From “Lost Privilege Company”

Eight Poems

The poems of “Lost Privilege Company” appear under the signature of the Blunt Research Group, an anonymous, contemporary collective of poets, activists, and scholars of diverse origin.

The poems (about 40 in all) are composed entirely from phrases drawn from individual case files of the earliest youth prisons in California between 1910 and 1925. The histories contained in these files were gathered and archived by the now defunct Eugenics Records Office, an American organization that helped to shape the international eugenics movement through activities carried out in these juvenile reformatories (primarily at the Whittier State School, founded in 1891). Eugenics “researchers” and fieldworkers used these prisons and the utopian fantasies of early California development as a laboratory to develop diagnostic procedures intended to identify certain “ungovernable” teens as mental “defectives” and to construct genealogies of “degenerate” families. These diagnoses were used to determine whether the “propositus” (the teen “ward” in the case file) should be recommended for compulsory sterilization to prevent him or her from “procreating” a policy legalized by the California legislature in 1909 and pursued with great vigor until the early 1940s. Over 20,000 people were sterilized in California during this period, and some of the teens in these poems were referred to the sterilization “mills” of the Sonoma State Home and the Pacific Colony.

The development of eugenics touched the very core of the California myth: the founding of Venice Beach, for example, by Abbot Kinney in 1905 was motivated in part by fashionable ideas about eugenics. And, in a very different context, the diagnostic models and sterilization policies developed in California were enthusiastically received by eugenics “researchers” in Europe. The social engineers of Nazi Germany drew directly on the California model. In Mein Kampf, Hitler alludes enthusiastically to the eugenics policies implemented in California and, before long, the Nazi symbology of “degenerates” destined for confinement and extermination included the categories of the “Asozial” (the asocial) and the “Arbeitssheu” (the work-shy) — terms reinforced by the eugenics vocabulary of the California experiment. The pseudo-science behind the earliest Nazi Concentration Camps (at Breitenau, for example, in 1933) can thus be traced, in part, to the teen prisons of the California dream. Replicating its forgotten California affinities, the modern Breitenau facility eventually turned into a reformatory for teenage girls in the 1960s. Ulrike Meinhof, before she went underground as one of the founders of the Red Army Faction, produced a radio documentary in 1969 on the teen inmates of the Breitenau school.

Venice Beach, it turns out, was once the other shore of National Socialism. And the sterilization mill of the Pacific Colony was not far removed from the celebrity enclave of the Malibu Colony.

Youths of all races were confined at the Whittier School, but most files used for these poems document cases of Chicano or African-American youths, aged 13-17 years. Voices of diverse protagonists were retrieved from the case files: the direct speech of teen “wards,” of their friends and families and the comments of the eugenic “fieldworkers” conducting the interviews. Text in italics always indicates the voices of the “wards,” while text without quotation marks or italics conveys the words of the fieldworkers. Text in quotation marks conveys the voices of the wards, or of their families and friends, cited indirectly by the fieldworkers. The names are real.

The ensemble of poems is entitled “Lost Privilege Company”: the name of the isolation ward at the Whittier State School where offenders could be sentenced under harsh conditions for misconduct. Suicides in 1939 and 1940 by two Hispanic teens in the isolation ward brought unprecedented public scrutiny of the prison’s history and methods.

The following poems are excerpted from the “Lost Privilege Company.” Additional portfolios of poems from “Lost Privilege Company” will be appearing this summer in the Chicago Review, The Recluse, and Gulf Coast.



     Now mama, if I go and do something
               and they come after me,
                              don’t you know anything about it.

He had been taught that his mother
had “thrown him away”   undertook

           to cure her ailments by “spiritual methods”


                      After her husband killed her father
                she separated from the husband.

Gladys the immoral colored girl next door
     gave him talks     on the subject     daily.



                        difficulty in remembering the names of friends


Mother’s Mother’s Father

         a Cherokee Indian when about
sixty years old stuck a splinter in his leg
while building a gin house. Blood poisoning
developed and he died shortly afterward

                                bad crowd


                                       only disposed to work
         when under observation



We recommend
      his transfer to Sonoma and suggest their machinery
   can furnish more appropriate general supervision.

                 Likes to play marbles

         thinks a great deal but says little
set fire to a schoolhouse
                              and burned it down

      his eyes would fill with tears
                  (“lachrymose excitability”)

            It was some time before
the boy’s mother (Savaia) was quite convinced
               the visit was a friendly one,

      poor comprehension of English.

                              Stole 200 cigars
                                                            valued at $20



             asked if it was a “brain test”

     My father cried but the judge
would not     notice him


         high grade moron

I stole a bicycle one night coming home     it was dark
             and I was scared
                          to walk home.

I told him the truth.


             Awarded the name Peanuts



             growls if he isn’t allowed to do so

                          just goes ahead     his own way
keeping the night watchman awake

             questionable company

                                 saved the life of a motion picture actress
       giving him some notoriety with those people


He was lonesome and wanted his bicycle.


              broke up housekeeping
              sings in “minstrels”

The boy’s father chose to destroy his wife’s clothes
               because she is so obviously fond
                                        of pretty clothes.

Never anything but a man



Onset of incorrigibility unknown
     but has been “trickish”     since a child.

A trifling boy     will slap other boys in the face
      as soon as the Supervisor’s back is turned.

what couldn’t I do
       just as well sitting down

a fighty boy

Worn asphalt road, no walks. Kerosene lights. City water.
       Three junk dealers within the block.

A good boy requires careful handling.


              He would have the law “put on him”    just as soon kill
       a man as have any argument with him

worked in candy factory at $4 per week



     “The boy is a puzzle”

                                   turns pale when angry

       might go around         trying
      to kill someone

                     streetwalker and sniffer of

But I did have such a good time!


    Picked up


              electric lights in a Tent City


Mother of Propositus

     doctor why you don’t notify me
before you perform the operation on him why you

       don’t ask my consent?


Off-Color Humor

“The anguish that has scraped [the comedian’s] nerves and left them raw to every flicker of life is the base of wit.”