How Audrey Clare Farley Rewrote the Story of the Genain Quadruplets
The Author of Girls and Their Monsters On the Oft-Exploited History of the Morlok Sisters
From the day they were born in Lansing, Michigan in 1930, the Morlok quadruplets belonged to other people. No sooner were their births announced in the Lansing State Journal than crowds began to gather outside the hospital, demanding to see them. Thousands wrote to the newspaper to suggest names. Their mother Sadie wanted to call them Jean, Jane, June, and Joan, but the nurses urged that the public should have their say. The Journal editors agreed this was best, establishing the newspaper as a clearinghouse for name suggestions, gifts, and well-wishes.
In the end, the delivering physician’s daughter won the naming contest with her idea that each girl should share an initial with the hospital: Edna, Wilma, Sarah, and Helen for Edward W. Sparrow Hospital. This was much to the chagrin of ordinary entrants and those who’d tried to bribe Sadie and her husband Carl with life insurance policies.
When city officials provided a home for the family, locals came round-the-clock to see the identical quadruplets, whose odds of existence were proclaimed to be one in ten million or perhaps one in twenty million. No one could say for sure. Visitors grew angry if Sadie turned them away. They felt they should be able to peer over the children’s cribs anytime they wanted.
The girls’ pediatrician suggested Sadie charge twenty-five cents for admission unless visitors had contributed to the family in some way. This made many even more indignant. Had they not contributed with their tax dollars? Some paid the fee only to feel cheated if the girls were sleeping or if Sadie refused to change their diapers upon request.
The crowds unnerved Carl, a German immigrant who worried their quantity evidenced low-breeding. Upon learning that his wife had birthed multiples, he’d actually blurted, “What will they think my wife is—a bitch dog?” The doctor who delivered the quadruplets had been even more pointed. When a pregnant Sadie conveyed her suspicions that she was carrying more than one, he replied, “Aren’t you a white woman?” Both clinical and popular literature portrayed people of color as hyper-fertile, often to promote forced sterilization laws.
After a kidnapping attempt, Carl put bolts on all the doors, erected a fence, and began to patrol the property with his shotgun. He also took to sleeping with a handgun. One night he mistook his wife for an intruder when she was coming back from the bathroom. He reached for his weapon and fired a hole through her nightgown before realizing his mistake.
But even as Carl transformed their home into a prison, he and his wife offered up their brood for mass consumption; and the quadruplets swiftly became a screen for people to project all their fears and desires.
By seven, the fair-skinned, ribbon-wearing foursome were traveling the Midwest to perform patriotic and religious tunes, which not-so-subtly yoked innocence to white Christian American-ness. On at least one occasion, the quadruplets opened for a minstrel show, in which a cast of adults played “Negro” aboard a riverboat named Robert E. Lee. Their sentimentalized helplessness provided a glaring contrast to the barbarity of the men in blackface, reinforcing the Jim Crow canard that people of color were a menace to white females, needing to be segregated, incarcerated, and even lynched.
Such mythology helps to explain how a school janitor and even the quadruplets’ own father could lay hands on them with impunity. Carl told his daughters he was only groping them to gauge how they’d later react on dates. Because they resisted his advances, he and his wife concluded, they must be “good girls.”
Sadie kept scrapbooks of the recital programs and all the fawning press coverage, which the quadruplets routinely perused. She knew her daughters took great pride in their accomplishments. But there may have been another reason for her efforts, as a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Maryland later surmised: They provided “a kind of looking glass in which the girls could gaze at their own reflections and learn something of who and what they were expected to be.”
In 1955, all four sisters were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The family traveled to Bethesda to be studied, and NIMH researchers paved the way for the sisters to become the poster girls of various scientific theories.In 1955, all four sisters were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The family traveled to Bethesda to be studied, and NIMH researchers paved the way for the sisters to become the poster girls of various scientific theories.
First, it was the “schizophrenogenic mother” theory, which posited that mothers drove their children crazy with a confusing mixture of warmth and hostility. Even when presented with a man as belligerent as Carl—he tried to choke Sadie, accused a Jewish psychiatrist of sleeping with her, and threatened to murder other staff—one after another of the experts blamed Sadie for the sisters’ problems. They also blamed Carl’s mother for his own troubles, which they tended to describe as mere quirks.
Their findings were published in NIMH psychologist David Rosenthal’s 1963 book with the pseudonym title The Genain Quadruplets: A Case Study and Theoretical Analysis of Heredity and Environment in Schizophrenia. In this six-hundred-page text, Rosenthal actually offered a more nuanced conclusion, claiming the sisters suffered from an “unhappy collusion of nature and nurture.”
In his mind, they’d inherited some predisposition to illness, then been subjected to a thoroughly pathogenic home, in which both parents “practiced irrationality” and there were both vertical and horizontal identification patterns, meaning that the quadruplets over-identified with their parents and each other.
But because the advent of psychopharmaceuticals and hostility to civil rights had begun to swing psychiatry away from the social toward the biological, his book would become known for having demonstrated the heritability of mental illness; and it wouldn’t be long before his colleagues brought the sisters back to Bethesda to search more intently for an organic smoking gun. Rather than expanding their view of the quadruplets’ environment to address sexual trauma and societal malady, the government researchers probed further into their bodies.
In 1981, soon after tragedy forced Rosenthal into early retirement, a team led by neuropsychologist Allan Mirsky subjected the sisters to lumbar puncture, computed tomography, and blood, urine, and adrenal tests, not really bothering to discern what occupied their minds. (And it turns out they were keeping secrets.) The researchers thought they might find brain damage or other biochemical abnormalities believed to underlie schizophrenia.
Their findings were largely underwhelming. In 1996, when the quadruplets were sixty-six, researchers went to Michigan to search for a chromosomal oddity recently found in Swedish triplets with schizophrenia. They again came up short, but marveled that, with the help of prescription drugs, the sisters had managed to lead relatively normal lives.
Wilma would die only a few years later, followed by Helen and then Edna. Before this, still another cohort would make the family an ideological landing site: critics of the biological model.
In his 1991 Toxic Psychiatry, written soon after Second-Wave feminists had forced a conversation on child sexual abuse, psychiatrist Peter Breggin argued that Rosenthal’s suggestion of a genetic etiology was itself “a form of child abuse.” In his 2003 Madness Explained, psychologist Richard Bentall likewise accused Rosenthal and his colleagues of being so dogmatic—so “exclusively genetic”—that they shrugged off the harms the sisters had suffered.There were times I was tempted to airbrush the quadruplets, either by censoring or rationalizing unflattering details about them.
These statements utterly ignored the painstaking attention that NIMH researchers had paid to familial relationships and communication styles, pretending as if only the biologically minded were insensitive to abuse’s enduring effects. They further reduced the sisters to the flat, silent objects of their youth. The women who adored Rosenthal—who wrote him soul-bearing letters and telephoned him in their despair—once more became screens onto which others could project stories about their enemies.
And they were stories, both critics going so far as to portray the Jewish Rosenthal as a promotor of Nazi science on the basis that he admired the scientific theories of some psychiatrists associated with the Third Reich.
When I first learned of the quadruplets, I was riveted, and not just because their story was so bizarre. How could a single family be extracted for nearly a century, for projects ranging from Jim Crow to psychiatry’s culture wars? And how could I possibly write about the sisters without further exploiting them?
My new book Girls and Their Monsters: The Genain Quadruplets and the Making of Madness in America is both cultural history and case study, exploring how delusions come to take root in nations, as well as individuals. It is a very different story than that which the sole surviving quadruplet, Sarah, chose to tell in her 2015 memoir, The Morlok Quadruplets, but one that—I believe—channels her and her sisters’ voices.
Over the last few years, I’ve spent hundreds of hours conversing with Sarah. Thanks to this, many of the narrated events are framed by her commentary, as full of insight as charming turns of phrase. Even more crucially, the book captures her hope. This still surprises me about it. At first, I could not see much of a happy ending, whether for the quadruplets, mental healthcare, or white American Christianity.
I was prepared to argue for the total abolition of psychiatry and its bible, the DSM, as well as to fire as many missiles as possible at conservative religion. But Sarah’s is a world charged with grace, and the more she let me into it, the more I was able to find windows to open and let light in. While the book somberly critiques, it also playfully deconstructs, showing how even the most fundamentalist institutions speak with many voices.
There were times I was tempted to airbrush the quadruplets, either by censoring or rationalizing unflattering details about them. But I intuited that if I were to do this, I’d be no different than the many others who put them on a pedestal. There really is nothing loving or respectful about denying people their humanity. This is especially true of those people who need something of others.
I hope readers do not merely gaze upon the quadruplets, but feel their gaze. That is, I hope they feel pangs of obligation, not just pity, for the women in this story. In my mind, I have honored my subjects if, in this strange and harrowing tale from another time and place, readers perceive an immemorial call for justice—a call to build for the quadruplets the world they deserved.
Girls and Their Monsters: The Genain Quadruplets and the Making of Madness in America by Audre Clare Farley is available via Grand Central Publishing.