Lost Privilege Company

The Blunt Research Group

­­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:  in name and geographical proximity, but also in the disparate fantasies of asylum and social rarefaction haunting those places.

Youths of all races were confined at the Whittier School, but most of the case files supplying the basis for these poems document the lives of Chicano or African-American youths, aged 13-17 years, in addition to recording the eugenics vocabulary used to condemn and curtail their ways of life.  Voices of diverse protagonists have thus been retrieved from these 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.

As partial transcriptions, the texts presented here can be read as experiments in investigative poetics:  an approach rooted in the methods of documentary sampling--a form of close listening--which makes no effort (in contrast to other models of appropriation) to avoid strong feelings.  Originally compiled to justify the elimination of certain populations, the case files can now function--contrary to their original purpose--as a veiled resource of fugitive expression, practice, and knowledge. 

The ensemble of poems is entitled "Lost Privilege Company":  the name of the isolation ward at the Whittier State School where youthful 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.

From “Lost Privilege Company”

Digital Editor's Note: These poems, because of the nature of responsive (mobile-friendly) web design, and the sophisticated formatting, are best viewed on a laptop or desktop screen.


                       never seemed to progress beyond
                                        the "fairy tale stage" 

    spent much of his time at the "cave"
                                the boys had fixed up   

with a table made in sloyd
             an old mattress and an improvised fireplace 

                                                              Want your buttermilk and ice today? 

It will be such a long time
       until he is a man that he will forget     
                in the meantime 

if he ever decided       
                        what he wants to do 

         his black cat or his parrot 



         apologizes humbly and readily 

the old woman poisoned the boy’s mind 

                                           no man lives that could ever tame me 

        couldn't remember
two articles if he was sent 

                          to the store


                                            Joe possesses 

         all the bad characteristics of all         the boys        

                                                      was heard to say 

                      this is the last time
               I’m coming in here 

                                          twice accused of murder twice acquitted.  

     Made a fool of himself
                                    too much already 

he wanted us to keep on goin' with the bottle   

                          at age 14 went out to work in the fruit



      during the interview he told many strange tales 

                                                      unverifiable and contradictory  

                    a fit candidate for the Pacific Colony  



                 twenty four cuts inflicted with a twisted pocket knife
                                                                         blade on the head and arms          

                                                        a good deal of this  

                           sickness    in his     imagination  

compelled to move
         and broken-hearted         up north               

                  don’t know what may have   

        become of them
      by now 

  selfish, sensual, secretive, untruthful 

                                                                   but the Chief Supervisor says
                                                         the boy has been truthful 

                                              and honest
                              and pretty trustworthy



      Papa is as mean as ever    

                              when he's home you know
                                        how he is don't you  

       a popcorn wagon 

Henry gave "jiggers" while the older boy stole
                                                      some money. 

      A few times. 

Reported to be neglecting
             his work      always wants to do
        “something else” 

              for a long time nothing      
was heard 

            of him the history of this family should not        be allowed 

                                                                                     to be repeated