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Louise Fein on The Hidden Child: Eugenics, Epilepsy, and Women’s Roles

Epilepsy. A kind of primal, horrified thinking colored the way the disease was viewed—and treated—for centuries.  The new novel The Hidden Child (William Morrow, $16.99), set in Britain in the years between the two world wars, exposes—and challenges—these pernicious ideas and sheds a more benevolent light on the disorder.  Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to author Louise Fein about how the story grew out of her own lived experience, and just why it was important to her. 

YZM: The novel doesn’t feature Jewish characters per se and yet the eugenics movement, which plays a large role, had a significant impact on what happened to European Jews during the Holocaust–can you elaborate? 

LF: Yes, the eugenics movement was used by the Nazis to give ‘scientific’ justification for proclaiming Aryans to be the superior human, and for the disabled, the mentally ill, the so-called ‘inferior’ races, and in particular, Jews, (amongst other reasons) to be persecuted with impunity. I had always associated eugenics with Nazi Germany, but it was only when I began researching this pseudoscience for my first novel, Daughter of the Reich, that I became aware of just how widely accepted these ideas had been in many countries, most influentially, in Britain and America before the second world war. 

The movement was born in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century from ideas taken from Charles Darwin about breeding improvements into domestic animals, thinking that it would be possible to breed ‘undesirables’ out of the population. The eugenicist’s dream was for compulsory sterilization and incarceration of the ‘weak-minded’, a phrase which included anyone from epileptics to criminals to alcoholics, even prostitutes and the poor.  In England, the driver behind the movement was class prejudice. In America and Germany, it was more about race.

YZM: And the people behind it weren’t who you’d think they were.

The concept of the superior Aryan in Germany can be traced to the idea developed decades earlier in California, around the superiority of the blond-haired, blue-eyed master Nordic race. Philanthropic donors such as Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Harriman provided extensive funding for eugenicists. For example, the Rockefeller Foundation helped fund the German eugenics program, including Josef Mengele’s twin studies before he went to Auschwitz.

Some voices in Britain and America also called for euthanasia in certain cases, a step too far for these countries, but in Nazi Germany we all know where this horrific idea led. 

YZM: What about afterwards; was eugenics as a discipline still given credence in the scientific community? 

LF: Eugenics’ popularity dwindled after the second world war as the atrocities committed by the Nazis became well known. However, the ideas for improving human beings did not disappear, and indeed, is making something of a resurgence. The scientific community, as we know, went on to blueprint the human genome and in doing this, the concept of eliminating certain diseases and conditions by selecting embryos, has become a reality. 

YZM: Let’s talk about your father’s life and how his experiences informed this novel. 

LF: My father was born in Leipzig in 1906 and grew up in a relatively wealthy, well-educated, ambitious family of mostly secular, Ashkenazi Jews. He considered himself to be a patriotic German. He attended university, married, and qualified as a lawyer in the early 1930’s. His name was on one of the early lists compiled shortly after Hitler came to power of those prevented from practicing law in the spring of 1933. He sought work of any type all over Europe, but to no avail. He moved to England as a refugee, and once he had established himself, his young wife who was expecting their first child, followed and they settled just outside London. My father opened a branch of the family fur business in London and managed to build it up into a thriving business before war broke out. 

My father’s first wife died in the 1960’s and he married my mother, a much younger woman, following which my sister and then finally I was born when he was sixty-one. My father died when I was only seventeen, so I never knew him as an adult. But throughout my adolescence, my father drilled into us the importance of freedom, of having citizenship, and of tolerance. 

Many of his values are infused into the book, for example, my focus on fighting for the rights and freedoms of those who are not able to fight for themselves. Our society is not equal, and however much we would like it to be, there will always be the vulnerable and those without a voice. This book seeks to bring those, the forgotten and overlooked, out into the light. 

YZM: Another personal strand is Mabel’s epilepsy; can you discuss the role this played in developing both the characters and the story? 

LF: Mabel’s epilepsy is a central strand in the book. The inspiration behind this was my own daughter’s rare and severe epilepsy which struck her out of the blue at the age of two. Mabel is also a very young child in the book, and I contemplated giving her a point of view in the story. However, when writing the book, Mabel’s epilepsy evolved as a character in its own right. This works on several levels. Historically, epilepsy has been associated with ‘possession’ either by evil or the divine. Before medical understanding of the condition developed, it is easy to see why people believed this. When my own daughter was affected, the illness transformed her. It stole her personality, her development, her abilities. It threw her around the room, banging her head on the furniture multiple times a day. Epilepsy in the book takes the form of a mocking, sinister character. It has its own character development, storyline and even a twist, all of which interconnect with the main plot and characters. Mabel, however, is silent, reflecting her absolute powerlessness as the adults responsible for her care make the decisions which will profoundly affect her life.   

YZM: How about the issues of women’s roles, both in society and the family—how do those issues get played out as the novel unfolds? 

LF: In the early parts of the book, the roles played by the women are those which would have been expected for women of the wealthy classes at the time. Eleanor, Mabel’s mother, is a member of the upper middle class and as such, she is a dutiful wife and mother. She is also expected to support her husband by being a hostess and attending social engagements which are important in his world. Her agreeing with all his opinions and sentiments are without question. 

As the story progresses, Eleanor finds that Edward has been keeping secrets from her. This, combined with Mabel’s ever more dire situation, leads Eleanor to begin to question her previous unshakeable faith in her husband. She finally reaches a point where she decides to take matters into her own hands. The nineteen-twenties were a period when women in general began to have more freedom and possibilities than ever before. This transformation was not an easy one, and of course, this applied in the main, to women who were better off. For women on the lower rungs of the social scales who always had to work alongside raising their families, things would not have seemed so different from the past.  

In writing this book, I have, in a small way, tried to give their stories an airing and bring them back into society’s consciousness.

YZM: You mention Margaret Sanger and her efforts to make birth control available; how does this strand tie into the large story? 

LF: Margaret Sanger was a controversial figure. She believed in the individual right for women to plan how many children they would have by using birth control methods to limit the size of their families. She saw this as a woman’s right to choose what was to happen with their own bodies. However, Margaret Sanger also aligned with the eugenics movement as portrayed in The Hidden Child and believed birth control should be used primarily to stop the least ‘desirable’ from having any children at all. She sought to limit immigration, give choice of family size to the ‘able minded,’ and supported compulsory segregation and sterilisation of the non-able minded. This ties into the main story because Margaret Sanger was in close contact and agreed with the views of the British eugenics’ movement, of which Edward was a leader. 

YZM: What’s a question I didn’t ask but you wished I did? 

LF: I love to be asked about the research I carried out to write the book. I managed to gain access to the archives of asylums and colonies and make visits to an institution which was once an epilepsy colony. The case notes made for grueling reading, and a number have stayed with me. One was of an eighteen-year-old single mother, who had been admitted with epilepsy. She had had a baby three months before, who was removed from her care, nothing more was mentioned as to what happened to the infant. The notes complained of her incessant crying, her ingratitude, and her inexplicable misery. There was also mention that if she didn’t prove to be a good worker (in the laundry or kitchen) then she would have to be moved from the colony to the asylum. 

I also read of a little girl, aged four, who was told by her mother she was going into the home for a night, and she would be picked up the following day. She never saw her mother again, and seventy years later, she was still in the colony. 

These people really were forgotten. In writing this book, I have, in a small way, tried to give their stories an airing and bring them back into society’s consciousness. We owe them that, at least.