues based on the records of real people—people she and her collaborators discovered when poring over the papers in Fuller and Tate’s exhibition.
One of these historical figures was a young woman named Hazel, born in 1904, whose file categorized her as “Negro,” and who was institutionalized and eventually sterilized “in an effort to cure her of her immorality,” as Tate summarized. The other monologue is based on the file of a “field worker,” a white woman employed at the ERO who was categorized as a genetically “perfect specimen.” After the play, there will be a talkback with Tate, Fuller, Tchen, and Adam Cohen, author of Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck.
There are many ugly truths and contemporary resonances here. With the passage of the 1924 National Origins act, which barred immigration from Asia and adjusted entry quotas in a way that strongly restricted Jewish, Irish and Italian immigration, eugenics helped to concretize “the idea you can be an illegal person,” as Fuller put it. Obviously, the evening doesn’t promise to be light. But by engaging the public in such an immersive way, the curators also want to highlight some hopeful possibilities. “There are incredible narratives in the files. The hope is that [the audience] will find compassion and inspiration,” Fuller said. The first step may be to face our ghosts, these shades of the past that linger.