On the bookshelf
By Ann Leary
Scribner: 336 pages, $27
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The word “timely” is often used to describe novels that appear at a momentous historical moment. But when it comes to the regulation of women’s bodies and the criminalization of sexual and reproductive practices, it’s hard to pick a time when a novel like Ann Leary’s “The Foundling” wouldn’t be about where we so.
Leary, the best-selling author of three previous novels, sets his novel in the fictional Nettleton State Village. It is modeled after the historic Laurelton State Village institution for feeble-minded women of childbearing age, which operated in various guises between 1917 and 1998 in central Pennsylvania. As Leary discovered, it was not a caring group home for women with developmental disabilities. Instead, it was a dumping ground for those deemed morally unworthy to give birth.
Eugenics rose to prominence in the United States in the early 20th century, promoted by social reformers as a means of controlling “undesirable” elements. Not surprisingly, many of these efforts have focused on women’s bodies, employing theories closely tied to the pseudoscience of white racial superiority. (North Carolina, for example, sponsored the forced sterilization of black women until the 1970s.)
Laurelton warehoused women who were considered difficult daughters, troublesome wives and single mothers. For Leary, writing “The Foundling” was a way to explore the history of this nation – but also the history of his own family. In a preface, she writes that her grandmother had worked at Laurelton as a stenographer since she was 17, and although Leary’s novel follows various incarcerated women, it focuses on those who worked there and the tension in they between empathy and complicity.
Its protagonist, Mary Engle, lost her mother as a child and was initially placed in an orphanage by her father. Later, he sent her to live with an aunt, which made the girl feel like she was a burden forever. At 17, Mary was invited to a lecture by Dr. Agnes Vogel, one of the few female psychiatrists in 1927. Vogel’s research focused on “weakness of mind” which she believed was more prevalent in women.
“I hope you know the type of girl I’m referring to,” she tells the audience. “You’ve seen her sneak in and out of bawdy houses and illegal drinking places…she can look pretty normal – in fact, she’s often quite pretty. Until you see her again, a few years later, ruined and destitute, begging for alms, surrounded by her own sick and illegitimate children.
Vogel argues that these women are vulnerable to unscrupulous men who take advantage of their limited intellect – although it becomes clear that the only “evidence” of such deficits lies in their refusal to adhere to social norms of temperance and marriage. Vogel insists that the compassionate solution is to confine these women to the village compound, where its staff provide the best care, recreational activities, and the benefits of honest labor (by which the women earn their living).
Vogel needs a secretary and Mary joins. For the young woman, Vogel represents a new ideal, a type of woman she did not know before. A credentialed psychiatrist at a time when women were largely excluded from medical school, she is an aspirational figure. But what Mary doesn’t understand is that the doctor elevates genetic inheritance above the transformative power of education. During a discussion on religion, she said to Mary:
“That’s what you were taught, but that’s not who you are. Who you were when you were born, who your parents were, where they came from, your stock and your lineage are what determine who you really are and who you are going to be.
Fascinated by Vogel, Mary defends her against criticism from those who question whether incarcerated women are truly “feeble-minded” and fear abuse. Mary initially doubts such stories, but over time she witnesses disturbing incidents. While publicly advocating temperance, Vogel makes a shady deal to acquire the liquor she serves to wealthy donors. When an inmate hired to serve as a maid is assaulted in her employer’s house, Vogel chooses not to report the crime.
Leary does a brilliant job of showing how the need for emotional attachment – in this case triggered by Mary’s upbringing – can cloud a person’s judgement. How, in other words, fear and neglect, rather than the bewilderment that Vogel rails against, is what really weakens the spirit. Nothing is more painful for Mary than to renounce her ideal. But she must, and she does.
“When [Dr. Vogel] I released my hand, I caught my breath because I had a sudden sensation of falling, like one does in a dream, and the blood went straight to my heart, ”Mary thinks. “I used to dream of my mom holding my hand and letting me go. When she let go… [I] I couldn’t stop falling until I woke up soaked in fear and grief.
Mary’s thinking evolves, but not in a magical moment of epiphany – rather, and more realistically, as a slow accumulation of facts that tip the scales. Arriving in Nettleton as a teenager, she gradually learns how precarious it is to be a woman in a poisonously misogynistic culture.
It’s not just Mary’s fascination with Vogel that “The Foundling” probes so well, but how someone like Vogel can not only thrive under patriarchy, but also perpetuate it. The doctor comes to believe that it is his destiny to rise above the limits imposed on women, in part because of his presumed genetic and racial superiority. Vogel becomes not only a guard but a prison warden, preventing the “unfit” from sullying the purity of an American social body weakened by the First World War. For her, these views represent the pinnacle of science and reason, even if they depend on exclusion. any data that contradicts them.
“The Foundling” takes place in the twenties of this century, a time not so distant as one would like to think from the heyday of eugenics or its unscientific methods. Opponents of everything from abortion to democracy have presented their own hand-picked data to justify a world in which the natural order is still a pyramid, with them, by right, at the top.
Leary’s novel is ultimately hopeful, in which empathy and critical thinking reveal the structural vulnerabilities of these pyramids – built as they are on fabrications, trade-offs and contradictions that ultimately undermine their foundations. Leary is optimistic that reason will prevail.
Berry writes for a number of publications and tweets @BerryFLW.