Ann Leary, New York Times bestselling author of The Good House, joins Zibby to talk about her latest novel, The Foundling, which was inspired in part by her own family’s story. Ann shares what she learned about eugenics in order to write the book, as well as how moving around a lot as a young girl has helped her as a writer. The two also discuss the story’s metaphorical suitcase, the history of asylums and who resided in them, and who Ann fashioned each of her three protagonists after.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Ann. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Foundling, your latest novel.

Ann Leary: Thank you, Zibby. I’m so thrilled to be here. I love your podcast. I’m really excited to talk to you.

Zibby: Yay, I’m excited to talk to you too. I have to say, I read The Good House when it came out and loved it. I feel like it’s one of those novels that — I still have such a crystal-clear image of the town and the alcohol bottles and the car. Everything feels like a clear mental image as if I’ve already seen it as a movie, which is so ironic given that today — we’re recording on June 16th; I don’t know when this will come out — it’s premiering with Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline at the Tribeca Film Festival, which is so exciting.

Ann: I know. It’s just unbelievable that that’s happening now. They shot the film a couple years ago. Because of COVID and other things, it’s finally having its US premiere. It’s actually not going to be in theaters until September, but it’ll be at the film festival tonight. It couldn’t be more exciting. It’s also in the middle of my book tour for this book. It’s just a lot. All I do, Zibby, all my life is sit in a room and write and play with my animals. This has been a very exciting couple weeks. That was the icing on the cake because we just found that out recently, that that was going to happen.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. My husband, actually, he’s a producer. They just found out their movie’s going to the Toronto Film Festival. They were all jumping up and down about it.

Ann: That’s super exciting. Congratulations.

Zibby: The festival love, I get it. All that breath-holding, and then it appears. It’s exciting.

Ann: Right. Oh, it’s real. I didn’t dream that there was going to be a movie of my book. That’s how I felt.

Zibby: Wait, so then what’s happening in September with the movie?

Ann: It will be shown at the film festival. Then it won’t be in all the theaters until September. It’ll be widely released, I guess is how they call it in the film business. If you’re looking at your local theater after this to find it, you won’t see it because it’s just at the film festival. I don’t really understand how the business works. Well, because it’s the film festival. They wanted to be in it. Then later, it’ll be in theaters and then streaming at home like all films.

Zibby: I’m doing some events for Where the Crawdads Sing that’s coming out. They gave me all these screening tickets all over the country. We’ve given them away to people in the Moms Don’t Have Time To community and trying to help generate interest. Let me know if you want help when it comes out or if you want to do — not that you need help. Obviously, it’s going to be a huge movie.

Ann: I always need help.

Zibby: Also, I saw in the Modern Love TV whatever, Amazon — I can’t even get a sentence out — the “Rallying for Love” based on your essay thing as well. Having married a tennis person, I related very deeply to that as well. For many reasons, I’m excited to be connected with you. Now The Foundling, amazing. Why don’t you talk a little about this? I know you explain in the introduction to the book how this is a personal connection to you, but maybe go into that. Explain a little more about what your latest novel is about.

Ann: I’ll just quickly say, the novel, it’s set in 1927. It’s about two women who were childhood friends. They grew up in the same orphan asylum, as they called them in those days. They meet up as young adults in a different kind of asylum, but they’re no longer roommates. Mary, she’s a new secretary to the very dynamic and charismatic female doctor who runs the place. Lillian is an inmate held there against her will at what’s turned out to be a eugenics asylum. What inspired the book and why it’s connected to my personal — I have a personal connection to it. I, over ten years ago, did what many, many people did. I joined I had a few questions about my family. One of them, which I thought would be the easiest to answer, was why my maternal grandmother was an orphan. I knew she grew up in an orphanage. I didn’t know what happened to her parents. I still don’t know that. It turns out it’s really hard to find out orphan information, orphanage records. The first record I found of my grandmother was in 1930. She was working at a very large institution for women in Central Pennsylvania. It was called the Laurelton State Village, according to the census record, the Laurelton State Village for Feeble-Minded Women. I was a little taken aback because I thought that was a very awful name for a government institution. I did a quick google, and I found out that wasn’t even the whole name. It was actually called the Laurelton State Village for Feeble-Minded Women of Childbearing Age. They just couldn’t fit the whole thing on the top of the census.

I learned quickly that the word feeble-minded, like the words idiot, imbecilic, and moron, were clinical terms at the time. They probably were slurs, too, because people were not very nice to people with disabilities at that time, but it wasn’t as odd as I thought it was to have that on the name of the thing. It turns out the very cruel and most offensive part of the name of the place was the “of Childbearing Age” part because I learned this wasn’t a training school for people with true intellectual disabilities, as I had presumed, though there were a small percentage of women who did have true disabilities. This was a place to keep women who were morally or mentally unfit from having children, from having sex. I can talk in a minute about eugenics. For the audience, if you don’t know anything about eugenics, it’s not your fault. We weren’t taught about it in school. I knew very little about it before I started researching this book. In the 1920s, it was a household word. Everyone knew about it. It was a very popular, widespread thing. It wasn’t a little hate group or anything. It was kind of the law of the land. The true purpose of this asylum was to keep young women who were deemed to be unfit for many reasons from having children.

Zibby: When you did your research, what was it people were so afraid of? Did they think it was unethical for kids to have — which were the types of people that — you said it was not just the intellectually disabled. Who were the other types of people that were inmates?

Ann: Basically, just a quick understanding of what eugenics meant. It was kind of considered a science. In the early twentieth century, there was this wonderful, what they thought, a progressive, new science that was kind of like social Darwinism. It was basically, on the surface, it looked kind of nice. The whole idea was people who were very fit and healthy should have more children. People who have issues, maybe disabilities or otherwise unable to take care of children, should have less children. It was not really at all what it became very quickly, especially in the United States. The United States practiced negative eugenics. Most people who do know about eugenics are aware of the forced sterilization of men and women who not only had disabilities, but might belong to a race or a group of people, usually very poor people who they thought shouldn’t have children. They were forcibly sterilized, sometimes without even knowing. Somebody might go in to get their appendix out and come out without their tubes tied. In many states, that wasn’t allowed. Pennsylvania was one, so what they did was they warehoused the people, and especially the women.

The place where my grandmother worked was specifically for women of childbearing age. What that meant was if you were perhaps a woman whose husband was tired of you — it was very hard to get a divorce in those days. If you were thirteen and said your uncle, who was a prominent member of the community, was touching you inappropriately; if you were a prostitute — people were very poor or very rich in those days. It was a coal-mining state. A lot of industry, there’s always going to be some prostitution. If you were drinking — it was against the law to drink. Many things could have you sent here. Eugenics beliefs were that criminality was very much tied in with heredity. Everybody who was a criminal was absolutely feeble-minded or they wouldn’t have been a criminal. The idea was that normal people with healthy brains and good reasoning would never commit crimes, so it was very easy to suddenly label a huge part of the population as being feeble-minded, especially on the moron level. I hate , guys. I did an author’s note just because of this. These are hard words to hear, but they were the words of the time. Idiots were the lowest IQ of the feeble-minded. Imbeciles were moderately intellectually impaired. Morons, they called them very high-functioning.

The person who coined the term was one of the pioneers of eugenics. It really referred to what they called the morally defective people. It gave the government, communities, people the ability to basically stick that diagnosis on anyone. You didn’t need a doctor. You didn’t need a judge. You could be sent here by your husband, by your father, whatever. It was a very, very awful thing. It was fascinating to research. I was very surprised and saddened by some of the things I read. I loved writing this book in the twenties. The twenties was always my favorite era of the United States, but I had a different impression of it before I researched this book. I always associated it with decadence and Zelda Fitzgerald and Daisy Buchanan and flappers and drinking when you’re not supposed to. That was the 1920s if you were rich. If you were poor in the 1920s, like my grandmother and most Americans, more than half the Americans, the same behaviors that the rich people were doing, drinking, going to speakeasies, having sex outside of marriage — if you were rich, you could do that. If you were a poor woman, you were considered a menace to society. You would easily end up in a place like the one where my grandmother worked. It was not a great place to be. It looked nice on the outside, just like the eugenics movement. The treatment of these women was horrible.

Zibby: It’s really amazing that this is what life was like. Also, all these little pockets of history which have essentially been erased, I feel like if somebody were doing an analysis of mental illness treatment in the US, there would be, maybe, a little footnote about this. Mental illness, of course, as you say, is only a little piece of it, but still.

Ann: This is actually interesting. Around the turn of that century, so between the nineteenth and early twentieth century, they realized that the intellectually disabled should not be institutionalized with the people with mental illness. They’re two different things. That was part of this. They didn’t have homes for “feeble-minded” or intellectually disabled people. These weren’t people who had schizophrenia or bipolar depression. They were people who were considered born less intelligent, with a deficient in their intellect. My research showed that there were asylums like this all over the United States. I researched many and came up with the story based on what I learned not only about the place where my grandmother worked, but about many others. The reason a lot of people today don’t know about eugenics — like I said, it was very popular. It was widely accepted. People such as Theodore Roosevelt; Winston Churchill; Margaret Sanger, some people know now; George Bernard Shaw; Virginia Woolf; many people that I’ve always admired who did great things were outspoken eugenicists. You have to understand that, again, everybody — there were laws passed that were eugenics laws, so it wasn’t a fringe hate group. It was this widespread thing. Was it racist? It was super racist. Going through the newspaper archives of that time, it was a very racist, overtly xenophobic, anti-immigrant time, and a very, very dangerous time for women.

Zibby: You do all your research. You realize you want to write a whole novel about this. Then what happened? You figured out your character? What’s the process?

Ann: I originally was going to just write — I wanted a nonfiction journey of discovery about what I found out, but I really do like to write fiction. I do have a vivid imagination. As I was reading, three people in my grandmother’s story came to me: my grandmother, who I didn’t know very well — she went there when she was only seventeen and was working as a stenographer. I wanted to maybe have her be a character. Then the woman who ran the place where my grandmother worked was a woman named Dr. Mary Wolf. She fascinated me. I was quite impressed and in awe of her when I was first read about her. She graduated from medical school in 1899 when very few women went to college. She then became one of the first psychiatrists in the United States. She then founded this amazing, very progressive asylum that became a model for — it was considered amazing at the time. Delegates from foreign countries came to see this institution because it was so well-run. Although, inmates, as they called them, residents, did all the work, so it actually didn’t rely on the government for much funding at all. It was self-sufficient. She did speeches all over the state to raise money and awareness. I could find a lot of things that she wrote and said. She was quite amazing. She also was an avid suffragist. I thought, what an amazing woman. She did care, I do believe, very much about vulnerable women in society. She came from an affluent home and had more power than most women.

I created Dr. Vogel in my book based on her. As I said, I don’t want anyone to connect the fictious character with the one who inspired her, only that I’m glad I found her because she, to me, was the most fascinating person to explore as a character for my novel. Mary came to work for her. In real life, Mary did work for a woman like that. Then Lillian is the character in my novel who grew up with Mary in this orphanage. Mary doesn’t remember her being feeble-minded at all. She was actually kind of smart. Lillian came from my going through decades of census records, through newspaper archives and finding all these young women who had these promising lives taken away from them. One character came to me who was kind of made up of all these women. I found a few cases where mothers tried to get their daughters out and said, she’s not feeble-minded. They had habeas corpus cases. They never won. I’d go and look. There she was in 1920 census at eighteen. Then the 1930s, she was twenty-eight. It broke my heart. Lillian is the character who’s inside. It’s a book about these three women. Mary is kind of the narrator. She brings the reader in the way I came in, very awed and impressed with this place. It was quite an attractive asylum, as asylums go, in a very beautiful, very rural part of Pennsylvania. I wanted the reader to understand Mary’s vulnerability. Of course, I knew they might judge her from today’s perspective. A lot of everything that went on was so unsavory and hard to be a part of as a reader, maybe, but I couldn’t be anachronistic and make her very woke because it wouldn’t be real.

Zibby: Mary, though, was not totally an orphan. They called her a semi-orphan because her dad was alive.

Ann: It’s a half-orphan.

Zibby: Sorry, half-orphan.

Ann: I love hearing that term.

Zibby: Right? I’m like, what is that?

Ann: Like you’re half of a person. Mary was a half-orphan. Lillian was a foundling. An orphan is somebody, both your parents die. The people know who they were. You now live in an orphanage. There were many half-orphans. You might, Zibby and many people listening, might have had a relative who is a half-orphan. It wasn’t uncommon before antibiotics and before modern medicine to lose a parent at a young age. This took place after the first world war. Mary’s mother died when she was a child. She had a father who was alive, but he worked at some mill upstate. He couldn’t take care of her, so she was a half-orphan. The nuns raised her. That was true of my grandmother too. Lillian was a foundling, a baby who was dropped at a church or at a doctor’s office. There’s a distinction between them. I named the book The Foundling because Lillian and other reasons. I thought the word really applied to the book.

Zibby: Tell me about the suitcase. You have this suitcase take a central role in the beginning of the book, this beautiful, off-white-ish suitcase with satin where they find a mother’s garter that comes out right at the beginning, to the horror of the nuns. Then she ends up packing it and bringing it with her to the asylum. I felt like that was such a great little symbol for the voyage we were going on as the reader. Here we were getting ourselves all packed up and ready to go as you drive us down this — getting stuck on the side and driving us down to this very wooded, mysterious place. Tell me about that and if it was intended to be a symbol.

Ann: You’re the first person who’s asked me about the suitcase. I was afraid of it being too heavy-handed of a metaphor. It’s very important. She has only one thing her mother ever owned. It was this very nice women’s traveling case, as they called them in those days, a suitcase. I’m glad that no one’s asked about it because I was afraid it might be too heavy-handed. I did have the nun open it. I wanted it to be very sexual. The description of the suitcase, you’ll see it might remind you of a very feminine part of our bodies. It’s something the nun is shocked by. Sexuality and femininity is very much of a theme of this. Mary carries it through the whole book. She has it with her. The suitcase changes. First, she thinks it’s the most beautiful thing and very fancy. Then when she’s exposed to really very nice things by the rich doctor who takes her under her wing and, a little bit, takes advantage of Mary’s motherless-ness to manipulate her, suddenly, she starts to — hasn’t this happened to many people? When you grow up, a thing you were so proud of, then you realize it’s not as special. Then she’s always ashamed of it at the end. I’m so glad — not one person — I’ve had a lot of interviews and done a lot of talks. I kind of forgot about the suitcase, but it’s a very important thing. Thank you for asking that question. Mary also has a very, very shameful secret from her childhood. I felt, too, that that was sort of part of hiding things that have to do with — her secret did have to do with childhood sexual abuse. It was very much about, just keep it inside. It had to do, then, with some of her decision-making regarding whether she would be able to help Lillian, her friend. This is an exploration of female friendship. She and Lillian, I wanted to show, especially when we’re younger, the way we were with our friends as childhood, female friends, how much we loved them and then sometimes hated. It turns out she and Lillian share a secret. That’s not a spoiler. That is part of the plot.

Zibby: Interesting. As I referenced with The Good House, I just feel like you’re so good at creating a setting. How do you do that? Even the drive, even the car. Not all books really immerse you into such a visual, sensory place.

Ann: Thank you so much. When I wrote this, I’d been researching it, but I was finishing my last novel, The Children. I had to finish that. When I handed in the last draft, I got in my — December, not a great time to drive from New York State to Central Pennsylvania. I first drove to Scranton where the book begins, where my grandmother grew up in the orphanage. Then I drove the route she would’ve taken there. Of course, there wasn’t an interstate highway. I knew it would’ve taken her many hours longer than what it took me. I really got a sense of the countryside, and not of Pennsylvania. That part of the country hasn’t changed. I was just there. I did some book events in Pennsylvania. It was very emotional going back. I did research this. I went back a few times to Harrisburg to visit state archives. I went to the asylum. It’s closed now, but it’s still standing. I made note of what it looked like. I also really love gothic, nineteenth-century English novels. I think the description of them going there and then the winding thing and not knowing — I moved a lot as a child. I know what it’s like to leave a place and go to a new place and not know what lies ahead. It’s a scary thing. At one point, she goes to this gate. It’s closed behind her. She has this moment — I’ve had that in my life — of being plucked from one place and placed in another. At those times, you’re very aware of your surroundings. It’s probably a primitive instinct to just — I’m glad that you noticed that. I wanted her journey there to be — her life is about to be changed very much, for the better and for the worse.

Zibby: Wait, so why did you move around a lot? Where are these places you moved?

Ann: My dad was in the army when I was little. Then he just was kind of — a variety of reasons. We did move a lot. He would change jobs. When I was fourteen, we moved to the North Shore of Boston where The Good House was set. Before that, we had moved about fourteen times. Many of those times was when I was a baby. On this book tour, I was going to Wayne, Pennsylvania. Mentioned to my mother. She said, “Oh, we used to live in Wayne. That’s where your sister was born.” It’s great on a book tour. Usually, especially in the Midwest or the Eastern United States, I can often say, hey, I used to live near here, and I did. I think that’s helped me as a writer, too, in that I — we moved, for example from Racine, Wisconsin, to Marblehead, Massachusetts. It couldn’t be more culturally different. When you move a lot, you’re prone to being bullied as the newcomer. It was really important to my siblings and to me to fit in. I think I really became very aware of the way people talk. I think that’s helped me as a writer. It was very important to immediately sound like the rest of the people, the rest of the kids. Then I was very aware that everybody’s the same, really. Wherever you go, there was the cool girl, there was this girl, which I don’t think people knew in the town I moved to where everyone grew up there. Also, that helped me write a historical novel. I know everyone was the same then. I was very much a person who studied the others to fit in. It helped me, probably, as a writer to — now when I’m writing, I’m very aware of the little things about the way people behave. I like to study the people. I like to watch the people and then try to write about them. I think that helped a lot.

Zibby: There is power in being an observer that definitely benefits the writer.

Ann: Yeah, trying to fit in, all I want. I just want to fit in. I think it helped me create characters that don’t feel like they fit in or that are desperate to fit in. That was very much Mary, the main character’s — part of her makeup was wanting to be accepted and loved and being born feeling not loved and trying to find love.

Zibby: Which, essentially, is one of those deep human instincts. We’re all just, at the end of the day, trying to find love and fit in.

Ann: It’s a need. It’s something I read. If you don’t have it, you might not survive. I think they’ve done studies with babies or something. You have to have some sense of — you have to love in some way. You need to nurture. Nurture and love might be the same thing. If you don’t feel nurtured, if you don’t feel loved, you could be very much impaired in today’s world and probably throughout the history of humanity.

Zibby: There we go. Way to loop it all together there.

Ann: Not a scholar. Just my take.

Zibby: You’re absolutely right. This half an hour has flown by in two seconds. I feel like I had a thousand more questions to get to know you better. Hopefully, more to come at some point.

Ann: I would love to come anytime and talk to you more. Thank you so much again. Thank you for doing this podcast. I think it’s really filled such a void, especially during COVID, for authors, for booksellers, everybody. You’ve done a really amazing service. I thank you for that.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you so much. Congratulations on both The Foundling and the screening tonight and all the good things to come. More to come.

Ann: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye. Thanks, Ann.



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