Last September, a whistleblower complaint revealed that immigrants at an ICE detention center in Georgia were being forcibly sterilized. While this news was shocking to many, there is in fact a long history in the U.S. of people – mainly women and people of color – being sterilized without their consent.
One of these people was Ann Cooper Hewitt, a socialite whose mother ordered her fallopian tubes to be removed in the 1930s. Audrey Clare Farley first wrote about Ann in a Hidden History story for Narratively, which was a huge viral hit when we published it in 2019.
Her book The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt tells Ann’s story in the context of the eugenics movement prior to World War II. The Unfit Heiress will be released on April 20.
Farley talked to Narratively about writing on eugenics, the journey from her Narratively article to a completed book and her advice for archival research.
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How did you find out about the story of Ann Cooper Hewitt?
I learned about Ann in a chapter in Wendy Kline’s 2001 academic book, Building a Better Race. At the time, I couldn’t believe such a fascinating, momentous case had not yet been explored in a full-length book or film. I knew I wanted to be the one to change that.
When you came to Narratively with your story on Ann, did you already know that you wanted to write a book on this topic?
Yes, I was very keen to write a book on eugenics. I’d come to the topic while researching the discovery of insulin. I had actually tried pitching a book on eugenics and diabetes, but there was no interest from the publishing world. I had a feeling I would have more success with Ann as my entry point, and my essay for Narratively was a way of testing that theory. I figured if people responded enthusiastically to the essay, then I had a shot at landing a book contract. And once I began to compose the essay, I fell so in love with Ann that I decided to write the book with or without the promise of publication.
Could you tell me about how your Narratively essay helped you find an agent?
A few hours after the essay went live, an editor emailed to say it was so far the most-read piece of the year. It soon caught the attention of a reader who shared it with my now-agent, Marya Spence. She and I had a conversation the following day, and I explained my vision for the book, in addition to sharing a sample chapter. I could tell she was invested in the story and that she had the talent to guide me as I wrote it. There were a few other agents who reached out and made offers of representation that week, but I knew Marya was the one.
What was the process like of going from writing an essay to writing a book?
In my case, I had to do extensive research on eugenics and the story’s main figures in order to craft both intellectual and emotional arcs for the book. I wanted it to be thought-provoking and page-turning. So I read books on eugenics, in addition to books on sex, race, and women’s history. I contacted various institutions for official eugenics publications, and I used newspapers from the period to learn more about Ann, her mother, and her father. Since the Cooper Hewitt family was prominent, and since Ann’s mother had a tendency for scandal, the coverage was extensive. In my book, the press—and particularly the tabloids—are an important part of the story.
How did you balance writing this book with other obligations in your professional life?
I was fortunate to be able to take a break from professional work, teaching history at a local university, so for me, the challenge was balancing writing and parenting. It’s a struggle, as I’m one to let my research questions consume me. I tend to work long hours and become lost in thought when not working, and I think my kids resent when I gravitate toward a psychic space that doesn’t include them. One of them once claimed to hate Ann Cooper Hewitt! So I am trying to draw boundaries and be more present when I should be.
What advice would you give other writers who are interested in writing articles and books which require a lot of archival research?
I suggest that writers explore how much of the archive is available to remote researchers. I was fortunate that I didn’t have to travel for this book, as archivists were willing to scan and send materials. By contrast, my latest manuscript requires in-person research at institutions whose reading rooms are indefinitely closed due to COVID. Consequently, I’ve had to write around a few research holes, and it remains to be seen if my narrative choices prove disastrous.
What other articles or projects do you have in the works?
I’ve recently finished a manuscript on the 1922 Hall-Mills murders, involving an Episcopal priest and a choir singer who were shot dead under an apple tree and then arranged in a grisly tableau. The two had been having an affair, which they believed to be holy. There was a sensational trial, which staged then-raging debates between fundamentalist and modernist Protestants on the nature of sexuality, the merits of divorce, and the authority of science. These debates eventually morphed into the “culture wars” between the religious right and the progressive left we know today.
I’m now researching the Genain quadruplets, who transformed the understanding of mental illness when they all developed schizophrenia in the 1950s. The sisters gained the attention of National Institute of Mental Health researchers, who were eager to prove the genetic cause of the condition and discredit the childhood-obsessed Freud once and for all. But their legacy proved more complicated, as researchers swiftly learned they’d endured extensive abuse. Despite their vast impact on psychological research, they’ve largely been forgotten.
To spotlight all the exciting book projects out there by Narratively contributors, including Audrey Clare Farley’s important book The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt , we created The Narratively Bookshop. When you buy any book from the Narratively Bookshop, 10% of the purchase price goes to Narratively, helping us publish lots more great stories, and another 10% goes to supporting independent bookstores.