Girls and Their Monsters: The Genain Quadruplets and the Making of Madness in America
“Farley translates medical case studies, interviews, and other records into dynamic prose, weaving a fluid and immersive story of the sisters' lives and experiences.”
In Girls and Their Monsters: The Genain Quadruplets and the Making of Madness in America, Audrey Clare Farley offers a well-researched, poignant, and humane narrative about the sociocultural and biographical influences that contributed to the mental illnesses the quadruplets suffered. Farley unspools a compelling story set in the context of evolving psychological treatment and research, demonstrating how our cultural perspective on schizophrenia, and mental illness in general, shifted over the decades of the quadruplets' lives. In essence, the quadruplets—Edna, Wilma, Sarah, and Helen—provide a fascinating case that tracks the progression of how the medical milieu understands and treats disorders of the mind.
Because the quadruplets were a national sensation from birth ("From the day they were born, the Morlock quadruplets belonged to other people"—Genain was the pseudonym given to the real Morlock family in published medical studies), and because they served as medical specimens later when they each were diagnosed with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, Farley has ample records from which to recreate their experiences, including a 600-page medical study of the sisters.
She was also able to access family history through interviews with Sarah and her son, as well as glean information from Sarah's memoir. This rich bank of material allows Farley to write a detailed, immersive story. "'They were far too perfect, just too good,' one of the quadruplets' junior high teachers once reminisced about them.' In class, they usually sat just like mice,'" Farley writes. Farley translates medical case studies, interviews, and other records into dynamic prose, weaving a fluid and immersive story of the sisters' lives and experiences. "As the big night approached [a high school graduation banquet], Carl badgered his daughters with notions of what could go wrong. He was sure someone—probably Helen—would step on her dress and tear it."
One of the successes of this book is that Farley is able to portray each of the four quadruplets as individuals, so that readers come to know them in their uniqueness, in contrast to how the world saw them as a single medical phenomenon, and to some degree how their parents treated them: as quadruplets, a unit, without necessarily recognizing each girl's distinct needs and gifts. "Edna was generous, while Sarah hoarded everything from marbles to coffee beans. Wilma was playful but had destructive tendencies, breaking her toys for no apparent reason. Helen was totally helpless and prone to tantrums." Readers will come to know and care deeply about these four extraordinary women. Farley also provides biographical details and complex portraits of Sadie and Carl, the girls' parents, which is important for understanding the familial circumstances that likely contributed to the quadruplet's psychological problems.
The quadruplets suffered abuse from medical practitioners, but also at the hands of their own parents. They endured being seen as spectacle in popular media and treated as a medical anomaly to be prodded and studied, which Farley relates with compassion. She confronts head-on the trauma and abuse the sisters experienced, especially the youngest, Helen, who was likely developmentally delayed, but Farley avoids sensationalizing the story with a cool narrative distance. Her discussion of intimate details from the lives of the quadruplets as children and into adulthood is thoughtful and respectful. "One by one, they'd come into the world, and in the very same order, they lost touch with it." Sadly, the cycle of abuse continued into the next generation, with Sarah's children—the only quadruplet to marry and have a family.
Frequently, Farley steps back from the close-up lens to provide commentary and research relevant to the events in the quadruplets’ lives, and she offers criticism of psychological practices. "It wasn't just schizophrenia scholars who largely ignored trauma. The field of medicine, more broadly, was known for papering over violence," Farley notes. This narrative strand connects the quadruplet's personal stories to larger societal concerns.
Farley's rich, layered narrative makes for a powerful, page-turning story that is deeply affecting but also informative, one that contribute to our understanding of historical psychological theories and practices—both the promises and the pitfalls—that inform our thinking today about how we understand and treat people suffering from mental illnesses, or at least how we should understand such vulnerable people.