Girls and Their Monsters: The Genain Quadruplets and the Making of Madness in America (Hardcover)
A 2024 MICHIGAN NOTABLE BOOK
For readers of Hidden Valley Road and Patient H.M., an “intimate and compassionate portrait” (Grace M. Cho) of the Genain quadruplets, the harrowing violence they experienced, and its psychological and political consequences, from the author of The Unfit Heiress.
In 1954, researchers at the newly formed National Institute of Mental Health set out to study the genetics of schizophrenia. When they got word that four 24-year-old identical quadruplets in Lansing, Michigan, had all been diagnosed with the mental illness, they could hardly believe their ears. Here was incontrovertible proof of hereditary transmission and, thus, a chance to bring international fame to their fledgling institution.
The case of the pseudonymous Genain quadruplets, they soon found, was hardly so straightforward. Contrary to fawning media portrayals of a picture-perfect Christian family, the sisters had endured the stuff of nightmares. Behind closed doors, their parents had taken shocking measures to preserve their innocence while sowing fears of sex and the outside world. In public, the quadruplets were treated as communal property, as townsfolk and members of the press had long ago projected their own paranoid fantasies about the rapidly diversifying American landscape onto the fair-skinned, ribbon-wearing quartet who danced and sang about Christopher Columbus. Even as the sisters’ erratic behaviors became impossible to ignore and the NIMH whisked the women off for study, their sterling image did not falter.
Girls and Their Monsters chronicles the extraordinary lives of the quadruplets and the lead psychologist who studied them, asking questions that speak directly to our times: How do delusions come to take root, both in individuals and in nations? Why does society profess to be “saving the children” when it readily exploits them? What are the authoritarian ends of innocence myths? And how do people, particularly those with serious mental illness, go on after enduring the unspeakable? Can the unbreakable bonds of sisterhood help the deeply wounded heal?
About the Author
Audrey Clare Farley is the author of The Unfit Heiress, a page-turning drama about reproductive rights and eugenics framed by the story of Ann Cooper Hewitt, as well as a writer, book reviewer, and historian of twentieth-century American literature and culture. Having earned a PhD in English from University of Maryland, College Park in 2017, she occasionally lectures in history and literature at local universities. Her essay on Cooper Hewitt, published in July 2019 in Narratively, was the publication's second most-read story of the year. Her writing on the eugenics movement and other topics has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Public Books, Lady Science, Longreads, and Marginalia Review of Books, where she is a contributing editor. She lives in Hanover, Pennsylvania.
“Farley’s book is truly a case of reality being stranger than fiction, a highly researched yet readable account of a shocking piece of U.S. history that doesn’t show up in textbooks.”—The Associated Press
"In constructing an intimate portrait of the decades-long relationship between the Morlok family and the federally funded scientists who studied them, Farley examines the way American institutions and culture crucially shaped the construction of madness at mid-century. . . Girls and Their Monsters is a timely reminder of just how imperative this awakening is."—Los Angeles Review of Books
"The violence and dysfunction Farley describes is gothically sordid, painful to read about and entirely believable."—New York Times
“A powerful book that should provoke deeper reflection on how we come to grips with madness.”—Psychology Today
"[A] powerful but unsettling tale. . . Farley tightly interweaves the quadruplets’ lives with the story of America’s fraught relationship with mental illness. Haunting and impactful, this story does not leave the mind easily."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Farley recounts the sad story of the Genain quadruplets in a narrative that amply draws on published documents and new interviews to illuminate elusive truths within family chaos. . . As much a study of parenting as it is of what psychologists once thought of parents, Girls and Their Monsters follows Robert Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road (2020) as another unsettling, behind-closed-doors look at families and mental illness."—Booklist
“Farley’s narrative is based in deep research and makes for her nuanced analysis of the country’s shifting attitudes toward childhood and mental health. Readers will be riveted.”—Publishers Weekly
“In Girls and Their Monsters, Audrey Clare Farley embraces the complexity of mental health and human relationships. In her hands, the story of the Genain quadruplets is at once disturbing and heartening. It’s a tale of despair and resilience, about the ways we hurt each other and lift each other up.”—Josh Levin, award-winning author of The Queen
"Girls and Their Monsters is both an intimate and compassionate portrait of girls growing up under the constant gaze of media, doctors and government agencies, and a well-researched analysis of a nation in the grip of social illness. Farley shows us the interplay between American eugenics, white supremacy, and the hidden and widespread abuse of children within their own homes and communities, and how these monstrosities created the conditions for a madness that was deemed a biological disease of the individual. This book is brilliant and riveting."—Grace M. Cho, author of National Book Award Finalist, Tastes Like War
PRAISE FOR THE UNFIT HEIRESS
"In Audrey Clare Farley's book, the fascinating and unsettling case—and the worldwide media sensation it caused—is carefully revisited to expose what it meant to be considered an unfit parent and how easily family can become foes."—Town and Country
“Expertly blending biography and history, and using the life of Ann Cooper Hewitt as a backdrop, Farley has created an absorbing biography effectively explaining how the legacy of eugenics still persists today. Hewitt’s story will engage anyone interested in women’s history.”—Library Journal
“The Unfit Heiress is a sensational story told with nuance and humanity with clear reverberations to the present. Historian Audrey Clare Farley's writing jumps off the page, as Ann Cooper Hewitt, once a one-dimensional tabloid fixation, is brought into full relief as a complicated victim of her time, standing in the crosshairs of the growing eugenics movement and the emergence of a "over-sexed" and "dangerous" New Woman. But most importantly, this book is a necessary call to remember the high stakes and terrible history of the longstanding fight for control over women's bodies.”—Susannah Cahalan, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Brain on Fire