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The Foundling

A Novel


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About The Book

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Good House, the story of two friends, raised in the same orphanage, whose loyalty is put to the ultimate test when they meet years later at a controversial institution—one as an employee; the other, an inmate.

It’s 1927 and eighteen-year-old Mary Engle is hired to work as a secretary at a remote but scenic institution for mentally disabled women called the Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing Age. She’s immediately in awe of her employer—brilliant, genteel Dr. Agnes Vogel.

Dr. Vogel had been the only woman in her class in medical school. As a young psychiatrist she was an outspoken crusader for women’s suffrage. Now, at age forty, Dr. Vogel runs one of the largest and most self-sufficient public asylums for women in the country. Mary deeply admires how dedicated the doctor is to the poor and vulnerable women under her care.

Soon after she’s hired, Mary learns that a girl from her childhood orphanage is one of the inmates. Mary remembers Lillian as a beautiful free spirit with a sometimes-tempestuous side. Could she be mentally disabled? When Lillian begs Mary to help her escape, alleging the asylum is not what it seems, Mary is faced with a terrible choice. Should she trust her troubled friend with whom she shares a dark childhood secret? Mary’s decision triggers a hair-raising sequence of events with life-altering consequences for all.

Inspired by a true story about the author’s grandmother, The Foundling offers a rare look at a shocking chapter of American history. This gripping page-turner will have readers on the edge of their seats right up to the stunning last page…asking themselves, “Did this really happen here?”

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Foundling includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


In 1927 Pennsylvania, Mary Engle’s life changes forever when she lands a secretarial job with a pioneering institution, the Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing Age under the employ of renowned psychologist Dr. Agnes Vogel. Orphaned at a young age, Mary finds a mentor and idol in Dr. Vogel and quickly adapts to life in the Village, making friends and even finding love in the surrounding town. Then one day, she recognizes a young woman, Lillian Faust, who she grew up with in her orphanage and is now an inmate at the Village. Everything Mary has come to believe about Dr. Vogel and Nettleton is called into question and she is forced to make a choice between rescuing Lillian and the future Dr. Vogel has promised her. Mary learns of the dark secrets of the Village and the eugenic ideology Dr. Vogel espouses.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. When we first meet Dr. Vogel on page 8, she uses many dog whistles in her speech that alert the reader that she’s talking about eugenics and that her practices and positions betray a dehumanizing view of people with mental disabilities. What phrases did you pick up on as suspicious or concerning? What made them stick out to you? How do you pick up on language like this in everyday life?

2. On page 77, Dr. Vogel explains to Mary that “Wild antelope drive the genetically weak, aged, or inferior members away, for the health of the rest of the herd…Of course, we’re not animals…we must look after our weak and afflicted.” How has eugenics historically couched racism, ableism, and sexism in compassion? What remnants can you find in everyday life and language?

3. On page 96, Jake and Mary talk about how women labeled “feebleminded” aren’t allowed to marry, and on page 123, Lillian mentions that if Vogel acknowledged that some women didn’t have mental defects, she’d have to pay them. Research laws in your state or country surrounding people with disabilities and marriage and labor laws. What parallels to you see between now and century ago when The Foundling is set?

4. On page 140, Mary grapples with the revelation that Lillian is not “feebleminded” and tries to reconcile what she sees as opposing truths. “[Lillian] was so drunk one night that she was raped by one man. Another made her pregnant before she was married. Is that normal? I can’t begin to imagine what might happen to her if she were allowed back out on her own again.” Discuss Mary’s view of these events. Why does she work so hard to discredit her friend on behalf of Dr. Vogel? What role does Mary’s guilt play in her journey to understand what’s happening at Nettleton?

5. In the end, Lillian was “killed” in the midst of her escape, but her death led to a police investigation and the revelation of conditions at Nettleton. On page 308, a member of the board of trustees, Eloise Howell, says “The condition in which we found the girls and women …Well it’s something I’ll never forget.” Considering one of the board members, Mr. Whitcomb, had perpetrated violence against several of the women at Nettleton and been paid off, do you believe that Eloise Howell and others actually didn’t know what was happening at Nettleton? Discuss the responsibility of those in power to ask questions of the institutions they support and profit from.

6. Dr. Vogel idolizes female suffragists like Elizabeth Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony. Do some research into their beliefs compared to other contemporaries like Anna Julia Cooper. Do you think they would have approved of Dr. Vogel’s ideas of “feeblemindedness”? How do your opinions compare to theirs?

7. Some of the reasons women were imprisoned in Nettleton State Village and labeled “feebleminded” are very loose or ill-defined, like “insubordination” or “telling lies.” What does this tell you about how they defined not only women with mental disabilities but those without? Could any of these traits of “feeblemindedness” be used against you?

8. Nettleton State Village was funded by the government and yet also turned a profit selling dairy products as well as the labor of their inmates. It was also heavily funded by people, like Mr. Whitcomb, who had a vested interest in keeping the institution going. How does this structure rely on exploitation and people in power turning a blind eye? Discuss the ongoing use of penitentiaries as profit systems.

Enhance Your Book Club

1. The Foundling is based in part on the author’s true family history. Research your own local history and see if any similar institutions once existed in your area. Were there similar scandals there?

2. The IQ test issued to women to judge them “feebleminded” is still pervasive in the collective consciousness. Research the origins of the test and try some of the questions. Does this seem like an adequate measure of your ability to make decisions for yourself? How does the persistence of the belief in such tests speak to the difficulty of changing public opinion, even after so much time?

3. Throughout The Foundling, the terms “idiot,” “moron,” and “imbecile” are used to describe mental disorders, as was the practice in medicine in the 1920s. Look into the history of other words that were once clinically used and have since fallen into the common vernacular. What trends do you notice?

4. Watch the PBS documentary The Eugenics Crusade. How does the plot of The Foundling fit into the history of eugenics in the United States? Discuss the continuing legacy of eugenics and how it has adapted over time.

About The Author

Photo by Scott M. Lacy

Ann Leary is the New York Times bestselling author of a memoir and four novels including The Good House. Her work has been translated into eighteen languages, and she has written for The New York Times, Ploughshares, NPR, Redbook, and Real Simple, among other publications. Her essay, “Rallying to Keep the Game Alive,” was adapted for Prime Video’s television series, Modern Love. She lives with her husband in New York. Visit her online at

Product Details

  • Publisher: S&S/Marysue Rucci Books (May 31, 2022)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668005620

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