PERSONAL: Born in Chicago, IL; son of a sanitation worker. Education: Wheaton College, B.A. (cum laude), 1991; Yale University, Master of Divinity (summa cum laude), 1997; Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, M.S. (with honors), 2000. Hobbies and other interests: Classical and blues guitar, black-and-white photography, Web design, running, basketball, and single-malt scotch.
CAREER: Writer. Village Quill (work space for writers), New York, NY, founder and executive director, 2005–. City University of New York, Hunter College, Department of Film and Media Studies, New York, NY, adjunct assistant professor, 2001–. Has also worked in construction.
Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity (nonflction), Knopf (New York, NY), 2006
Contributor to periodicals, including Christian Science Monitor.
SIDELIGHTS: Harry Bruinius's Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity details the eugenics movement, which won adherents among some progressive political leaders in the early twentieth century. Believers in eugenics sanctioned government control of the reproductive lives of people who appeared to have low intelligence or mental abnormalities, leading some states to enact laws providing for involuntary sterilization. Some eugenicists also frowned on interracial marriage and supported restricting the immigration of certain ethnic groups to the United States, and they were key proponents of a federal law passed in 1924 greatly limiting the number of non-Nordic people who could enter the country. Those who embraced at least some aspects of eugenics, according to Bruinius, included presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Indeed, the book takes its title from a 1927 Holmes judicial opinion upholding Virginia's forced sterilization law, with the jurist writing: "It is better for all the world, if … society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind." Bruinius offers portraits of both the scientists who developed eugenics—Francis Galton, Charles Davenport, Harry Laughlin—and of ordinary Americans who suffered under eugenics laws, as thousands were sterilized against their will. He makes a case that eugenics laws in Nazi Germany were based on those in the United States. Now, he notes, after the Nazi Holocaust, most people consider eugenics repugnant, bigoted, and scientifically unsound, but he adds that the idea of creating perfection still has popular appeal, as evidenced by enthusiasm for genetic engineering.
Several critics remarked that the history of eugenics in the United States is not particularly secret, having been explored by numerous authors, but they still found value in Bruinius's book. This history "should surely be better known by the public," observed Sally Satel in the New York Times Book Review, adding that Better for All the World is an "admirable effort" and "highly readable." A Publishers Weekly reviewer thought that Bruinius tells his story with "compelling drama," while Booklist contributor Donna Chavez deemed the work "a real page-turner." Elbert Ventura, commenting in the San Francisco Chronicle, summed up the book as "a powerful and engrossing read, as well as a poignant argument for humility."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, January 1, 2006, Donna Chavez, review of Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity, p. 32.
Downtown Express (New York, NY), January 21-27, 2005, Hemmy So, "Writers' Space Opens in Tribeca."
Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2005, review of Better for All the World, p. 1261.
New York Times Book Review, February 26, 2006, Sally Satel, "A Better Breed of American," p. 6.
Publishers Weekly, November 28, 2005, review of Better for All the World, p. 34.
San Francisco Chronicle, March 5, 2006, Elbert Ventura, "When the U.S. Tried to 'Purify' the People," p. M6.
Agony Column Book Reviews and Commentary, http://trashotron.com/ (March 2, 2006), "Harry Bruinius Is Better for All the World: History As Dystopian SF."
Better for All the World Web site, http://www.betterforalltheworld.com (April 20, 2006).
BookBrowse, http://www.bookbrowse.com/ (April 20, 2006), interview with Harry Bruinius.
Harry Bruinius Home Page, http://www.brown-bear.com (April 20, 2006), biography.
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (March 4, 2006), Farhad Manjoo, "Progressive Genocide."
Village Quill Web site, http://www.village3quill.com (April 20, 2006).