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‘The Foundling’ — author Ann Leary delves into dark part of American history

The term “eugenics” may seem foreign to most of us today, but in the early 19th century, micro-managing human reproduction to produce more desirable traits was actually practiced.

New York Times bestselling author Ann Leary delved into the dark side of American history when she sought answers to questions pertaining to her past via Ancestry.com. This led to six more years of research, which resulted in her latest book release.

“The Foundling” is Leary’s first work of historical fiction. She is also the author of “The Children,” “The Good House,” “Outtakes from a Marriage,” and a memoir, “An Innocent, A Broad.” Her works have been translated into 18 languages.

Leary has written for numerous publications, including Ploughshares, NPR, Real Simple and The New York Times. Her Modern Love essay, “Rallying to Keep the Game Alive,” was adapted for the eponymous Amazon Prime series and stars Tina Fey and John Slattery. 

“The Good House” was adapted as a motion picture starring Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline, and will premiere at the Tribeca International Film Festival on June 16.

While researching Ancestry.com, Leary discovered her grandmother, who she knew had been an orphan, worked as a stenographer at Laurelton Village for Feeble-Minded Women. The full name of that facility, she later found, was Laurelton Village for Feeble-Minded Women of Childbearing Age.

The facility was a place for poorer women who faced life struggles. Many were admitted by their fathers, husbands, or worse.

“It was basically a eugenics asylum, not for intellectual disabilities,” Leary said. “Most of the women were what they referred to as ‘morally defective.’” 

Some women were wives of husbands who had tired of them, or young women who were arrested for prostitution. Leary said these women remained at Laurelton until they reached menopause, effectively engineering their ability to reproduce and thus pass on their “morally defective traits.” 

“There were facilities like (this) all over the country,” Leary said. 

The women were effectively “warehoused,” doled out to local farms to work the fields or handle housework in private homes. Eugenics in the U.S. lost popularity during and after the second World War when Hitler’s fascination with it came to light, Leary said.

“It came to a screeching halt,” she added. 

Leary and her husband, actor Denis Leary, are former longtime residents of Roxbury, Conn. Her research for “The Foundling” began while she was writing “The Children.”

“I spent six years researching it, most of it while still living in Connecticut,” she said. 

Leary noted the differences between the lives of rich and poor women in the 1920s. 

“It was very decadent. If you were Daisy Buchanan, drinking, having sex without being married, you were viewed as fun and avant-garde,” she said. “If you were poor, you were a menace to society.”

“The Foundling” tells the story of two women who attended the same orphanage and reunite in the 1920s at a facility similar to Laurelton. 
One, Mary, hired as a secretary, has great admiration for her boss, a brilliant female doctor. But then she meets Lillian, her former orphanage friend, and Mary can’t understand why she’s considered “feeble-minded.” Soon, Mary learns the facility hides a dark secret. 
Leary’s long held passion for writing was reinforced at Emerson College. She took a comedy writing class led by a teacher who had a lasting impact on her life — he would later become her husband. 

Ann and Denis Leary have been married for 33 years and have two children together, son Jack, 30, and daughter Devin, 32. 

Leary will have several events for “The Foundling” in Connecticut this week, including two book conversations with her husband.

“He’s been so supportive. He truly loves this book,” Leary said. 

On Friday, June 17, at 7 p.m., the Learys will appear at an event at the Immanuel Congregational Church across the street from The Mark Twain House & Museum. Tickets are $35 ($30 for museum members) and include a signed copy of “The Foundling.” Visit https://marktwainhouse.org for more information.

The Learys will visit their favorite neighborhood book shop near their former longtime home in Roxbury on Saturday, June 18, at 3 p.m. The Hickory Stick Book Shop is in Washington Depot. Visit https://www.hickorystickbookshop.com for more information.

Both Leary and her husband grew up in Massachusetts, though she relocated from the Midwest. She said she has a tremendous respect for the New England spirit she and her family grew to love in Roxbury. 

Leary said she and Denis bought the Roxbury home as a summer place since their busy lives revolved around New York City — but once they got there, they couldn’t leave. The area’s beauty and vibe were too alluring. Leary particularly loved raising her children there. 

“It was just playing in sports teams, spending time with friends, raising horses, owning a bunch of dogs — a true small-town vibe,” she said. 

Leary was also stunned at how gorgeous the area was. In fact, Lake Waramaug provided inspiration for her novel, “The Children.”

Leary looks forward to seeing old and new friends during her Connecticut tour this week.

“New England neighbors are special. They aren’t effusively friendly, like in the south, but you know that all of them would do anything for you. If you needed something, they were there — they’d help their neighbor in a heartbeat,” she said.

For more information, visit https://annleary.com/.