Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies

The Reclamation of Anna Agnew: Violence, Victimhood, and the Uses of "Cure"

Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies (2011), 5, (3), 279–302.

Abstract

The article argues that Anna Agnew's popular 1886 autobiography worked to increase public receptivity to ideas of selective death by co-opting the discursive strategies of hereditarianism to explain her attempts at both filicide and suicide. Prevailing eugenics rationale insisted that insane individuals, like other "defectives," should either be cured or eliminated. In this threatening context, Anna evaded responsibility for her violence by emphasizing her victimization, miraculous cure, and responsible acts of citizenship. In its discursive reliance on psychiatry, evolution, and eugenics, Anna's popular narrative—as well as her attempt to eliminate her children—contributed to the interarticulation of progressive humanitarianism and selective murder. In contemporary disability studies discourse, scholars and activists alike often suggest as solution the inclusion of persons with disabilities in debates over medical and scientific policy. While such a perspective is necessary, Anna's narrative demonstrates that persons with disabilities do not stand beyond and outside of available discourse. The rhetorical tactics used to convey the perspective of members of the disability community deserve to be investigated with the same tenacity and critical eye as the rhetorical tactics used to convey those perspectives less often aligned with the disability studies project.

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Brian, Kathleen