Wednesday, January 25

Memories











In Lessons, Roland Baines regards an abusive relationship from when he was 11 years old as the source of his many desires and failures. A piano teacher at his private boarding school pinches his inner thigh, hard, after he repeatedly makes a mistake during their music drills. He has fantasies about her, and she invites him to her home for lunch. Months later, Roland shows up at the cottage, and the two have intercourse. Memories of the strange teacher haunt him years later in this novel about parenting, abuse, ambition and lost potential. 

From the start, the novel analyzes how memories repeatedly shape our choices, serving as lessons in guiding one's life.    

As an adult, Roland determines that nobody escapes making their own self-made hell “at least one, in a lifetime.” She controls him: “He never had a choice. He didn’t want a choice.” 

Roland’s grades suffer and he leaves school early, avoiding the piano teacher and her attempts to trap him in marriage. That decision frees him in a way while also eliminating his chance to attend college. He decides he can be self-taught while earning an income by writing, teaching tennis and playing in piano bars. Roland travels and dates freely, and his twenties slip by. “He assured himself that he had his freedom and he was having fun. He could control his occasional anxieties about the aimlessness of his existence. But they swelled and finally broke through and could no longer be resisted. He was twenty-eight and not living a useful life…. Many people wasted their twenties or their whole lives in offices, on factory floors and in pubs…. So it had been worthwhile to be carefree, live hand to mouth and not be like everyone else. The very point of being young. Whenever he caught himself thinking or saying things like that, he knew it was himself he needed to convince.”

In West Germany, he studies German and befriends a family in East Berlin. The mother explains to him how children bind them to the communist system: “A bad step by the parents, a moment of unguarded criticism and the children might find the path to university or a decent career barred.”

Over the course of his life, friendships form and break over politics, whether Nazi cruelties or Brexit falsehoods and foolishness. 

A few years later Roland runs into his German teacher, Alissa, who yearns to be a writer, and they marry impulsively: “They decided they must have fallen in love from the start without recognizing the fact.” 

Both Roland and Alissa have jagged relations with their own parents. Her mother, Jane, traveled to Germany just after World War II, keeping a journal to write about the White Rose resistance. Her article is never published after Jane marries Heinrich, who had only a peripheral role in the movement. The general attitude about German citizens during that period – “Unless they took action no one could be exonerated, because every man is ‘guilty, guilty, guilty.’” Roland thinks of Heinrich having a good heart. “So when Heinrich spoke of national redemption by way of constructing a history of anti-Nazi sabotage, his prospective son-in-law did not say what he thought, nothing, not a score of White Rose movements, a million saboteurs… could redeem the industrialized savagery of the Third Reich and the tens of millions of citizens who knew and looked away.” 

Later, Alissa comments, “It’s so easy to forgive other people’s parents.” Of course, that is because troubling childhood memories do not intrude.

Roland confides in Alissa about the abusive piano teacher: “How driven he was, obsessed, and how it seemed an entire lifetime to him then. It took almost an hour to describe the affair, if that was what it was, and the school, the cottage, the two rivers. How strangely it ended. How it never crossed his mind that her behavior was depraved, despicable. Even for years afterwards. He had nothing to judge her by, no scale of values.” 

The couple has a son, Lawrence. His wife, Alissa, abruptly leaves Roland and her son, writing “I’ve been living the wrong life.” Roland is angry at first, investigated by the police for murder, but his emotions later transform into grieving and admiration. “Goethe, Schiller, Aristotle, Lao-Tzu. She understood how a close acquaintance with writers like these could extend and enrich a love of freedom.” 

Roland, listless and somewhat narcissistic, remains determined to give his child a secure home. He holds and comforts Lawrence after Alissa leaves while confronting their future: “Their pulses fell in and out of phase, but one day they would be always out. They would never be this close. He would know him less well, then even less. Others would know Lawrence better than he did, where he was, what he was doing and saying, growing closer to this friend, then this lover…. From his father, occasional visits, a sincere hug, catch up on work, family, some politics, then goodbye…. The long letting go could be the essence of parenthood and from here was impossible to conceive.”

Recognizing the power of childhood memories, Roland ponders the mysteries passing through the mind of the seven-month-old and experiences that may shape the rest of his life: “A shaded emptiness, a grey winter sky against which impressions – sounds, sights, touch – burst like fireworks in arcs and cones of primary colour, instantly forgotten, instantly replaced and forgotten again. Or a deep pool into which everything fell and disappeared but remained, irretrievably present, dark shapes in deep water, exercising their gravitational pull even eighty years later, on deathbeds, in last confessions, in final cries for lost love.” 

After a few years, Alissa publishes her first novel to great acclaim and Roland “saw the beauty of it. On a windy sunlit midweek morning she cleanly transformed her existence as she packed a small suitcase, and leaving her keys behind, walked out the front door, consumed by an ambition for which she was ready to suffer and make others suffer too.” Despite success or maybe because of it, Alissa refuses to connect with her son.

Meanwhile Roland drifts through what he calls “an unchosen life, in a succession of reactions to events. He had never made an important decision. Except to leave school. No, that too was a reaction.” He makes friends easily and views the world as “agreeably diffuse” while anticipating that “in the new millennium, only eleven years away, humankind would have reached a new level of maturity and happiness.” Of course, that period of mature happiness is brief because the world does not heed history.  

Father and son live comfortably with Roland’s best friend and her children for many years, and the end is bittersweet as Roland determines that life – or the ability to create enduring and influential memories – was “pouring away from him. Events of three weeks ago were already receding or lost completely in a haze. He had to make himself catch some of it, just a little, or it would have been hardly worth living through.”  He keeps journals, one for each passing year, and sorts through his many photos, selecting 100 that represent his life: “there was that essence everyone forgets when a love recedes into the past – how it was, how it felt and tasted to be together through the seconds, minutes, and days, before everything that was taken for granted was discarded then overwritten by the tale of how it all ended, and then by the shaming inadequacies of memory. Paradise or the inferno, no one remembers anything much. Affairs and marriages ended long ago come to resemble postcards from the past. … First to go… was the elusive self, precisely how you were yourself, how you appeared to others.” 

Consider the patterns of memories. How do memories of the well-adjusted, secure person balance one’s self versus others?  

Lawrence follows some of father’s drifting patterns, also marrying a German woman, albeit enjoying a happier relationship that include grandchildren for Roland. The older man flounders yet does not resent his famous wife, counted among Germany’s greatest living writers. If anything, he pities her. “She had no one, no family, no close friends. Time had degraded him too but by all conventional measures, he was the happier. No books though, no paintings, nothing invented that would survive him. Would he swap his family for her yard of books? He gazed at her now familiar face and shook his head for an answer.”

Publishers Weekly quotes McEwan's agent Georges Borschadt as saying, "Acts of creation are the only things that matter." 

But no, that is not the lesson of this novel. Everyday life, family, love, joys and experiences are all that matter, and old memories need not dictate our future, and new relationships can over-ride the pain. As McEwan concludes, “A shame to ruin a good tale by turning it into a lesson.” 

Intrusive memories can be tamed. 

Wednesday, January 4

Aging Congress









With a tight margin, the frontrunner in the Republican contest for speaker of the House of Representatives can afford to lose only a handful of votes.  

So far, Rep. Kevin McCarthy has failed to convince 20 Republican hard-liners. Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries emerged as the top vote-getter in each round. McCarthy must win a majority of voting members; absent members or those who vote present do not count. Jeffries would have to count on 11 Republicans going missing or voting present to win the majority. With multiple Republican holdouts, McCarthy would need at least 11 Democrats to not show up or vote present.  

As the struggle continues, observers wonder if the decision could take weeks, wearing members down, and whether the oldest representatives can maintain stamina for rounds of voting in a crowded chamber during the post-holiday winter months. The United States is reporting 400,000-plus new Covid-19 cases weekly.

Democrats, after years of cultivation and targeted messaging on climate change, reproductive rights and student debt, attracted more votes from young adults during the 2022 midterms. Turnout was 27 percent by voters aged 18 to 29, and exit polls suggest that more than 60 percent of young adults preferred Democratic candidates, according to Tufts University Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Even so, Congress has been steadily aging since the 1980s, reports NBC. 

And oldest members of the House are dominated by Democrats. The House has 11 members aged 80 years and older: nine are Democrats and two are Republicans.  Grace Napolitano, a Democrat from California, age 87, is the House’s oldest member, replacing Alaska’s Don Young after his death in 1922 and then Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, who retired this year. Young was 88 and Johnson is 87.

Vacancies can occur in Congress due to death, resignation or other reasons and the Constitution requires that these be filled by election – a special election if the vacancy occurs during the first session and by special election or general election if the vacancy occurs during the second term.   The 118th Congress began with one vacancy, after Virginia’s A. Donald McEachin, a Democrat, died in November at age 61. A special election to fill that seat will be held February 21.

Age is not the sole contributing factor for deaths that could disrupt the balance of power. A Yale research study in late 2022 identified partisan differences in excess deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic – more than 70 percent higher among Republicans than Democrats in two states, Ohio and Florida.  That gap in death rates increased after vaccines became available and vaccine hesitancy emerged among Republicans.

Of the more than 70 newcomers to the House, five are 60 years or older – three Republicans and two Democrats.

Friday, December 16

Hell within

 











The Ghetto Within by Santiago H. Amigorena describes a carefree man leaving Poland to start a new home in Buenos Aires in 1928. His mother expects weekly updates about his new life, but Vicente scoffs, and despite his Jewish heritage, Vicente and friends scoff at the old-fashioned ways of their Jewish parents. Early on, Vicente makes halfhearted attempts to convince his mother and other family members to flee Warsaw, and as the decade progresses, he mostly stops writing. By 1938, her letters stop, too.   

Vincente’s indifference and scoffing soon transform into despair as news about the war in Europe and atrocities gradually filter through. He receives two final letters from his mother, in 1940 and the other in 1941, describing deteriorating conditions and an uncertain future with Germans herding Jews into a ghetto, treating them worse than animals. In what would otherwise be an ordinary, peaceful life, Vicente’s spirit is crushed, tormented over his mother’s last communications, obsessing if she went hungry or still wore a favorite shawl. 

Vicente sinks into a deep depression, spending some time with family and friends but no longer speaking, instead mostly gambling to confirm his own failure as a human being. His wife and her family are understanding, trying to accommodate him. Rosita and Vincente, both with “the hesitant, pale, mute fragility that revealed they had been much loved as children,” simply cannot comprehend the full extent of cruelty.

He describes scanning the newspapers for any bit of news before receiving his mother’s last letter – “for signs, for cluses, for hints that might help him understand – and searching, like everyone else, for reasons not to understand…. Like every human being, Vicente had wanted to know and, at the same time, had preferred not to know.” He longs for ignorance and the ability to erase his memory. “It is perhaps one of the most singular traits of a human being: just as the body, when it has endured too much suffering, or has grown too weak, temporarily lapses into unconsciousness… so that it can survive, or rather so that something can survive – something that is at once still human and already less than human, something that is still ourselves and is already no one.” 

Forgetting is impossible though. Every morning is the same for Vicente, “the same memories, the same guilt, the same longing to forget.” He waned to forget words and sentences and meaning, longing for "a silence so powerful, so constant, so insistent, so relentless that all things would become remote, invisible, inaudible." He walks miles to be alone, hoping to escape his fears, but silence brings no relief. "[U]nfortunately, though stillness is the opposite of motion, there is no opposite to thought, nothing that counters the workings of the mind: not thinking is merely another form of thinking."  

Most of all, he hopes to flee the voice of his conscience, even as he tortures himself about his inaction. “Something must be done to counter the nothing that I can do. I can do nothing. I cannot do anything. I have never understood the difference.” 

One account of the camps describes an inmate who asked why after being given an order an the guard pushing the man and retorting: Hier ist Kein warum. Here there is no why: “these words summed up the determination of the Nazis in the camps to create a space that was utterly different, a space in which there was no why.” Vicente determines his life is worthless, also lacks “a why,” and so, “He became another, another devoid of meaning, devoid of hope, devoid of a future.”  He describes feeling alone, sinking, heading only toward a grave. He becomes a shell, neglecting wife, children, job and friends.

Later Vicente’s grandson assumes that his grandfather must have wrestled with the notion that escape made him a traitor. Amigorena himself fled dictatorship in Argentina for Europe: “I was not where I should have been.” 

But the grandson does not complain or accepts the life given to him. “I do not know whether, before he died, Vicente realized that remaining silent was not a solution,” Amigorena concludes. Instead, language is intertwined with memory, providing guidance as guilt and despair pass to subsequent generations. To avoid being complicit, survivors and their descendants must reject attempts to forget or deny the evil. 

Friday, December 2

Orphans

  











The Koran  prioritizes care for orphans: “And give to the orphans their property, and do not substitute worthless (things) for (their) good (ones), and do not devour their property (as an addition) to your own property; this is surely a great crime.”   

But children are helpless against greed, explains Fatimah Asghar in When We Were Sisters. After three girls lose their parents – the mother to illness, the father murdered – a maternal uncle takes control, not because of love or duty but rather he covets the government social security checks issued to each month.

He prohibits the girls from meeting his wife and two sons and instead sets them up in a small, filthy room in an apartment building that he owns, assigning equally vulnerable neighbors to provide day-to-day care. That daughters are less valued than sons is apparent from the start, and the girls sometimes maintain they are brothers or mother-sisters.

The uncle issues strict rules and, not wanting to be bothered by incidentals, teaches them how to forge his name for school paperwork. They attend school and can pursue activities as long as they are free. A neighbor reads the Koran with them, and when money runs low, the girls literally take to the street near the neighborhood mosque, begging for grocery money as orphans. The uncle is furious, yet also realizes that members of the mosque will gladly donate money to support the orphans. He uses those donations and the hundreds in Social Security payments to provide home renovations and comforts for his own family.   

The story is told from the point of view of the youngest, Kausar, who idolizes her two sisters, literally referring to them as gods. In turn, they regard her as useless and annoying. The young protagonist relays life disappointments, her serial abandonment and grief in a matter-of-fact way.

Early on, a Pakistani couple, undocumented and poor, selflessly love and care for the girls. The uncle's discovery that the girls sleep with the couple at night when frightened triggers a fight. The uncle scolds, “They’re not your kids,” and their beloved Meemoo retorts, “So whose kids are they?” Wary that the man's defiance might disrupt his schemes, the uncle accuses the couple of inappropriate behavior and kicks them out of their home. He then interrogates the girls about sex and relies on unstable young women to watch over the sisters.    

Once the oldest girl reaches puberty, the uncle stops arranging for caregivers, mostly leaves the sisters alone. The girls lie to classmates about home life, and teachers and neighbors fail to notice three girls struggling on their own, often hungry and unkempt. The oldest manages to hold the truncated family together, and the youngest admits, “I need an adult. And I don’t know how to get one.”    

On a lifelong search for a mother figure, Kausar contents herself with make believe: “We’re mothered by everything because we know how to look for the mothering, because we know a mother might leave us and we’ll need another mother to step in an take its place.”  With poignant and exquisite detail, the child describes relishing the warmth of the sun, shade from the tree, the smell of cookies, the street signs that guide when it’s safe to walk, a cloud of dust, or grass not yet trampled - all as mother's love.  Her constant anticipation distances her from others: “What no one will ever understand is that the world belongs to orphans, everything becomes our mother” and “All the mothers in the world reach out to the motherless.” A simple touch from siblings is overwhelming, and she thinks, “you’re held, you’re held, you’re held.”  

At one point, the youngest asks whether a sister still a sister when a mother dies? Kausar increasingly struggles to communicate fears, dreams and identity issues with sisters who are not much older than her. Each daughter dreams of escape, a better life, but the youngest has far less experience with love, motivation, trust – with basic routines and normality. She readily accepts chaos and cruelty from her interactions. At one point, she notes that Allah asks us to make language: “We assumed we meant the same thing when we spoke, because we said the same words. But. We were wrong. We were so wrong.”

Oddly enough, the youngest daughter gets along better with the uncle than her sisters do, and at one point, he urges Kausar to reconcile with a friend after an argument. “Don’t let the small things become the big things,” and she remembers that advice years later at his funeral. 

But a child who grows up without a mother can’t be depended on to understand what is small or big, right or wrong. 

Monday, November 21

Economic priority










Climate change is a major business risk, one that should be economic priority rather than afterthought.

The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Kiplinger’s and other business publications increasingly raise alarms. For example, Morningstar features a section on sustainable investing, with a recent headline noting “Can’t Fix Tomorrow with Yesterday’s Tools.”  Investopedia points out how the US Securities and Exchange Commission, since 2010, has required companies to disclose to shareholders any climate issues that could have impact on business operations.   

The costs of ignoring climate change are immense.  

● Businesses and consumers anticipate higher prices for energy along with goods and services.  

● Insurance costs are rising, and major companies are dropping coverage for properties in flood-prone regions like Florida, reports the Insurance Journal. 

● Retirees, in a notable shift, are examining flood-risk maps and avoiding properties in Florida and other areas prone to extreme weather, reports the New York Times. 

● Higher temperatures and water scarcity are reducing crop yields and increasing weeds, pests and fungi. 

● The medical research community points to climate change, as the “greatest threat” to global public health, according to a joint statement in 2021 by a group of medical journals, reports Deloitte Insights. Climate change is worsening infectious diseases as well as respiratory, neurological and gastrointestinal problems – and increasing costs. 

● Warning waters are prompting ocean species to shift to cooler waters and even causing some populations to crash.  

The list goes on. Severe weather events are occurring more frequently and communities must invest in disaster planning. 

Stopping climate change requires shifts in individual behavior, and a Morningstar interview described the Take the Jump campaign, urging people to partake in “Less stuff and more joy” with six simple actions that anyone can try:   

● Limiting flying and consider taking no more than a flight every three years.

● Reduce meat and dairy in diets

● Purchase no more than three new items of clothing each year. 

● Control clutter and stop purchasing unnecessary goods – and hold on to possessions longer and try repairing before disposal.

● Shift energy sources and providers and rely on more renewables. 

● Become an active rather than passive investor. Examine pension investments and urge managers to reconsider investing in companies that undermine quality of life. And if you own stocks, take stands by voting on shareholder resolutions.  The Climate Action 100+ flagged 14 proposals during the 2021 proxy season – and six received majority approval. The organization provides updates on proposals and the voting season, which starts again in earnest next year.  

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 


Thursday, November 10

Battling the grotesque





















Most readers quickly and rightly reject novels that detail abuse of animals, children or other vulnerable populations. Reading about systemic poverty and lack of opportunity – the slow neglect and breakdown of human spirit – should be equally disturbing. The Rabbit Hutch alludes to first while detailing the humiliations and weariness associated with the second. 
The debut novel by Tess Gunty explores how individuals slide into disturbing behaviors, influenced by surroundings, circumstances and other people. The setting is a dilapidated apartment building known as the Rabbit Hutch in Vacca Vale, a dying Indiana industrial town. Most occupants resent and avoid their neighbors. These include a quiet middle-aged woman who moderates comments for online obituaries and four young adults recently aged out of the foster-care system. 

The characters are flawed, insecure in this desolate environment. A visitor from Hollywood, the depressed son of a child movie star, suggests that other people are "dangerous because they are contagions. They infect you with or without your consent; they lure you onto paths you wouldn't have chosen.... if you collide with someone, you must be prepared to reside inside their psychology indefinitely, and this is the burden of a lifetime." These characters, struggling to communicate and launch meaningful relationships, do collide rather than connect. 

The discomfort over an inability to find companionship is not limited to dying communities, and the visitor from Hollywood concedes that his own conversations with others are a mess as "he doesn't know how to have clean ones anymore." While in Vacca Vale, he wanders into a church and agrees after a priest asks if he is there for a confession. After describing his fears and worst behaviors, the man questions the priest’s assessment. The priest admits to weariness and advises the confession might be his last. Unleashing regret, the man mourns “rot at the center of the Catholic Church,” Rather than effect change, the priest felt infected. “Abuse should be condemned. Birth control should be encouraged…. These are easy things, obvious things, unavoidably right and good, and yet I’ve come to believe that they’re never going to happen within this decaying institution. I’m sick of following orders, meekly playing the game, waiting for the rules to change themselves.” 

His complaints target one institution, yet capture the dilemma of anyone trapped within systems, playing by questionable rules while ignoring massive, obvious problems. The priest counsels the visitor that no person can be all good or all bad. “You’re just a series of messy, contradicting behaviors, like everyone else. Those behaviors can become patterns, or instincts, and some are better than others. But as long as you’re alive, the jury’s out.” 

Progress depends on breaking old patterns, avoiding old mistakes. 
Blandine
St. Blandine

The apartment is the first for the foster children, three young men and a woman, Tiffany. She is intelligent, well-read, but she drops out of high school after a misguided affair. Despite or maybe because of her own history of hurt and neglect, she continues to study and learn, touting a library copy of She-Mystics: An Anthology and adopting the name of Blandine, a slave girl martyred for her Christian beliefs in the 2nd century. The teenager stands out as odd, fascinated less by religion and more by ethics, philosophy, and ancient saints who practiced self-abuse to achieve immortality and godliness. 

With a few exceptions, Blandine is wary of new relationships – "My whole life has educated me against investments whose rewards depend on the benevolence of others." And so she regards Hildegard, a mystic from the 12th century, as her only true friend, relying on quotes for guidance: “Even in a world that’s being shipwrecked, remain brave and strong” and “Humanity, take a good look at yourself. Inside, you have heaven and earth, and all of creation. You are a world – everything is hidden in you.”  

St. Hildegard von Bingen
















Blandine ponders how the mystics, despite their gender and solitude, left their mark on history and human thought. And while she does not believe in God and regards the mystics as selfish and individualistic, she wonders how a modern mystic might challenge climate change, systemic injustice, the “plundering growth imperative,” and other obvious challenges in Vacca Vale. 

Ambition mixes with fear, and Blandine admits to often being “attacked by an awareness of how impossible it is to learn and accomplish all that she needs to learn and accomplish before she dies.” She denies herself a high school scholarship, the chance to attend college, appropriate roommates all while searching for virtue in a community seeping with inequality, corruption, insecurity and depression. Reflecting on her own life, she concedes that "It all looks so - so grotesque." She longs to transform her community but lacks tools to intercede. 

Another neighbor – Joan, the editor of online obituaries – is fearful and lonely, witnessing the pain of Vacca Vale on a more personal scale. One day while walking, she observing the impulsive ease of strangers demonstrating care for a person who collapses on the street. She understands that “human tenderness was not to be mocked. It was the last real thing.” 

The disjointed plot is relayed with exquisite sentences. The theme is strong – people can transform, breaking habits and moving the many obstacles they have placed in their own way by practicing kindness. A brief and awkward encounter between Joan and Blandine in the book’s earliest pages isn't the last. The two women discover a shred of connection – thank to persistence, hope, empathy – hundreds of pages later.

Monday, October 24

Abandoned

 












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 novel is more critical about such institutions and the power of those who profit from society’s most vulnerable. Protagonist Mary Engle feels fortunate to land a job as a secretary at the facility lauded as “progressive,” run by elegant Dr. Agnes Vogel, psychiatrist and one-time suffragist. Mary, raised in a Catholic orphanage after her mother’s death, squashes memories of seeking favors while enduring sexual abuse by an uncle during occasional visits. The orphan, learning more about the case histories of inmates, could only muse, “There by the grace of God …”  

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 na├»ve, 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.