Monday, December 13, 2021

The Hidden Child by Louise Fein

Hidden Child
If you are one of the many who believe that eugenics was a tool only of Nazi Germany, you should read the excellent and thoroughly researched historical novel by Louise Fein entitled, The Hidden Child.

Often, the best way of really bringing home the horrors of a practice is to embody it, to show how real people are affected by the practice. Louise Fein has done just that in her sad but wonderful novel. As Eleanor is watching over her beautiful five year old child, Mabel,  frolicking  in a park, suddenly and out of nowhere Mabel begins to act in a most frightening way. A postman has just dropped his bike in shock as he points to the beautiful child in front of him. 

Eleanor turns in confusion.

Mabel! Sticks scattered around her, she’s sitting on the dusty ground, face twisted, her eyes weirdly rolling back. Her chin drops to her chest, once, twice, hands twitching. 

Eleanor’s feet are rooted to the ground in horror. Her daughter looks as though she’s been possessed, her normal sweet expression vanished behind the contorted features of her face. 

But this is not the first nor the last of these fits. Eleanor’s instinctive reaction is to brush of the momentary behavior, and she implores the postman not to fetch a doctor.  Besides her inclination to deny and hope the momentary aberration is just that, passing and of no significance, she is married to a psychologist who is a leader of the eugenics movement in the U.K., and who would be most embarrassed to admit his daughter is among the unfit who need to be weeded from society.

Fein skillfully weaves her story. Edward, the psychologist husband, insists that Mabel’s ailment must not be discovered, both to protect the child from being singled out and ridiculed, and to protect his own reputation within the movement. He insists that it will be best for all concerned if Mabel is locked away in a sanitarium and kept from public scrutiny. 

Although heartbroken, Eleanor cannot stand up to her husband and his professional stature and eventually defers to his judgment. Unable even to visit her young child, she slowly becomes more and more aware that her husband sees only what he wants to see and that he even skews his research to omit  evidence that would count against his theories regarding the improvement of the race via incarceration, sterilization and other drastic measures.

The story itself is compelling and so well written, but the controversy behind the theory is really the most important part of this novel. Fein, herself, has a child with epilepsy, and that no doubt adds to her careful and thorough research in writing this book. In her notes at the end of the novel:

I was therefore rather shocked that when I began to look into the ideas behind the inhumane treatment of people with disabilities, including epilepsy, in the 1920s, I found , in fact, that Nazi Germany took its lead in this area from widespread and accepted eugenics ideas circulating in both the United Kingdom and the United States. The eugenics movement had been born in England in the late nineteenth century and was extremely widespread in the first thirty years or so of the twentieth century.

The pseudo-science of eugenics and other theories such as craniology are thoroughly debunked by Stephen Jay Gould in his superb set of essays, The Mismeasure of Man. Like Edward in this novel, many of the experiments meant to support the theories were manipulated such that only confirmatory data was allowed and contra evidence swept under the rug. 

This novel and the story stand on their own quite apart from the eugenics controversy, but the social and political importance of the book  needs to be emphasized. 

I will end with another quote from the author’s end notes:

Legislation was proposed for compulsory sterilization and incarceration of those considered “weak-minded,” a catchall phrase for those with learning difficulties as well as epileptics, criminals, those with behavioral difficulties, alcoholics and anyone else considered “undesirable” and ruinous to the health of the population in general.

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