Ask An Americanist

Ask an Americanist: Carrie Streeter

Tell us a bit about yourself.

It’s fair to say that I’m a mountain girl. I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, surrounded by the sharp peaks and desert valleys of the “young” Rocky Mountains. I now make my home in Boone, North Carolina, surrounded by the time-smoothed knobs and forested hollars of the “old” Appalachian Mountains. I think that living in these spaces has had some influence on how I approach a study of the past. The geography itself is a reminder of “geologic” time and the impactful paces of sustenance, erosion, and disruption. My personal life has had its own “epochs” too, including several years as a history textbook editor, a fifth grade teacher, an airline reservation agent, and a yoga instructor. These days especially, the Blue Ridge Mountains suit my temperament (a statement that feels very 19th century in its association between climate + health), and I enjoy fairly quiet days with my partner, Andrew, and our two cats.

How did you become interested in the history of health?

There are certainly longer and shorter answers to this question. I’ll try to strike a middle way. My first real introduction to the field of history of medicine and health began during my MA Public History studies at Appalachian State University. During the summer before I began that program, I visited my grandfather and learned about some aspects of our family that piqued my interest in the history of mental healthcare. He grew up in Pueblo, Colorado—the son of a steelworker and a mother who liked to play the piano. Life during the Great Depression had been particularly rough for his family, and in 1938 his mother took her own life. He was six years old. As he shared with me the difficulty of that childhood trauma, he also described vague memories of visiting his grandmother at the Colorado State Insane Asylum, where she was a patient. I knew nothing about this part of my family history, for, as you might guess, these were the types of shameful or sorrowful stories that no one talked about. That summer, when I moved from Utah to North Carolina, I made a point of stopping in Pueblo to see what I could uncover. I arrived at a small museum located in what was once the asylum superintendent’s home. The rest of the hospital is no longer, and in its place there is—surprise, surprise—a prison! (I was seeing “Foucault” long before ever reading him).  I also confirmed that my great great grandmother died in the asylum after nearly thirty years as a patient, something I would soon learn was quite typical of that era.

When I began my studies in Boone that fall, I was very much interested in understanding my grandmother’s lives in a more historical way. As it would happen, I was in luck, both in terms of teachers and archives. It was my great fortune to land in an Oral History class with Lucinda McCray, a historian of medicine, and Phoebe Pollitt, a nurse historian. The focus of the class involved conducting oral histories with North Carolina nurses. I chose to interview psychiatric nurses who had made their careers working at Broughton Hospital, a nearby facility that opened in the late 1880s as North Carolina’s second state asylum. Through that assignment, I also made a connection with the hospital librarian, who introduced me to patient records that dated back to the 1880s. The rest, as they say, is history. I spent the next two years reading about the history of psychiatry, studying the hospital’s archives, and conducting more oral histories with individuals who worked at, or were familiar with, Broughton Hospital. This work resulted in an MA thesis, an exhibition at a local historical society, and, of course—more questions about the history of health than I knew how to answer just yet. So, I kept on going.

It was my great fortune to continue studying the history of health under the mentorship of Rebecca Jo Plant at UC San Diego. I remember the day when I shared with her my interest in researching the history of yoga/mind-body medicine in the United States, even though I wasn’t sure yet where that inquiry would lead. She encouraged me forward, and also helped me build new foundations of understanding. Over the past nine years (but who’s counting?), my PhD studies have offered vital time for developing broader perspectives about the cultural processes that influence the production of body knowledge and the formation of therapeutic culture.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently writing my dissertation, “Wings to their Heels: Self-Expression and Health in the Era of the New Woman.” It is, in short, a gendered history of mind-body medicine or the practices we recognize today as “yoga.”  I sometimes refer to this work as the history of the “suffragists’s savasana.” It is that, and much more. Right now, in particular, I’m finishing my chapter on the post-Civil War expansion of women’s pursuits for elocution training. The chapter chronicles the beginning of what became American Delsartism, and it is essentially a cultural origin story for the mind-body remedies that became enormously popular among U.S. women in the 1880s through 1900s—the very exercises that I discuss in my article on the Flanner Guild Delsarte Club.

How has the pandemic affected your research?

I’ve been fortunate not to become ill. Like many, I’ve experienced disruptions in terms of focus and energy as a result of this pandemic. While I’ve certainly wished that I could take an extra research trip to the archives, that limitation has also been good. It has encouraged me to work with what I already have (which is a lot).

On a less logistical note, I will say that COVID-19 presented some poignant demonstrations about the function of mind-body practices in modern society. At the onset of the pandemic, I was particularly struck by the ubiquitous recommendations for managing stress through breathing exercises and stretches, the exercises we recognize as yoga. Emphasizing one’s personal capacity to reduce strain has long had many implications. Such encouragements can downplay the impact of structural realities that create stress (e.g. economic instability, gender disrimination, systemic racism, etc). Such encouragements to breathe and relax have also conveyed valuable affirmations of self.  Along these lines, I was also struck by the fact that just before the pandemic began shutting things down in the United States, the Alabama state legislature had begun the process of overturning a legal ban that keeps public school teachers from teaching yoga. As far as I can tell, the pandemic interrupted this legal process. Thus, while yoga practices were ever present in pandemic responses, school teachers in Alabama could not legally teach these exercises to their students. After looking into the issue a little bit more, I was not surprised to find out that the ban resulted from 1990s campaigns led by Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum. Seeing the consequences of those politics play out in the middle of a pandemic only deepened my commitment to scholarship that illuminates the longer history of the cultural dynamics that influenced what Americans learned about the power of their bodies and breath.

If you could choose any other area of study – any time, place, concept, what would it be?

I have long fancied a parallel life as a lighting designer for theatrical productions. There seems to me something quite magical in that work—getting to change the setting with saturations of color. So, if given a start over, maybe I’d be spending more time on Broadway and less time reading books. Ha!

Carrie Streeter is a PhD Candidate in US History at the University of California, San Diego and is currently writing her dissertation: Wings to their Heels: Self Expression and Health in the Era of the New Woman. As well as developing a manuscript based on her thesis, Carrie is the author of “Breathing Power and Poise: Black Women’s Movements for Self-Expression and Health, 1880s-1900s” in the soon to be published December 2020 issue of AJAS. You can visit Carrie’s website here.