Reviewed by Melissa Oliveira
The early pages of Susan Annah Currie’s The Preventorium: A Memoir (University Press of Mississippi, August 2022) talk about a kind of “forgetting” of the tuberculosis crisis in the United States.
Where the polio epidemic’s legacy remains, in part because President Franklin D. Roosevelt was disabled by the disease and also because of how quickly and dramatically it affected (mostly) children, the memory of the tuberculosis era is faint in comparison. Interesting, given that this book points out how tuberculosis was “the deadliest disease of its time,” and how it remains, according to the WHO, “the second leading infectious killer after COVID-19.” Yet people of my parents’ generation are likely to recall the fears of congregating, the blaming of childhood pets for transmission, or the closed swimming pools signifying public responses to polio more than reactions to tuberculosis.
Currie’s The Preventorium strives to be a barrier against that forgetting. Currie’s own childhood memories are defined by the response against tuberculosis, as she was a resident at the Mississippi Preventorium Hospital for Children for a total of fifteen months. Considered to be “quite progressive at the time” in terms of treatment, a preventorium was where children between 4 and 11 were brought to submit to a strict inpatient health regimen designed to prevent them from contracting tuberculosis. Currie herself was 5 when she was labelled “pre-tubercular” in 1959, after a traumatizing two-year stretch in which her father died and she kept ending up in the hospital with respiratory illnesses. Six decades later, Currie uses the memoir to examine where this nearly-lost medical history overlaps with her own.
After a couple of chapters of historical background, The Preventorium drops into the springtime Sunday where everything changes: after dinner, Currie, her mother and her great aunt go for a ride. They end up at the Mississippi Preventorium Hospital for Children in Magee, Miss., where Currie would undergo the “Fresh Air” Method. At home, the Method argued, a child risked ostracism due to illnesses; at a preventorium they’d have a feeling of solidarity with other “pre-tubercular” children. “Pre-tubercular” is such a strangely imprecise term, though: it encompassed everything from being underweight to having “asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis and respiratory problems” to simply being the child of an adult with tuberculosis, and most “pre-tubercular” kids never ended up sick.
And though the treatment envisions solidarity among at-risk kids, in reality the staff of the preventorium brutally enforces rank conformity and submission. “We were,” Currie writes, “all rigorously forced to conform to rigid behaviors with no crying or normal playfulness allowed.” It starts upon arrival when, Currie explains, a barber cuts her hair into the standard short bob with bangs and she dons a uniform consisting solely of a pair of billowy white bloomers. Though Keds, a sleeveless V-neck and a sweater were permitted in cool weather, mostly the children remained barefoot and shirtless, since children should be “built up” by exposing as much of their skin to free-flowing air as possible.
Currie’s first feelings are of release: from clothing, from the emotions overtaking the family after her dad’s death, from expectations. “I was now free,” Currie writes, “to explore the art of internal observation. I also immediately knew I was completely alone and without choices.” In a million tiny ways, though, Currie strives to make small choices in an environment where there was “no individual spark or quirky differences tolerated.” There, something as small as placing the hand a particular way on the hip feels like rebellion. As does sneaking into the director’s apartment just to look inside her closet, filled with dresses and shoes that look strange to the bloomer-clad girls.
Currie’s memoir describes her stay with an overwhelming amount of detail: the strict schedules that dictated absolutely everything from her morning toilet visits to nightly sleeping positions. Meanwhile, the kids suffer quietly; they are abused, shamed, publicly humiliated when they don’t drink their milk. Much is made of these yellowish, universally-hated glasses of full-fat buttermilk; rebelling against drinking it frequently leads to some of the more shocking punishments in the book, leaving the other kids helpless to assist. And so much of this remains decades after Currie is discharged; she confesses to struggling in the absence of the institution’s schedules, how time itself is problematic.
While the world forgets about these institutions, her body remembers all too well. Six decades later, Currie still catches herself walking in the way required at the preventorium, still finds herself sleeping in a particular position, just as when she was there. As a memoir, though, it didn’t lean on scenic storytelling, dialogue and the like, and resorted often to factual reportage or high-level narration. Though there were many opportunities for more dramatic storytelling, the action somehow remains passive, the tone informative.
Currie speaks of the dissociative effect of the preventorium, and I could feel something like this in the book: a kind of distance in the prose. I longed for more showing, to be rooted more in scene. Nevertheless, I’ve never read a memoir that compares to The Preventorium in terms of subject. After reading Currie’s book, I’m convinced of the urgency of remembering this period and the hard work her memoir does towards that goal. After all, here was a place that promised to help vulnerable kids, imbued with the authority of medical professionals. A place Currie’s mother “often expressed impatience and anger at me for not being grateful” about, even after conveying what went on. Given all of this, I imagine Susan Annah Currie’s The Preventorium: A Memoir was a tough story to tell at all and to relive, as one sometimes does, in the writing.