|St. Hildegard von Bingen|
|St. Hildegard von Bingen|
The Foundling, set in 1927 at a state institution in Central Pennsylvania, is modeled after the real Laurelton State Village for Feeble-Minded Women of Childbearing Age, that operated between 1920 and 1998. The institution's purpose evolved over the decades, but the goal during the early years was eugenics – to prevent troubled and “feeble-minded” women from reproducing.
Soon after opening, Laurelton had a waiting list to care for women deemed insane by husbands or abandoned by families, women who had large numbers of children by multiple men, as well as women who relied on prostitution or careers deemed as unsuitable. The state Public Charities Association supervised Laurelton along with prisons, orphanages and other facilities that cared for the “dependent classes,” explains a brief history in the West End Quarterly.
“Throughout the early twentieth century, researchers, social reformers, and politicians cast a wide net for classifying people as ‘feebleminded,’” explains Micalee Sullivan. “The term lacked clear standards or definitions of who constituted ‘feeble-minded’ in the reports of the government agencies, as well as the report of directors at the Laurelton State Village. During the planning stages of the institution, an article described an institution that would ‘provide several groups embraced under the terms "idiotic," "imbecile," or "feeble-minded.'"
Sullivan argues the institution’s history is complex, providing care and vocational training for women while also restricting freedoms.
Pennsylvania Heritage praises Laurelton’s first superintendent, Mary Moore Wolfe: “Wolfe rejected the established medical traditions of the early 20th century that argued ‘mental deficiencies’ caused people to commit crimes and warranted locking them up forever. She believed ‘the problem of mental deficiency is not primarily a medical problem’ but instead was ‘an educational, and to a lesser degree, a sociological problem.’ Determined to make Laurelton Village a place of rehabilitation and not permanent segregation, Wolfe developed academic, vocational and moral training programs for the women living there.”
|Laurelton sewing class, 1920s|
The facility, not religious, is touted as “modern” – emphasizing rigid controls, long hours of hard work as ground crews, factory workers, dairy maids or housekeepers. Unlike Laurelton, the fictional Nettleton is described as offering no education or treatment. For favored staff members, there is luxury housing and meals, as well as alcohol purchased under the guise of “medicinal treatments” during the era of Prohibition. Local and state authorities pay little notice to the facility that boasts of self-reliance, requiring no tax dollars, while offering local jobs and revenue for local businesses.
Mary – a skilled professional – works tirelessly for Dr. Vogel, and the older woman eventually trusts her like a daughter, a closeness that creates distance for the secretary with other staff members and entangles her in corrupt activities including transport and misuse of alcohol. Mary soon detects physical abuse, harsh punishments and insults, but trusts that Dr. Vogel acts in the best interests of inmates. Skepticism grows as she meets more people her age, including a nurse in the facility, a journalist who is curious about rumors of cruelty, and eventually an inmate and one-time friend who grew up in the same orphanage where Mary was raised. The secretary struggles to act on her empathy for Lillian, the inmate, understanding that admission to a previous relationship with an inmate would result in termination of employment. Lillian, like many other inmates, is hardly feeble-minded, but the records do not reflect her education and capabilities.
For weeks, Mary, torn over job security and her admiration for Vogel, avoids Lillian and rationalizes that that the other woman resists, simply not understanding the difference between right and wrong. As an orphan herself, Mary fears imperfection in herself and others, failing to understand that any attempt to assess others as feeble-minded or flawed reflects arrogance.
Mary begins dating Jake, a journalist who questions eugenics and notions that some human beings are not meant to start families or participate in society. Jake is Jewish and Vogel is anti-Semitic, and Mary initially takes offense at his candid critiques of her employer along with the judges and politicians who support the institution. Relying on arrogance herself, she tries to dismiss his concerns for inmates who are institutionalized until they can no longer bear children: “Why would I waste time worrying about his ill-informed ideas when I, at age eighteen, already knew more than he’d ever know about how power and justice really work in this world?”
Power corrupts, including onlookers who may benefit the least. As Albert Einstein noted, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” As an orphan herself, Mary is timid and naïve, trying to rationalize the cruel inequities. At times, the book is too optimistic, offering minimal tension and obstacles in what had to be a treacherous workplace.
Mary and Jake manage to rescue Lillian, but Vogel and her political backers move on to more prominent positions, never investigated or condemned for forcing hundreds of young women to work as unpaid laborers, preventing them from pursuit of any type of normal life. Many women won their freedom only with menopause, and if they were lucky, families and friends helped keep past lives a secret. Women raised in in rural Pennsylvania during the early 20th century feared and whispered about such places. Orphans, homeless, scorned wives understood they could be locked away for the best of years of their lives. And during the Depression, many families simply could not afford to assist or speak out. A century of change exposes the nightmarish conditions, regardless of good intentions, and readers can only wonder how citizens a century from now might assess today's under-funded schools, homeless shelters, prisons or immigrant camps.
Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime, noted Aristotle.
The real institution of Laurelton took on many forms over the years, finally closing its doors in 1998. The empty buildings and more than 265 acres were sold for $1 million in 2021.
Photos courtesy of Pennsylvania Heritage and Architectural Afterlife.
A 7.0 magnitude earthquake strikes Port-au-Prince in January 2010, a place already so desperately poor, prompting survivors to scramble to rescue loved ones and strangers and “to save photographs and whatever trinkets they held dear that meant nothing at all to anyone else on earth.” In the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and later in the refugee camps, people become the same, “were always the same,” and as one market vendor observes, this was “something we had always known from our low-to-the-ground perches…”
In What Storm, What Thunder by Myriam J.A. Chancy, ten narrators, connected by blood and, in some cases, friendship share the story of the earthquake and its aftermath. the stories are poignant and brutally honest. Often, small and seemingly inconsequential objects and memories link the characters and the relationships they cherish. Even before the earthquake, all held “dreams about where they’d rather be.” Individual methods may have varied, including wealth, marriage, or crime, but the common hope is to escape hardship and grinding poverty.
Haiti ranks among the poorest countries in the world with a GDP per capita of less than $3000. Such poverty blurs individuality, and vendor Ma Lou, mother and grandmother of two narrators, describes the marketplace as a place of “colliding senses, … much of it decay, especially at the end of the day, when the best of what’s available is gone and all that remain are castoffs, the leftovers.” She describes the market workers as blending into the dust, becoming “one with the elements…, the nothing that we are.” She adds, “striving toward perfection is beyond our reach.”
Haitians who managed to flee prior to the earthquake learn the news by way of international broadcasts. Haunted and torn, they do not feel as they belong in their new homes: “Sometime, being an immigrant is like being illiterate,” explains one of the narrators. He feels the weight of the tragedy, knowing that up to 300,000 died and survivors endure unthinkable hardship – hunger, sexual assault, cholera, injuries while no medical treatment. Yet he also understands there is little he can do to help by returning home. “The weight of not being able to do enough,” Didier notes. “If I was honest with myself, that was why I’d left.”
The book lightly criticizes charity and donors who set agendas for tackling crises, drawn into assisting others while seeking credit. Organizations and donors judge needs while victims can only wait and accept whatever is given. Of course, after the earthquake, Haitians required safe shelter, clean water and nutrition, yet what should be so easy, supplying basics, becomes overwhelming. And of course, individuals have needs and priorities less obvious to others – a photograph of a loved one, bones of a deceased husband, the fading memories of a child’s pattering footsteps, giggles and final kiss.
One of the most vulnerable narrators, a woman who loses three children refers to NGOs as Not God’s Own. The tent where she lives after the quake includes a label, “A gift from the American people … in association with the Republic of Ireland” and she finds herself regretting dreams and plans made with a husband who abandoned her after the tragedy. “She wished they had other things in mind, escape routes and exit strategies. They’d set their eyes on nothing but a future in which everything would go according to a fabricated plan that they believed in more than in reality itself – or that amplified it.”
Globalization of news, the instant knowledge about a distant crisis, might catch attentions briefly and that invites comparisons. Not long after the tragedy, one of the narrators, an architect, receives an email about an earthquake in the Italy and the loss of 200,000 rounds of pecorino. Activists quickly organize a global campaign to cook Italian recipes and donate proceeds to the region. “It was a kind objective, a goodwill gesture, but reading about it only made me sigh wearily,” notes Anne. “For every round of cheese, a person had died in the Haiti earthquake, and now I was expected to respond to this regional calamity while still burying our dead as if I, and others, might be ‘over’ what had happened to us….”
Still, the architect flounders in helping her hometown and leaves for Africa, later putting her energy to entering an international competition for rebuilding a Haitian cathedral near her neighborhood. She cares deeply about the project, describing the luxury of researching the history, exploring and imagining new beauty, while deciding whether her goal in creating a replacement is to commemorate the dead or recognize what remains. Her section concludes: “I did it for the satisfaction of doing something, of imagining a better, less hostile future, where a God might still exist to watch over us.”
As pointed out in Allure of Deceit, no amount of rules and regulations can prevent the ambition, greed, judgment, control, or inequality that can accompany organized charitable giving.
The publication of What Storm, What Thunder, a work of fiction, was timely as another earthquake, magnitude 7.2, struck Haiti in August 2021, about 70 miles away from the capital, destroying more than 60,000 homes and killing more than 2,000 and injuring 12,000.