|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.
Mark Schulter is left with brain injuries after overturning his truck on an isolated road in rural Nebraska. His sister, Karin, gives up job and home, returning to their hometown near the Platte River to provide care. The brother describes his condition like living in a video game, where he cannot advance to the next level. Karin worries about him being dependent on her for the rest of his life, that she would “fail him, as she had failed to protect her parents from their own worst instincts…. She needed him to be way he would never be again, a way that she was no longer sure that he had ever been.” Mark is belligerent and frustrated, and she describes this as a “crushing new innocence,” even though he discarded potential long before his accident.
Mark is convinced that his sister is an imposter, gradually suspecting that his home, community and friends are fake, all conspiring to cover up a government plot. Further, he fears he is the center of this plot, possibly connected with the annual mass migration of sand cranes to the Platte River.
The birds mate for life, following reliable patterns, while humans lie to one another, use one another and themselves, while destroying their own communities, families and homes. The annual migration appears massive only because increasing development reduces the birds’ habitat. The same numbers of birds crammed into less space brings stress and disease. “They used to roost along the whole Big Bend: a hundred and twenty miles or mile,” explains Daniel, the brother’s childhood friend, an environmentalist, and a lover whom Karin once discarded. “That he spent time with her at all left her amazed, ashamed, and grateful,” she notes at one point, and later decides: “What could he possibly get from their new connection? Simply the chance to do things right, at last. Reduce, reuse, recycle, retrieve, redeem.” She later finds herself wondering “Could anyone trust anyone who trusted anyone so much?” The answer, with these characters, is no.
The characters are susceptible to gossip, conspiracy theories and memories of past wrongs. Karin suggests that “people liked people who made them feel more secure,” but that is not really true of her relationship with her brother or anyone else. She lacks self-esteem, with memories of physical and sexual abuse. “Everyone alive was at least as scared as she was. Remember that, and a person might come to love anyone.”
Karin pleads for advice from a renowned neuroscientist who agrees to meet the brother. Both Karin and the doctor harbor doubts about their own motivations in providing care.
The neuroscientist seems to have the ideal life and marriage, but it soon becomes clear that he does not really listen to his wife or daughter. His job is his life, his priority, and he’s devastated after reviewers attack his most recent book detailing his approach to assisting patients. The accusation: He is “milking others’ personal disabilities for personal gain.” And so he decides to return to Nebraska and reexamine Mark, wondering why the case unsettles him so, but not hundreds of others. “What has triggered such continuous surprise in him, the sense of awakening from a long sham?”
At one point, the neurologist marvels at the brain being “Unable to recognize that it’s suffering from any disorder.” That description applies to every character in the book.
Crisis can erode or strengthen individuals. Some people step up and find the reserves to do battle. Others, like a former journalist, withdraw: “She had lost something of herself, or thrown it away, refusing to compete…”
The novel's title, The Echo Maker, suggests that an individual does not develop personality and character on his or her own, that we constantly respond to the comments and behavior of others via our own reactions and responses – a continuing echo process that imprints our behavior, forging our character and sometimes forcing us to repeat mistakes over and over. The neurologist describes how One group of scientists discovered a mirror-neuron system the monkey-see, monkey-do neurons. We observe and copy the behavior of those surrounding us, for better or worse.
There are many selves – the past and remembered self, the mirror and echo self for others, the self we strive to keep intact from the control of others: “Every burst of light, every sound, every coincidence, every random path through space changed the brain, altering synapses, even adding them, while others weakened or fell away from lack of activity The brain was a set of changes for mirroring change. Use or lose. Use and lose. You lose, and the choice unmade you.”
And so we should choose carefully among our associates, escaping those who might limit our potential.
We must decide if our values and goals, our individual personality, can remain intact within the confines of our families and communities. Are we doing what we can to lift others? And if not, perhaps it’s better to be alone.
Two sisters, once close, take off from New York City for a monthlong vacation to Sunshine Falls, NC, the setting for a book by one of their favorite novelists. The younger sister, Libby, carries a checklist of activities for stepping out of their comfort zones. The two lost their single mom and Nora took on a mothering role. Nora admits she is set in her ways – orderly, demanding, grouchy – and she regularly procrastinates on her promise to start becoming “another Nora.” Nora tries to protect, pretending all is okay or fixing problems without Libby knowing: “I always want her to have everything she wants “– and a ‘tiny controlled version of things,” “the mess of it,” “all spills loose.”
Both keep secrets, even lying in the effort not to alarm the other, and Nora, a book agent, admits: “I feel that heart-pinch sensation, like I’m missing her, like all our best moments are behind us.” She should wait until they are in their 50s or 60s. She tries to shape their lives like the stories she reads before sending them off for publishers. “Decisions, memories, activities are like constructing a story. “That’s life. You’re always making decisions, taking paths that lead you away from the rest before you can see where they end. Maybe that’s why we as a species love stories so much. All those chances for do-overs, opportunities to live the lives we’ll never have.” For Nora, her favorite books never offer the ending she wants, with characters confronting both loss and hope. Expecting another end is “a way to lose something you’ve never even had.”
The sisters love each other and seek control like inept mothers, trying to make another human being happy by deeming to know what is best. But the problem with that control is that neither is pleased with the results. Sisters can be very, very different, and each must learn to live with that.
The problem with small towns is apparent for Nora: “One minor lapse in judgment and you can’t go a mile without running into it.” The closeness forces people to get to know one another and puts most on their best behavior. The two main characters are exceedingly cautious. Lengthy, quippy, contrived conversations prevent the couple from tackling topics with depth with constant interruptions for intimate or tough moments. At one point, Nora reflects that “Some books you don’t read so much as live.” Sadly, the dialogue gets in the way, taking on a stilted, tiresome quality, with characters, especially the editors, in the bad habit of mentally reassessing each comment and joke. Rather than relax, accept and enjoy time together, the couple obsesses about being viewed as boring, with one recalling a breakup line from the past: “If we stay together, every single day for the rest of our lives is going to be the same.”
Nora works while on vacation on the author’s next book, featuring an agent who resembles Nora – a mean shark of a woman who is also “Tired, lonely, no real life.” And Nora increasingly worries about the distance and secrets and what her sister really thinks of her. “It’s one thing to accept that the person I love most is fundamentally unknowable to me; it’s another to accept that she doesn’t quite see me either. She doesn’t trust me, not enough to share what’s going on, not enough to lean on me or let me comfort her.” Nora comes to realize that the younger sister's memories of childhood are more painful than pleasant, including one when their mother broke down at a cash register because she could not afford a lime to make the girl’s favorite cookies. Memories, the narrative of childhood whether accurate or not, shape our moods, character and ambitions.
I often advised students in a communications class taught to craft their lives and careers the way a writer selects details for a story. Consider the choices, aware of new paths and opportunities. Be prepared to adjust and revise. Build a set of memories and relationships to avoid dwelling on a life that could have been lived.
Ghana ranks 73rd out of 180 nations on Transparency International’s Corruption Index – with 33 percent of people surveyed suggesting that corruption had increased during the previous year. A similar number report paying a bribe for public service.
And yet, Ghana is one of Africa's least corrupt countries.
The Missing American by Kwei Quartey is about an elderly American widower who meets a Ghana woman on a Facebook group. Gordon Tilton falls in love and then wires several thousand after the woman claims her sister requires surgery. It’s hard to believe that any rational adult might fall for such a request. Most victims are intent on moving on and keeping the crime a secret. But Tilton confides in a journalist friend who suspects official involvement and urges him to fight: “this is what scammers rely on – your shame and embarrassment. They’re master manipulators. You’re not the culprit here, you’re the victim and it’s time to turn it around and become a survivor,”
Tilton heads off to Ghana alone to report the incident to Accra police and track the culprits known as sakawa boys. Unsatisfied with the investigation, Tilton proceeds on his own and goes missing.
Emma Djan, 26, is a new detective. She lost her job as a police officer after an attempted rape by a commanding officer. A colleague advises her to apply to the detective agency, and she obtains a job at an Apple store to get by in the meantime. Weeks later, the agency’s owner calls, and during their first meeting the new employer demands honesty, punctuality, patience and curiosity: “second to lying, what I hate most is lateness.”
Yet like it or not, lying is an essential skill for investigators, especially those immersed in a corrupt society. From the start, when Yemo Sowah asks if Emma has job elsewhere, she lies and says no, eager to start the following day, working for Tilton's son to search for the missing father.
And later, the lies come easier. After tracking down Tilton, her boss tells her that the agency’s role in that investigation is complete. Yet Emma continues to pursue witnesses and ask questions. She cozies up to one of the sakawa boys, lavishing him with praise, coaxing him to talk about his connections.
Rogue curiosity and corrupt officials catching on to her lies nearly get Emma killed.
The fast-paced book with multiple subplots also offers a brief, intriguing look at charitable endeavors. A wealthy Ghanaian woman organizes a documentary promoting an autism center and featuring one child’s artistic talent. She plans a shoot: “She would enter the scene, sit next o the boy, and explain how she often welcomed him and other children from the Center to her home (which wasn’t entirely true). The idea was to put an ‘international face’ to the appeal and boost the Center’s new website and crowdfunding campaign. [The] theory was that well-off people are more likely to donate if they could ‘see themselves’ in the video - if they could ‘relate’ to a well-heeled, fashionable woman contributing to such a noble cause.”
Her reasoning? She frets about donor fatigue, and people in the West were weary of images of flies buzzing about the heads of starving children.
Charitable needs are great in countries throughout Africa. But internet scams and massive corruption erode trust and generosity, and donors find it easier to just say no.
By one estimate, Ghana loses about US$ billion each year to corruption. The costs are high, as revealed in The Missing American.
Photo of new highway interchange in Ghana, courtesy of African Development Bank Group.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr follows two children, one in Germany and the other in France, mostly between 1934 and 1944. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is blind and depends on her father who works for the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, for constant directions in moving about their home in Paris. Werner Pfennig, an orphan in the coal region of Essen, relies on books found in the trash to study mathematics and physics.
The two characters spend only one terrifying afternoon together, but there are earlier connections. Werner and his younger sister find a broken radio, which he repairs, so they can listen to broadcasts from around Europe, including a science program for children hosted by Marie-Laure’s grandfather. Ambitious, longing to do anything but work in the mines that killed his father, Werner tries to overlook the horrors of a fascist system, fearful when his sister speaks out. After the Nazis ban devices that access foreign programming, he smashes their radio, incurring his sister’s wrath.
Passing competitive exams, Werner is sent to a national political institute run by Nazis, a place where “every ounce of their attention has been trained to ferret out weakness.” Werner is protected by helping a professor research use of radio waves to locate transmitters. He befriends a wealthy, connected boy who loves nature and birds and refuses to humiliate others. Frederick recognizes that a cruel system traps them all and at one point advises, “Your problem, Werner, is that you still believe you own your life.” Werner “has the sensation that something huge and empty is about to devour them all.”
Werner is curious, keeping a notebook and logging all the questions he wishes to explore. Yet the fascist system, like extremist religions, is intent on control and preventing people from thinking for themselves. One instructor suggests: “Minds are always drifting toward ambiguity, toward questions, when what you really need is certainty. Purpose. Clarity. Do not trust your minds.” Later, on the front, another colleague marvels about Werner, “What you could be.” Werner finds himself missing the coal town he was so eager to leave and his sister: “her loyalty, her obstinacy, the way she always seems to recognize what is right.” She could see through the Nazis’ angry propaganda: “How did Jutta understand so much more about how the world worked? While he knew so little?”
Marie-Laure, unable to see, is understandably fretful and anxious, full of questions about the impending invasion of France, and the writer is skilled in describing her surroundings through only the senses of taste, smell, sound and touch. Her father makes a model of their neighborhood and drills her on using her cane, counting drains and curbs, touching fences and tree trunks, to find her way home from unnamed locations. She possesses a few Braille workbooks along with a copy of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. She comes to view the world as complex mazes: “The branches of trees, the filigree of roots, the matrix of crystals, the streets her father re-created in his models…. None were more complicated than the human brain… one wet kilogram within which spin universes.”
The father and daughter flee Paris for the coast and his uncle’s home, and the museum entrusts the man with a rare diamond, rumored to be cursed. Her father rejects such stories. “There is luck maybe, bad or good. A slight inclination of each day toward success or failure. But no curses.”
Marie-Laure and their housekeeper convince her introvert uncle to support the resistance. Werner’s unit detects the family’s hidden radio, and the two children connect in person and help one another. One survives and the other perishes.
The war teaches that ordinary life – simple, normal secure routines rather than power or riches – is heaven. Those on either side who survive the war are traumatized. Every bite of food, any comfort, feeling like a betrayal to those who did not. Brutal memories sabotage pleasant ones, and grief about those who did not survive prick any scrap of happiness. Decades later, the character who survives wonders if the war’s dead and missing might travel the sky in flocks – “That great shuttles of souls might fly about… They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it. Every hour… someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world. We will rise again in the grass. In the flowers. In songs.”
Ordinary beauty can be the most rewarding, and some we do not notice until it vanishes.
The US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, for now giving states the right to allow or ban abortions. Thirteen states have trigger laws; more lawsuits will follow, with more rights expected to be curtailed by the conservative US Supreme Court.
For now, the laws affect the states with the lowest abortion rates, below the national median of 20 percent. Of the states with trigger laws, Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas have the highest abortion rates of the group, still less than 15 percent. For 2022, those rates meant more than 55,000 abortions for Texas, more than with 12,000 for Tennessee, and more than 9900 for Louisiana.
The new laws, without efforts on family planning and education, will result in thousands of unwanted children and increased poverty. Abortions won't end, and the communities will soon learn the costs.
Women and entire communities will have to adjust. Allure of Deceit, set in Afghanistan, focused on how the Taliban’s rigid controls for women resulted in lies, abuse and misery.Word Population Review