It’s time to prepare for the summer reads list and Girls and Their Monsters: The Genain Quadruplets and the Making of Madness in America needs to be on it.
“One by one they’d come into the world, and in the very same order, they lost touch with it.”
These are the Morlok identical quadruplets, born in 1930. This is a non-fiction account of their lives—that were “real, but not quite.” The story opens in 1954, with Dr. Seymour Perlin from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) visiting the now grown sisters at their home in Lansing, Michigan. What brings him there? All four sisters are diagnosed with schizophrenia and he and his collogues see the opportunity—about one and one and a half billion chance for births of identical quadruplets all diagnosed with schizophrenia—to study this mental condition and whether its causes are genetic or due to social and familial factors.
Author Audrey Clare Farley takes us on a journey, revealing so much more behind mental illness, family dysfunction, and trauma. It’s a web that she carefully navigates and turns into a page-turner witness to the testimony not only of these sisters and their mother, but of our disordered society—even now. The Morlok sisters’ lifetime was not that long ago, enabling Farley to develop a relationship with and interview the youngest daughter, Sarah. But in reading we question how far we’ve really come, and who are our monsters?
Farley introduces the book saying it is much harder for us to look at the systems and the disordered society than it is to contend with a family or disordered mind.
“But the story of the Morlok sisters is the story of darkness coursing through the world. It’s the story of malevolence masquerading as innocence and thereby hiding in plain sight. It’s the story of a society professing great concern for its children, while actually exploiting them, and of the American family and other institutions compelling members to accept this and other societal contradictions, no matter the political and psychological costs.”
The Morlok quadruplets were raised to be a picture of a curated Christian story. To turn their eyes from reality, to focus on their uniqueness as quadruplets but not as individual persons, and embrace how the world wanted to see them, how their mom wanted to see them, how their father wanted to see or unsee them—to live a pretense. A sham of a life. They were raised to learn the irrational and live in it.
Examining the case of the quadruplets is to look at a much bigger picture. It makes you question who are the mentally ill and who is sane. What is sanity and what is wholeness?
Without telling the story, I will share some of the questions that surface in the story and truths it reveals, not only of this family, but of the structures around it:
How our past informs our present.
Who gets to narrate our story.
How delusions take root in society.
What kind of choices women have.
What they are allowed to share about harm done to them.
How the traditional white, patriarchal structures of family, medicine, and society trap women and deny people of color their humanity.
How professionals paper over violence.
The pervasiveness of child sexual abuse in the domestic sphere by “everyday men.”
How professionals view the female psyche.
The history of the medical profession covering for abusers.
How the signs of harm done to the abused are weaponized against them.
Triangulation and the emotional burden many children carry as a second spouse to their parent.
Ways women escape.
How we want things like mental health and good guys and bad guys to be black and white, but deeply wounded souls are more complex than that. There is so much gray.
Our own complicity in these systems.
How people hold onto their false narrative rather than escape their own abuse because it becomes such a part of their identity. And how the alternative can be terrifying if you don’t even know who you are without that dynamic and the symptoms of mental and physical illness you suffer from it.
What causes schizophrenia and how do you treat it? Who is to blame?
How professional diagnosis can be used to perpetuate societal hate.
- One example worth sharing is how psychiatrist Rosenthal’s “chosen pseudonym for the family placed further emphasis on biology’s primal role. Genain came from the Greek words for ‘dire birth,’ or ‘dreadful gene.’”
How cultural politics affect diagnosis and care.
- “…the DSM transformed the schizophrenic from a victim to a menace.”
- “But for psychiatrists like Walter Bromberg and Frank Simon, the connection between black liberation and schizophrenia was not metaphorical; the crusade for equality literally caused delusions, hallucinations, and violent projections in Black men. On the basis of such logic, the FBI diagnosed activist Malcolm X as having pre-psychotic paranoid schizophrenia.”
- “No matter the profession’s commitment to neutrality, prejudices always worked their way into diagnostic formulations.”
What forced composure does to a person.
What happens when persons vacate their bodies in order to survive the objectification of them.
I could go on and on. There are so many themes well-woven in this web. It’s time for the Morlok sisters’ story to be told. The way we bear witness to it can contribute to our own individual and societal healing.