The Degenerates

Written by J. Albert Mann
Review by Kristen McDermott

There is so much about this novel that shouldn’t work—multiple points of view, long episodes of the abuse of young women, an inconsistent mixture of Jazz-age and contemporary slang—but somehow, Mann has created a story that takes the grim realities of life in the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded and transforms them into an inspiring tale of friendship and resilience.

Set in 1928, this YA novel focuses on a few turbulent months in the life of four unlikely inmates of this nightmarish institution: dreamy Maxine, whose life centers on protecting her sister Rose, a charismatic charmer with Down Syndrome; quiet, resourceful Alice, who lets her feelings for Maxine override the extreme caution developed over years of experiencing marginalization as a Black girl with a club foot; and fierce, defiant London, a pregnant orphan adept at escape who finds an unlikely home when the trio includes her in their alliance against sadistic supervisors, uncaring educators, and the vicious bullying of other inmates. This is a harrowing read in many ways as the four protagonists endure dizzying physical and emotional highs and lows in a setting that would seem unbelievably abusive to any reader not familiar with the American Eugenics movement, but depressingly realistic to those who are. Each girl is clearly intelligent, principled, and empathetic, but each is labeled a “moron” or an “imbecile” according to the cold calculus of Moral and Intellectual Fitness devised by the mental health professionals of the time, which pathologized any deviation from a white, able-bodied, privileged norm.

Readers willing to endure copious descriptions of physical and psychological torment, abusive authority figures, and bodily wastes galore will reach the end of the novel glad to have gotten to know Maxine, Rose, Alice, and London, and will, surprisingly, feel the conclusion comes too soon.