In 1927, when eighteen-year-old Mary Engle, while working at an institution for mentally disabled women, learns that a girl from her childhood orphanage is an inmate, who begs Mary to help her escape, it forces Mary to make a terrible choice with life-altering consquences.
Ann Leary is the New York Times bestselling author of a memoir and four novels including The Good House. Her work has been translated into eighteen languages, and she has written for TheNew York Times, Ploughshares, NPR, Redbook, and Real Simple, among other publications. Her essay, "Rallying to Keep the Game Alive," was adapted for Prime Video's television series, Modern Love. She lives with her husband in New York. Visit her online at AnnLeary.com.
One of the cardinal rules of the Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing Age is that staff and inmates must never fraternize. To even acknowledge each other could cause the employee to be fired and the inmate to be incarcerated in the asylum's most punitive housing. So Mary Engle's shock at seeing Lillian, her childhood friend from their mutual time at a local orphanage, as one of the patients assigned to the onerous dairy crew is enough to raise conflicting emotions. Mary needs her prestigious job as secretary to Dr. Agnes Vogel, the psychiatrist and eugenics proponent who runs the facility. But she also knows that Lillian is not intellectually or morally deficient, as Vogel claims. When Lillian asks Mary to help free her from Nettleton so that she can reunite her with her child and lover, Mary puts herself and others at great risk. Leary's (The Children, 2016) richly rendered, tender tale of friendship and loyalty, based on her own family history, brings into sharp focus the horrors of such punitive institutions, which proliferated in early-twentieth-century America. Copyright 2022 Booklist Reviews.
Leary turns her mordant eye to the interplay of feminism, racism, and eugenics at a state institution for women deemed unfit to bear children in 1927. The fictional Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Child Bearing Age is based on actual asylums where women deemed to have "moral feeblemindedness"-often because they defied social norms or their husbands-were involuntarily placed. Narrator Mary Engle comes to work as a secretary at the supposedly benevolent Nettleton when she's not quite 18. Having lived in an orphanage until she was 12, Mary feels at home in the institutional setting, and she's also deeply impressed with Nettleton's superintendent, Dr. Agnes Vogel, a woman who's both a respected doctor-rare at the time-and a suffragette. Then Mary recognizes Lillian Faust, one of the inmates, as a slightly older girl she'd known at the orphanage; Lillian claims she doesn't belong at Nettleton, saying her abusive husband stuck her there because she'd had a baby with her Black lover. Mary feels conflicted, her instinct to help Lillian escape at odds with her loyalty to Dr. Vogel. Mary is also having a romance with a muckraking Jewish journalist she doesn't fully trust. Leary's spot-on descriptions of small moments (learning the Charleston, drinking bootleg liquor) bring the Prohibition era to life. The murky politics and ethics of the time, hinting of parallels with today, are embodied in Dr. Vogel-a feminist committed to expanding women's rights but also an ardent promoter of eugenics and populist fears (of Blacks, Jews, and Catholics, among others) and a despot who cares little about the Nettleton inmates' welfare. But the novel's heart centers on Mary's moral coming-of-age. Not as naÃ¯ve as she'd have others believe and possessing a strong survival instinct, Mary clings defensively to her belief in Dr. Vogel despite damning evidence because doing so suits her ambitions. The reluctance with which Mary changes makes her eventual act of courage-against social conventions and despite the personal cost-all the more satisfying. Leary's wit complements her serious approach to historical and psychological issues in this thoroughly satisfying novel. Copyright Kirkus 2022 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
I'VE been told that my mother had a wonderful sense of humor. Also that she was pretty. But most people recall her wit first, and her easy laughter, and because of this I've always had a better sense of how she felt than how she looked. She must have been happy most of the time if she found so many funny things to say and to laugh about. She died when I was an infant, so I have no memory of her. After I moved to my aunt Kate's house, I'd hear her talking with friends about my mother and me, usually in hushed tones after I'd just left the room.
"She's a somber little thing," somebody would say. Or "She's so shy; she certainly hasn't Louisa's high spirits."
That was my mother-Louisa. Apparently, there was a sparkle in her eye. My uncle Teddy said this about her once, and when I asked him where the sparkle was-what part of the eye, he laughed and gave me a wink. When I asked him again, he told me to shut my trap.
I didn't inherit my mother's high spirits or her sparkly eye, but she did leave me a very nice lady's suitcase. It had been a wedding gift from a wealthy distant cousin. I never saw it until the day Father came for me at St. Catherine's Orphan Asylum. He gave Mother Beatrice no notice, just showed up one afternoon in the summer of 1922, when I was twelve. He arrived in a borrowed black Packard, and when he strode out to the courtyard, where my friends and I were playing, he called out, "Which one of you is Mary?"
At least five of us raised our hands-it was a Catholic orphanage, after all. But I felt, as he smiled vaguely at each of us in turn, like he'd reached inside me and crushed my heart with his hand. I hadn't seen him in almost a year, but I recognized him instantly. I'd grown a bit; I think that's why he didn't know me at first.
"What about Edel... or Trudy?" he said. "We called our girl Trudy when she was a baby. Trudy Engle."
I was too thrilled to remain hurt. As soon as I stepped forward, he said, "Well, there you are," and pulled me close. I felt the strange smoothness of his freshly shaved jaw during that brief moment when he pressed his face against my forehead. He used to have rough whiskers when Uncle Teddy took me to visit him up at the lumber mill.
He told me to pack my clothes-he was moving me in with Aunt Kate. The laughter and taunts from some of the older girls when he reminded them of my original name were like blanks fired from a pistol. They were like the loud pop-pop-pop from a clown's dummy pistol in the circus that came to Scranton every summer. The circus had a free night for "Foundlings and Other Unfortunates." We all screamed and clung to one another when we were little and heard that clown's gun the first time, but the next year and the years after, we didn't even flinch. We fought over peanuts and candy in the stands while the clown did those same old tired gags. The elephant never left its tent on foundling night-sometimes the acrobats took the night off too. We were left with that dumb clown and a dog act, and who cared about them? We got free bags of goodies. Similarly, who cared about those girls calling me that stupid nickname? I had a father; they didn't. He was taking me away. They were staying there at the home.
"Well c'mon, let's get your things," Father said. He was carrying the lovely white suitcase that had once belonged to my very own mother.
"She hasn't many things," Mother Beatrice scolded when we were in the long, low-ceilinged dormitory hall. "Certainly not enough to fill a large suitcase like that, Mr. Engle. I don't know what a girl would do with such an expensive-looking piece of luggage. If you'd given us more notice, we'd have gladly packed her essentials in a parcel as we do for our half-orphans who are lucky enough to have family to go to."
A few of my friends-Dorothy, Marge, Mary Hempel, Little Mary-they'd all followed us inside, and now they gaped at Father like he was a film star-it wasn't every day a real father showed up at St. Cat's. I realized that I was gazing up at him the way they were, more like an awestruck fan than a daughter. I moved closer to him, and I even thought for a moment that I should hold his hand-the way daughters did with their fathers in the movies. But he accidently jabbed me in the shoulder when he tossed the suitcase on the bed, then he pulled a handkerchief from his vest to wipe his forehead. It was so hot up there in the ward on summer days you could barely breathe sometimes.
Mother Beatrice was busy examining my mother's suitcase, and that really bugged me. It was my mother's, why did she have to touch every inch of it? Finally, she turned the two brass clasps in front, flipped up the top and whispered, "Oh my."
The other girls and I crowded around to see the inside, which was lined entirely with pink satin. Mother Beatrice tentatively lifted a thin panel, revealing a lower compartment. This was also lined in pink. It was padded, like a pillow, and decorated with little hand-stitched ovals.
"Oh, this is very nice," Mother Beatrice said, her bony fingers flitting, spiderlike, across the pink lining and in and out of the pockets. "A place for everything and everything in its place, very nice, though hardly useful for a little girl-now what's this?"
She yanked at a thin strap that was dangling from one of the pockets. Out sprang a lady's garter. It was attached to a sheer silk stocking that swept across Mother Bea's throat, and had it been a snake the nun couldn't have screamed louder nor tossed it farther from her. I thought I'd suffocate it was so hard not to laugh. Father was unable to restrain himself. He chuckled and winked at us girls as we giggled into our hands.
"Goodness me," Mother Beatrice whispered, staring at the items on the floor. She was blushing to the very edges of her habit. Father leaned over to pick up the stocking and the garter. He wasn't laughing anymore. He carefully folded the stocking and tucked it and the garter into a pocket in his jacket.
"This was my wife's suitcase," he said quietly. "I didn't know there was anything left in it. She only used it once. On our honeymoon."
"Yes, yes, of course," said the nun, clearly flustered, her face still beet red. She crossed herself. Then she closed her eyes, resting one of her hands on the suitcase. The girls and I bowed our heads and lowered our eyelids slightly, but we watched her the way we watched all nuns who prayed-as keen and alert as hunting dogs. We were looking for our mothers' angels (I never saw mine, but I always looked because there were older girls who said they saw their mothers floating above the nuns whenever they prayed). When Sister crossed herself again, I packed up my flannel drawers, woolen leggings, and other items with the help of Dorothy and the others.
My departure from Scranton and my aunt Kate's house, five years later, was almost as abrupt and unexpected as my departure from St. Catherine's had been. One hot spring morning, I was standing in a stinking, crowded trolley, silently cursing the broken-down truck that was blocking its tracks. The next day, I was being chauffeured through town in a gleaming limousine, resisting the impulse to wave imperiously at all the common folk stepping over littered gutters and gawking at us as we rolled past.
The day of the stalled trolley, I was late, so I decided to leap from its platform, and at that exact moment it finally lurched forward. I stumbled to the filthy curb, tearing one of my new stockings. I was supposed to meet my teacher, Mrs. Pierson, at a lecture downtown. She wanted to introduce me to her friend-a visiting doctor, who might have a job opportunity for me. I sprinted the five remaining blocks to the YWCA, only to find that the heavy doors to the main hall were closed; the program had already begun.
"My dear, what happened?" Mrs. Pierson whispered, as I sidled into the seat that she'd saved next to her. I began whispering explanations, but she interrupted me with a gentle squeeze of her gloved hand and a smile of pardon. She jutted her chin toward the speaker at the front of the auditorium to indicate that I should direct my attention there.
"Is that Dr. Vogel?" I whispered.
I'd never met a female doctor before, but the stout, dour matron at the podium was exactly what I'd expected one to look like. As I'd tiptoed down the center aisle just moments before, she'd paused dramatically to shoot me a disapproving glare before continuing her speech.
"Oh, dear me, no," Mrs. Pierson responded. "That's Mrs. Danforth-Judge Danforth's wife." She squeezed my hand again, which allowed me to relax a little.
Mrs. Danforth announced, "Finally, I'd like to thank all the ladies from the Woman's Christian Temperance Union for organizing today's lecture and luncheon. Now then-a few words about our distinguished guest-Dr. Agnes Vogel. As many of you know, Dr. Vogel was an outspoken advocate for women's suffrage and served as one of the leaders of the Pennsylvania Red Cross during the war. One of the first women in this country to earn a medical degree in psychiatry, Dr. Vogel is the founder and superintendent of Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing Age. We are honored to have her here today to tell us all about Nettleton Village, whose mission is to protect our commonwealth's most vulnerable young women. So, please, do let's give a warm welcome to Dr. Vogel."
I joined in the applause and craned my neck to see over the hats in front of me. I knew Mrs. Pierson was at least forty and that she and Dr. Vogel had attended college together, but the woman approaching the stage looked younger. Unlike the ladies in the audience, who wore linen day dresses or tailored suits-tall, slender Dr. Vogel wore a silk dress with a smartly muted floral print and a chic dropped waist. When she reached the podium, she touched the cheek of her hostess with her own, then turned to face us. No, this elegant woman with the sleek blond bob and fine, aristocratic features wasn't what I'd imagined a female doctor to look like at all.
"Good morning," Dr. Vogel said, smiling out at us. "I recognize many faces here from the Red Cross and our other war efforts, and it's wonderful to be among such fine friends again."
I settled back into my seat and examined the ladderlike run in my stocking. I wasn't really interested in the lecture. It was 1927. Why carry on about women's suffrage now that women had the right to vote? Why maintain temperance clubs, years after liquor had been prohibited and everybody drank anyway? I came to meet Dr. Vogel because I needed a job. Mrs. Pierson taught shorthand, typing, and stenography at the business school I'd attended for the past year, and she told me I was her youngest and most promising student. When she learned that her friend Dr. Agnes Vogel needed a new secretary, she recommended me; the timing was perfect, as Dr. Vogel was engaged to speak in Scranton that week. Mrs. Pierson had insisted that I come and hear the speech, so, after straightening out the stocking, I gazed back up at the stage with what I hoped was an interested expression.
Dr. Vogel was explaining that army examiners during the war had been surprised that so many American men were unfit to serve because they suffered from mental defects. "My research as a psychiatrist, and the research of my colleagues, have revealed that the incidence of feeble-mindedness is equal, if not greater, among girls and women, and it is this population-that of the female unfortunate-who poses the greatest threat to our society."
Dr. Vogel paused, peered over her spectacles, and scanned the rows.
"I just want to make sure there are no gentlemen present." Seemingly satisfied, she said, "I prefer ladies-only groups like this because I can discuss delicate social issues that might cause embarrassment in an audience of mixed company."
I wasn't the only one in my row who leaned forward to better hear this too-embarrassing-for-mixed-company business.
"We're all adults here, so I'm able to say something we all know to be true and that is this: No normal woman will choose to have intimate relations with a man who has the mind of a small child. But it is a sad fact-and ladies, we know it's a fact-that there are many otherwise honorable men who will have illicit relations with a certain type of young woman, regardless of her mental limitations or suitability as a potential mother. I trust you're familiar with the type of girl I'm referring to. You've seen her slinking in and out of bawdy houses and illegal drinking establishments, right here, in your fine city of Scranton. At first glance, she may seem normal enough-in fact, she's often quite pretty. Until you see her again, a few years later, ruined and destitute, begging for handouts, surrounded by her own diseased and illegitimate children. This poor, mentally deficient girl, often unwittingly lured into a criminal lifestyle by the most evil of men, is the type we make every effort to segregate and care for, before she has children, not just for her safekeeping, but, most important, for the safekeeping of our communities."
Dr. Vogel went on to describe all the modern facilities at the Village, as she called it, and the progressive programs she had instituted. The girls at the Village-they sang, they cooked, they planted, they learned. I tried to hide my yawns. Finally, the doctor's voice changed to that promising bright tone people often use just before the end of a speech, and I perked up again.
"Yes, we've made great progress at the Village, but we need your help," she said. "We have more than six hundred residents and almost as many on our waiting list. In order to accommodate them all, we require at least three additional buildings. Therefore, I've requested government aid to assist with construction costs. If you have concerns about such an allocation of your family's hard-earned tax dollars, I urge you to consider a case recently publicized by the Public Charities Association of Pennsylvania; a case that concerns two feebleminded women-sisters actually-from a large family of Lithuanian immigrants. These two women have passed their inherited mental defects on to their twenty-seven feebleminded, illegitimate, and delinquent children. Yes, we now have twenty-seven additional mental defectives who are being looked after by the commonwealth, and who, in turn, are beginning to produce a third generation of future paupers and criminals. Imagine if we had, instead, provided a safe haven for the two vulnerable sisters during their childbearing years. We'd have prevented the births of scores of unfortunates whose future diseases, degradation, and crime will be our burdens to suffer as well. I hope that you believe, as I do, that preventative work should be at the cornerstone of all charity endeavors. I implore you to take full advantage of our hard-won fight for the vote, my dear ladies, and urge your legislators to support funds for the expansion of Nettleton State Village."
After the enthusiastic applause, I followed Mrs. Pierson to the front of the hall, where the doctor was surrounded by a clutch of admiring women. I was now thoroughly awed by Dr. Vogel. I had no idea there was a place where girls with slow minds could be sent for their safekeeping. It was true that girls of this type were preyed upon by men. I'd seen it myself, now that there were speakeasies scattered all over Scranton. The girls I saw coming and going from these places didn't appear to be normal-some were drunk in the daytime. I hadn't considered the possibility that they were producing children in the numbers the doctor had just revealed, but of course they would be, if their minds weren't right-if they couldn't understand the most basic moral principles.
There were plenty of new businesses opening in and around Scranton, but few of the positions I'd seen advertised were available to women. My plan was to work as a secretary until I'd saved enough to go to college. Mrs. Pierson had urged me to pursue this. "With a college degree, your opportunities are vast," she'd explained. "Why, you might become a schoolteacher or a legal secretary."
It would be a cold day in hell before I'd become a schoolteacher. I was never fond of children, but a legal secretary! If I had a job like that, I could live and work in an exciting city like Chicago or New York. Unfortunately, Nettleton State Village appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, halfway across the state-I'd stopped at the library the day before to look in an atlas and was dismayed to see how rural and remote the area seemed. But now that I'd heard the doctor's speech, I was desperate to work for her. I'd never met a woman who was doing important work. A woman who ran something, not a silly old women's temperance club, but-what had she said? Why, she was a cornerstone! Dr. Vogel's work was one of the very cornerstones of the state's civic endeavors.
When Dr. Vogel's many well-wishers finally stepped away, Mrs. Pierson introduced us.
"So, you're Miss Engle, the star pupil, eh?" the doctor said, as she shook my hand.
"Yes, how do you do, Dr. Vogel?" I said.
"Aggie, your speech was just marvelous," Mrs. Pierson said. "Now, I know I've already told you this, but Miss Engle is the fastest typist I've ever trained and a whiz at shorthand."
My face grew hot as I said, "Oh... you're too kind, Mrs. Pierson, really."
After a moment of strained silence, I noticed Mrs. Pierson was giving me a look and I managed to stammer, "Dr. Vogel... well, gosh, I'd be grateful to be considered for the position. That is... if you're still seeking a secretary or... anybody... to work there, for you."
"Yes, we're in desperate need of a secretary," Dr. Vogel said, "and I'm in a bind. Let's walk as we talk, shall we? Must we go to this dreadful luncheon, Thelma?"
"Oh, Aggie," Mrs. Pierson said with a bemused smile. "We'll leave before dessert."
"Fine," said the doctor. "Now, Miss Engle, I'd normally want you to come for an interview and a typing test, but the girl who left is getting married and gave no notice. She won't get a recommendation from me, not that she'll need one."
I had to trot a little to keep up with the doctor's sweeping strides toward the entrance of the auditorium.
"She's marrying. Some local farm boy, I'm told," Dr. Vogel said. She stopped and looked me over. "I don't like hiring girls who are too pretty. As soon as they've been trained, they leave to get married. Well-you're certainly not too pretty."
"Oh, why, thank you," I gushed before I'd fully heard her words, and then, probably because my cheeks were now flaming, Dr. Vogel touched my wrist and said, "Of course, you're far from plain, my dear."
"No, not at all... I mean, rather, how very nice of you," I managed. And I wondered, then, what happened to the composed, pretty-perhaps even too pretty-girl who, little more than an hour ago, had patted her newly coiffed hair, applied just the right amount of lip rouge, and composed clever little speeches of introduction for this very moment. I had imagined a number of conversational opportunities in which I might show my intellect and industriousness before we strolled out of the auditorium together, Dr. Vogel and I, arms linked, already discussing my future promotions.
I'd expected the doctor to be dour, manly, and old. I imagined I'd be a breath of fresh air. Instead, Dr. Vogel was glamorous and lovely and smelled faintly of lavender. I smelled like a gymnasium. The fresh linen dress that I'd so carefully ironed that morning had wilted and died in the trolley, and now it hung clammily against my thin frame. My normally curly brown hair had become a sort of spongy, frizzy mass from the humidity, and it coiled around the edges of my hat like damp poodle fur. One of my stockings was virtually shredded, and I didn't seem able to handle my end of this very basic conversation.
But Dr. Vogel was looking at her watch, not at my dress or stockings. She flashed me another smile and said, "I trust Thelma implicitly. You're hired, Miss Engle. Today is Thursday, will you be able to start Monday morning?"
"Certainly," I said, trying to contain my excitement. A job! I had a real job!
"There's a train to Harrisburg. I'll have to send my driver there to collect you on Sunday, which is tricky-that's when he drives me to town to attend church, and that's the wrong direction. You don't think you could leave tomorrow morning, do you? I'm staying with Thelma tonight and plan to leave promptly at eight in the morning. You could ride to Nettleton in my automobile with me. It would save you the train fare and me the bother of arranging your transportation on Sunday."
Leave tomorrow? I hadn't expected to be hired there at the auditorium, and I certainly hadn't planned to pack up everything I owned and move halfway across the state the very next day. But this was the opportunity I'd been praying for. I could finally leave Aunt Kate's house and support myself. I might even be able to start saving for college.
"Well, Miss Engle?" Dr. Vogel pressed.
"Yes, that'll be fine, ma'am," I said. "Thank you, Dr. Vogel, I promise I won't disappoint you."
"Good. Thelma, dear, let's go to this luncheon. See you in the morning, Miss Engle; Mrs. Pierson will give my driver your address."
"Doctor... oh, one more thing," I said.
Dr. Vogel and Mrs. Pierson turned and smiled at me.
"About my salary?"
Dr. Vogel lost her smile.
After what felt like a long, appalled silence, Mrs. Pierson giggled nervously and said, "My dear, I'm sure you'll be adequately compensated."
"Yes," I said. "I'm sorry if I seem impertinent, Dr. Vogel, it's just that Mrs. Pierson taught us to agree on terms before starting a job. And I will be moving rather far away."
"Of course," said Dr. Vogel. "You're quite right. I'm not sure of the exact wage-we have a clerk who keeps track of these details. But I believe we paid the previous girl fifteen dollars a week, and she came to us with experience. You look quite young. How old are you?"
"I'm eighteen, Dr. Vogel." Well, I would be eighteen in a few weeks.
"She's very bright, Aggie," Mrs. Pierson said.
Dr. Vogel removed her spectacles and, after pulling a handkerchief from her sleeve, slowly polished the lenses, never taking her eyes off me. I was about to blurt out an apology-for what, I didn't know-when the doctor said, "Fine. I'll pay you the same salary that your predecessor received. Now, Thelma, the sooner we get to this luncheon, the sooner we can leave."
"I've wonderful news, Auntie!" I trilled, all la-de-da, all singsong, when I arrived home. I'd rehearsed this on the way back and had decided I might be able to ward off my aunt Kate's ire with the right enthusiasm. I'd tell her I was her burden no more. I'd been offered a job. A paying job-I'd make that clear, since I did have a sort of job at my aunt's. I cleaned and ran errands for her and her adult son, Daniel, to help defray the costs of my room and board, which she reminded me of regularly. Yes, why wouldn't she be thrilled to have my room back? It was just a matter of presentation.
"Auntie?" I called.
An hour later, I was finally alone in my room. I leaned against the door and heard my cousin Daniel's horrible old felted slippers shuffling past my room and down the carpeted stairs. He hadn't left his room during the verbal flogging I'd endured but had no doubt derived great pleasure in listening to every word. Now Aunt Kate's plump, pink man-child was going to join Mama for coffee and a loud inventory of my numerous trespasses.
Who cared? Tomorrow, I was leaving.
I opened my dresser and as I placed my clothes in little piles on the bed, I wondered where I would lodge at the asylum and if I'd have a roommate. I'd made my own slips and drawers from cheap cotton remnants. I had nothing fancy, and I worried that I might share a room with an older, worldlier girl-perhaps a nurse or a secretary who'd been to college. Somebody smart, with silk stockings and lace underthings.
Then I remembered my mother's suitcase. It seemed less enormous when I pulled it from where it had been stored under my bed all those years. Of course, it would appear smaller. I was taller now. But when I dusted it off, I learned something else about my mother. She had an understanding of what made one thing finer than another. She must have had very good taste, because it was a beautifully made suitcase. The soft leather on the outside was ivory colored; it wasn't white, as I'd remembered. That would have been garish. No, it was ivory-almost cream. She'd obviously treasured it, my mother, because why else would Father have saved it instead of tossing it out with all her other belongings? It was probably the nicest thing she ever had, and now it was mine, and no matter where I went, whoever saw me carrying it would assume that I was like my mother. And why shouldn't I act like my mother too, now that I was moving to a new place where people didn't think I was somber or shy? I would arrive with my mother's easy laugh, a sparkle in my eye, and when people saw my fine suitcase, they'd have to wonder what kind of lovely things I had inside.