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eugenics tree

Ann Leary’s 2022 novel The Foundling follows a young white woman, Mary Engle, who in the 1930s lands a job as secretary to Dr. Agnes Vogel. The fictional Dr. Vogel is the founder and director of the Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing Age, an institution based on many real-life institutions, including one where Leary’s grandmother once worked. Nettleton State Village is meant to incarcerate “feebleminded” girls and women from puberty to menopause in order to prevent “defective” offspring. The Foundling offers a sharp critique of Nettleton State Village and by implication, its real-life counterparts. As the novel shows, many of the women locked up in eugenics institutions were not actually intellectually disabled, and Leary alerts readers to this ahead of time in her author’s note. The novel ascribes the presence of nondisabled women in the institution to three causes: the sexism, racism, and corruption of eugenic practice.

Leary uses the character of Lillian, a childhood friend of Mary’s, to demonstrate eugenics’ intertwined racism and sexism. Lillian—whom Mary grew up with in a Catholic orphanage—is incarcerated at Nettleton...