domestic abuse • eugenics
Lilian Rose, brilliant chemist, botanist, and scientist, and the director of business operations (a stupid title that her father granted her; she was, for all practical purposes, the CEO of Rose Botanichemical!) never knew exactly how to deal with Harriet, and the little annoyance would be back here in just a couple of days.
It was bad enough when her father foisted the girl onto her, asking if she could tag along when Lily quite obviously had plans. It was worse when Lily thought about how Harriet was certainly old enough to have made friends of her own. Why was she even coming to live in Gotham? Why wasn’t father just going to Oxford?
Lily didn’t need to have a relationship with Harriet.
Christmas was awkward enough with Harriet, and the summer meant that she wouldn’t be returning to school for months instead of days. Lily was a working professional woman now, with big ideas for the business. Father’s insistence that she could be a laboratory assistant were…well she did have a certain aptitude for the work, but certainly not – oh it was already done. No sense in dwelling on it now. Maybe the girl could prove useful. And if not, Lily would be able to make her time in Gotham miserable.
Lily looked over the paperwork, and, everything seeming in order, tapped the forms gently to align them, and put them into the folder marked “Rosa, Helena.”
“Misses Rosa,” Lily withdrew a dark glass vial from her lab coat, stoppered with a black rubber cap. “I want to be absolutely clear that a portion of what we’re doing here could bet by some interpretations of the law, illegal.
“The risk is mostly mine of course – the courts don’t tend to go after the women who have this procedure – but the law specifies that this is only legal in cases of a risk to the mother’s health or life.”
Mrs. Rosa looked up at this, and opened her mouth to speak, but Lily raised a finger to indicate that she had more to say.
“As you no doubt are aware, I choose to read the law with more generosity. You see, Miss Rosa, the way I see it, if a young woman at your age – any age really – were to have a child that she were not ready for, whether emotionally, or economically, I believe that that constitutes a risk to not just her life, but the life of every Gothamite who might have to support another unwanted child. Or worse, someone who…” Lily thought of how not to point a finger at Mrs. Rosa, specifically. “Children can sometimes bind us to people and places that are not healthy or lively. If those people or places are a risk to one of my clients’ health or life, I would, as a doctor, be obligated to intervene.
“Times are challenging, even for someone whose means are more modest than yours, and what would be worse than bringing another mouth to feed into the world if things are insecure or unsafe for mother and child?
“Simply put, Misses Rosa, to a woman in your position, a newborn child is a risk to your health and life.” Lily set down on the table two pills, an amber bottle, and a glass of water. “I’m sorry, did you have any additional questions, dear?”
“This is all very cloak and dagger, but I know your father’s company, and I think of him – of Doctor Rose as a trusted businessman. But, I have to ask, is this dangerous?”
Lily winced at her father being called Dr. Rose. He was a laboratory assistant that never graduated from college. He never called himself “doctor,” but he never corrected people who did. Meanwhile, Lily had spent her professional career as Miss Rose, learning the lesson through observation that most men weren’t comfortable with admitting a woman could be more learned or credentialed than they were.
“I exercise discretion, Miss Rosa,” Lily said, with just a hint of acid to her voice. “Unless you have a severely weakened immune system, your treatments here will not pose any danger. I will, however, keep you under strict supervision for seventy-two hours, to see you through the miscarriage.”
Mrs. Rosa listened carefully, taking deep breaths, and reaching for the glass of water.
“I’m sorry,” she said, finally. “I’m just a bit nervous, is all.”
“Not a bother at all, Misses Rosa, let’s get you some more to drink,” Lily said, and handed the empty glass to Harriet. The younger woman moved to a large glass water cooler, which was filled with crystal clear water which suspended slices of lemon and leaves of peppermint. She returned the cup to Mrs. Rosa without a sound.
When Lily returned to the table, she instructed Helena to take the pills first, then to swallow the entire amber bottle of pennyroyal oil, then to finish the glass of water.
Helena Rosa followed her instructions, and then began rummaging through her handbag. In no time, she had her checkbook on the table, and was unscrewing the cap to an expensive-looking fountain pen.
“To whom do I–“
Lily put her hand gently down on the leather billfold, closing the checkbook with a smile.
“I don’t…Gertie Smothers told me that it was one hundred dollars, payable by check, I’m sure of it.”
“The procedure is complimentary, Helena, in fact, we will pay you.”
Harriet had been less of a chore this summer. She’d actually been helpful, single-handedly developing the specialized desiccants which would have numerous applications across all sectors of the business. The two of them had grown to be friendly, even to enjoy one another’s company, and it was not uncommon for Lily and Harriet to enjoy breakfast or cocktails together, discussing their interests with uncanny alignment. Harriet was passionate about the environment, but her approach to the topic had been so roundabout and so Keynesian.
Making the planet’s limited resources more valuable wouldn’t save them, it would only create a race to the bottom for companies to strip mine them from the earth until they were gone. It was unsustainable, and, soon enough, it would become irreversible.
Lily felt a kind of sympathy for her – she’d had her suspicions about her father’s closeness with Harriet, and those suspicions had been confirmed over drinks celebrating another lucrative contract.
“Bring more of this back with you in the summer,” Lily said, stirring the herbaceous tea-colored liquid in her Tom Collins glass with her middle finger. “Father has been giving away our reserves to impress ‘potential clients,’ and I don’t think that very many of them are reciprocating with contracts.”
“It’s called Pimm’s Number One,” said Harriet. “The first time I had iced tea here in Gotham, that’s what I thought I was drinking. And don’t be so hard on him. His generosity helped me through a difficult time in my life, and I’ve grown quite fond of him.”
Lily’s eyes narrowed, but she looked down at her cup to hide her expression.
“I lost my mother a few years after I met your father, actually,” Harriet said. “Mum and I had become ill, and he, well, he helped out with some of the finances.”
“My mother died when I was very young,” said Lily. “And when did you find out about him being your father?”
“I–“ Harriet was at a loss for words, and her face looked like she would die of embarrassment. As though she’d revealed a secret. “How long have you known?”
“Our father is only ever impressed by his own work, and he’s mentioned how impressive you are more than I care to admit. Assuredly thinks of us as his work.”
“I’m sorry, Lily,” Harriet let out a swift sigh. “Very sorry. He insisted I not tell you until he was ready to, and I admired you so. I’d always wanted a sister, and blast it all, I must’ve been such an annoying prat.”
Father had fallen ill just a week before Harriet was scheduled to head back to Oxford. Lily spent hours each day by his side, with Harriet helping her to while away the time. They could brainstorm and theory-craft when father drifted out of consciousness, which was frequent, and his spells lasted longer each time. The morning before Harriet’s flight, he fell completely comatose, and neither woman showed much in the way of emotion about the matter.
Lily had insisted on father making the arrangements more than a year ago, and she was (at least in part) relieved that some of the stress created by father’s endless meddling would allow her to focus on her work as well as her passions.
Harriet returned to Gotham for the funeral, and Lily had been the picture of support and encouragement. Harriet would continue her education, and spend a semester abroad, returning to work at Rose Botanichemical for breaks.
“Lily,” Harriet asked in a soft voice, with only a little more tone than a whisper after the woman had drifted into the calm of the sedative. “Why are we compensating these women? That seems topsy turvy to me.”
Lily didn’t look up, and inhaled while stoppering the bottle of pennyroyal, and using a washcloth to wipe the sweat from her client’s forehead.
“The women we are helping are in need, Harriet. They…” she searched her memory. “You remember Helena Rosa?”
“Now, she is Helena Bertinelli. Adolfo Rosa believed he had the right to put his hands on his wife, and to do so with force if she transgressed him. Giving her a stipend to agree to come in and receive periodic treatments accomplishes two things: first, it protects a vulnerable woman from an abusive husband. Second, it gives her some independence from him, so that she can squirrel away some money until she has enough to move away from him. The treatments leaving her sterile means that she doesn’t end up in a cycle –– as is so often wont to happen with abuse –– where she is reliant on men.”
“Who pays for this?” Harriet prodded, wondering how her half-sister was subsidizing dozens of women and paying for the drugs they were using in these treatments.
“The company does. Years ago, I started a charitable-giving fund for just this purpose. No one on the board has ever even asked about it, but it’s such a small percentage of our revenue that I don’t suspect they will. I would like to expand this – naturally – to include more women, all across New Jersey and eventually throughout the country, but I believe that will be difficult to do from a logistical standpoint until we can attract funding from someone else.”
“Who would take on that risk?”
“There are women who I believe would find our work interesting,” Lily answered. “Women with access to the kind of network we’d want to connect with. Though we’ll need to demonstrate measurable, consistent outcomes. Well, more of them, anyway.”
“That sounds both promising and vague,” Harriet said with a smirk.
Lily smiled back. “Have you read much about eugenics, or Margaret Sanger?”
“There are bombings happening in India, Lily,” Harriet said, taking a final swallow of her Pimm’s Cup. “Indonesia and Portugal have had revolutions in the last decade, and the soviets weren’t long before that. Why couldn’t there be a political movement that wasn’t just in favor of preserving the environment, but which centered the environment?”
Harriet watched and shared in Lily’s awe; they couldn’t help but take in the pomp and circumstance of the event. Open air gardens on display at the Royal Hospital Chelsea with deliberate intent to keep the plants alive. Barely a moment passed before both Harriet and Lily had another Pimm’s in hand, and their discussion continued.
“I didn’t say – ooh, this one is strong – that their couldn’t be an environmentalist movement centered preservation and sustainability, I just couldn’t see how it would be taken seriously,” Lily explained. “Where is the apparatus to support something so ambitious?”
“Populism – pragmatic populism, I mean – is taking hold all over the world. I have a classmate, an American Indian from Nicaragua, and he says that a single man there has managed to lure U.S. Marines into guerrilla combat – and win!” Harriet said. “I don’t know if it’s just a folktale, but, especially amongst the poor there’s an appetite for, oh, what did they call it in history? ‘Class Consciousness.’”
“Do you imagine yourself not to be a part of the bourgeoisie, dear sister?” Lily’s voice was level, but she grinned, revealing a playful cynicism. “Why do you think God told Moses that he would keep His people out of the Promised Land?”
“The Bible, Lilian? I didn’t bloody expect to be discussing first year theology with you today. This is your holiday!” Harriet snorted. “If I recall, the Israelites lost faith in God’s ability to help them to oust the inhabitants of the Land of Milk and Honey, and so God put a curse on them to wander the desert, for forty years.”
“I don’t want you to just recall the story,” Lily said, sharply. “Rethink the question. You are the God of the Bible. You have it in your power power to do anything. You’ve made a promise to the great great great great great great grandparents of some people who you have recently freed from slavery to give them back their homeland. You want them to rebuild that homeland into something greater than its former glory, and you want them to do it in your name. Now, again, why would God keep His people from the Promised Land?”
Harriet bit her lip and tried to declutter her thinking. If she were an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent god, why not just make it so she had already returned the Israelites’ homeland?
Why not make it so they’d never been cast out of their homeland and forced into slavery in Egypt?
Suffering builds character? She shook her head at the thought. That might be true, but everyone feels like they’ve suffered and struggled. Everyone believes that their subjective hard-work and determination is what led to their personal achievements. No one wants to acknowledge they’ve had a leg up, because people compare their current situation to outliers, not to people who exist at the same social and economic level as themselves. Success stories are rare, or at least uncommon.
She thought about it from a different angle: If I wanted to build the most glorious, successful country, who would I put in charge?
No. That wasn’t it either. There were plenty of cities and countries with great leaders. Moses was already a great leader. A great leader is still only one part of the puzzle.
And then it came to her. Who should populate my ‘perfect country?’
“They had to die!” Harriet answered, thrusting her glass forward in triumph. A little wave of liquid crept to the very edge of the glass, but, in a small mercy, did not cross the threshold. “The adults all had been conditioned for their entire lives to be slaves. They didn’t have the independent mindset required to build a country worthy of God.”
“Which is,” Harriet thought for a silent moment. “Well it’s kind of cruel. The Israelites had already suffered so much. Letting an entire generation die just because they’d been victims seems so callous, even if it might lead to a stronger, more resilient generation.
“And that doesn’t even consider that that generation – a generation forced to watch their parents and grandparents die while they subsisted on manna – would be much more likely to rebel against God.”
“It’s not kind,” Lily resplied. “It’s not even particularly efficient when you consider that an all-powerful god would have the power to edit history–“
“So maybe God isn’t all-powerful. Maybe God is just very powerful. To humans, there’s not much difference between ‘incomprehensible power’ and ‘unlimited power,’” Harriet interjected. “What’s infinity plus one?”
“I’d like to bring something like The Chelsea Flower Show to Gotham,” Lily said. “Maybe we could teach people in some of the poorest communities in the city about gardening, and farming, and maybe it would serve as a way of reinvesting in places where investment is scant. What do you think?”
“It would be so lovely! All the beautiful colours and smells, Gotham could be so cheerful if it had something like this – something to be proud of!”
“It’s absolutely monstrous,” Lily said. “He thinks there are undesirable traits, and that they should be bred out of people? We’re talking about human beings, not tomatoes!”
Lily could feel herself becoming tense, and waited for the lecture hall to empty, intending to give the speaker a piece of her mind.
“Now Lily,” Harriet spoke in soothing tones. “Madison Grant is a conservationist, and, importantly, he’s a very philanthropic conservationist. He founded the Save The Redwoods League. I’m not suggesting that I share in all of his beliefs, or even most of them. But he has resources, and we can leverage those to causes which we find valuable. It wasn’t long ago that you were teaching me about how stewards must guide their charges, even if it meant that their charges would be left to wander the wilderness for forty years.”
“And why would he listen to us?” Lily huffed. “Why would he care what women were doing in any case?”
“Mr. Grant’s projects are all quite long-term,” Harriet explained. “He is very talented at attracting men of means to his cause, but women are a different story. And women like you and I are a necessary component of his, well he would describe them as ‘conservation efforts.’”
“I don’t like it one bit, Harriet.”
One-hundred and twenty-one procedures, and only two with any complications to speak of. Paula Bufano had been the only case where a physician needed to intervene, and fortunately, Lily had the right connections for that.
Doing this alone, while Harriet back at university required more attention to detail, but the work was worthwhile. Only last week one of her clients showed up at her doorstep to tell Lily that she’d left the brute and was moving back in with her mother, in Coast City. Lily couldn’t help the overwhelming feeling of sorority, embracing the woman with love and warmth, and wishing her well on her journey to California.
“It was a beautiful conference, Lily. I wish you could have been there,” Harriet beamed.
Lily tried to recall which conference Harriet could be talking about, but nothing presented itself, so she raised one eyebrow. “Conference?”
“I told you about it in my letter. Madison Grant hosted a two day science salon in Cardiff. I mentioned it in my last letter. You were invited, but I thought that you perhaps just weren’t available.”
“I must’ve missed it entirely. In Wales?”
“That’s right,” Harriet’s voice bubbled with excitement. “Margaret spoke as well – we flew into Metropolis together, actually.”
“Yes! She was lovely. Do you still follow her work?”
“I receive her newsletter, but it is almost entirely comprised of her birth control advocacy.”
“Oh,” Harriet bit her lip. “I just see so much overlap with what is being done in the movement, and what we want here that…” she trailed off.
“I think there are things to learn,” Lily said, not wanting to sound too critical. “I just don’t think that, as a project, eugenics gives enough…agency to women.”
“There is a lot we can use, though,” Harriet added.
“Yes. But the negative approach is too punitive, and too subjective. Instead of looking at how we can improve everyone’s lives, this approach looks at societal improvement on a ‘greater good’ axis, instead.”
“Aren’t those the same thing?”
“Not entirely. ‘Greater good’ should be the desired result, but it shouldn’t be a rationale for cruelty.” Then Lily added, “Think of all of the famous scientists. How many famous women in science can you – no, of course you can name famous female scientists – how many famous female scientists do you think the average person can name?”
Harriet thought on it for a moment. The first names that sprang to mind were Lily, Marie Curie, and the Countess of Lovelace. And then she drew a lasting blank.
“I think two is generous.”
“Precisely,” said Lily. “And how many of them came to prominence because of work that a male scientist was doing –– you don’t need to answer, I know it’s all of them. This is all to say that when men make up most of the field, men will be an overwhelming majority of the results, of the decision-making, and of the outcomes, even when there are competent, accomplished women doing the work as well. If men are the gatekeepers, then there is a strong likelihood that they will mostly allow men through the gates.”
“What about Margaret?”
“Margaret, in my estimation, is quite unlike you, even if you want to see similarities between yourself and her. She has two goals which are not competing, but they don’t necessarily overlap, either: so-called race science and women’s rights. Even if she wants them to connect, they don’t.”
“I don’t think skull shape is causing some people to be more violent, if that’s what you mean, but cycles of socioeconomics could take the place of phrenology, I think.”
“Which is why I am proud to join Dr. Lilian Rose in commemorating the opening of what is sure to be an exciting annual tradition for our great city,” Mayor Basil Karlo said, his eyes lingering far too long on Lily’s for her comfort. “The inaugural Gotham Garden Green!”
For four beautiful days in May, Gotham City became a celebration of flora, with exhibitors from more than a dozen countries, and visitors from even more still. Dignitaries and diplomats converged on Gotham, and took in rare and exotic flowers, culminating in the blooming of Amorphophallus titanum, a spectacle that Lily hadn’t expected to witness (or smell) in her lifetime.
In an auspicious augur, Harriet returned unexpectedly the night before, and she and Lily stayed up well into the small hours chatting and laughing and mixing Pimm’s cup to smuggle into the celebration.
The Gotham Garden Green (or simply The Green in the papers) was a rousing success, with something for everyone. Even the little pickpocketing orphans who were so commonly strewn throughout the city had been distracted enough to delay their criminal activities (or at least, to dampen them), and the scamps delighted in the free sweets they collected from any vendor who wished to avoid their mischief.
Billy Costa was one such orphan, and for three spectacular days, he gobbled down his fill of free candies. One especially nice woman (who Willy thought was quite fetching) had surreptitiously given him an entire bag of treats in special flavors.
“Where can I bring you more of these?” Asked the pretty lady with a disarming smile.
“Ain’t got a house, lady,” Billy said. “But I can meet you back here tomorrow.”
On the night of the third day of The Green, Billy went to bed behind the bakery in midtown, hoping he would see the pretty lady again. He felt his heart pounding in anticipation, but she hadn’t showed. He wasn’t worried though. Grown-ups frequently broke their promises to him, and tomorrow he could find her and tell her that he liked the plum candies the best.
In the middle of the night, Billy’s stomach churned violently, and he woke up in a fit of sweat and vomiting.
No one heard from Billy Costa after that, and as Harriet Isley hoisted the boy’s body into the dumpster behind Atwater’s Bakery, she surveyed the puddle of blood and sick.
This won’t do at all, she thought.
“I have a clever plot to put an end to bullying of the children altogether,” Harriet explained. She made deliberate and intense eye contact with Tetch as she articulated her plan.
The man looked like he was dressed in rags, and his fraying, overworn porkpie hat was the greatest offender of all. Harriet could, given a moment, imagine him as an elderly man (instead of just an older man). She could almost see him as cute in the way one might find a child or a grandparent when she did this, but not attractive. Not someone she could be coupled with.
She thought of her dalliances in England, and abroad, and the memories warmed her; giving her the mask she would need to convince him. If she could pretend well enough, then he would be sure to believe.
“We’ll deputise the children, you see. If you show the bullies a degree of favoritism, but you make it conditional on their treating the other children with kindness, then they will be incentivised to continue the scheme.”
Jeremy Tetch nodded along, and Harriet knew that he would agree to anything she suggested.
“I take it that you’re close with one or more of the little creatures?”
“I know all of them, Mi– H-Harriet,” Jeremy quickly corrected. “But any of these conflicts, well, they are, I think, m-mostly just childish fun.”
“No, Jeremy,” Harriet chided, but then turned her lips into a smile in the same moment. “We mustn’t allow the vulnerable to be preyed upon. Don’t you agree?”
“I s-suppose I do. But how will we–”
“–I’ll give you special sweets – I know you’ve been using your own wages to pay for candies that you are giving the children in the park, but that won’t be necessary any longer. In each batch, there will be an envelope for the bullies, who you will style as leaders amongst the orphans. Give them purpose, and they will develop a stronger sense of community.”
Lily’s face was hot with the fever of rage.
“In what universe would you think this would make me pleased?”
“You have been sterilising women for years!”
“The women who we sterilize volunteer, and they are compensated to remain as such. The process is completely reversible. They are capable of making decisions about their own bodies for themselves, because they are adult women. You are talking about children, Harriet.”
There was a lengthening silence between Lily and her sister. And then the furious heat in her face melted away into chilling, terrible fear.
“No,” Lily covered her mouth in shock, and her hands were like ice. “No, no, no, no, no. Peter Pan. You’re Peter Pan. The boys aren’t able to metabolize the toxins, and they’re dying.”
“Lily, this is what we’ve been waiting for,” Harriet tried to calm Lily with a careful embrace, but the latter pushed her away. “This is how we save the planet; how we create a better quality of life for everyone. And Jeremy is a firewall.”
“Harriet, this is murder,” Lily was hyperventilating. She felt dizzy.
How many children had Harriet killed? And, through Lily’s own failure to oversee her younger sister, how many children had she allowed to die?
Harriet set her jaw. “It’s self-defence, Lily.”
“It’s madness, is what it is. Killing children. Poor children. You’ll be deported and…what do they do to child killers in England?”
“Children who would’ve grown up to perpetuate cycles of abuse. Cycles of poverty, and dysfunction, and countless other problems that keep us from our Promised Land. Better still – our Garden of Eden.”
Lily caught her breath. When Harriet opened her mouth to speak again, Lily held up a hand to indicate a want for quiet. She was thinking.
The children were already gone. Harriet was still here. Rose Botanichemical was still here. Lily could save them both. She could save the ALICE program. And all it would cost…
“Listen to me, Harriet,” Lily commanded, and her voice was even now, and bolstered by her resolve. “This ends, now. We’ll need to create a chain of custody that points to Jeremy.”
“Lily, I’m sorry,” Harriet’s eyes began to glisten. “I thought this was what you wanted. I thought this was why you introduced me to ––“
Lily wrapped her younger sister up in a fierce embrace, putting all of her strength into squeezing her.
First and foremost, I want to say something briefly and unequivocally: Abortion is a decision that should be discussed between a pregnant person and their physician, and should ultimately be decided by the person who is pregnant. Planned Parenthood, in spite of the fact that the views of one of their founders were intensely problematic, does important work, and you should, if you are able, support them or a local abortion fund financially. I am linking to their donation page, as well as the donation page of the Baltimore Abortion Fund below (and, if you send me a screenshot of a donation receipt, I will match your donation until I reach $200. You can email screenshots to alfred AT thegothamite DOT net).
I wanted to state this plainly (and before going into my other notes) because, if you found your way here by way of the Rational Fiction community (which is the most likely source of readership on this fiction), there are, unfortunately, people in that community who believe or who gesture towards eugenics, and who do it consistently enough that it is a concern, and it was important for me to differentiate my views from those of the characters in this fic (A search for “eugenics” on r/sneerclub will lay this bare).
I also think it is important to clarify that just because Lily’s “brand” of eugenics is less genocidal than Harriet’s, does not make it good. I think that my readers have, by now, been hit over the head with my political views (for almost 3 years, and 170,000 words) and I am not a person who believes in incrementalism or compromise, even in the service of getting “a win.” Sometimes compromise is the only option, but this is a failure on the part of the elected class, it is cowardice, full stop. Compromise is not something that is inherent to truly democratic political systems.
Another note – as Alexander Wales mentions in the chapter notes for The Metropolitan Man:
“[T]he American eugenics movement was still alive and well at this time, so if you see references to it pop up here and there, just remember that this was an opinion you could voice without anyone really raising an eyebrow.“
Many people don’t know that this was the case, and I think it’s part of painting an accurate political picture of the U.S. in the inter-war time between World Wars I and II, because the Nazis frequently cited American thought as inspiration for their campaign of genocide.
I think I have additional thoughts on this, but I’ve been working on this chapter, intermittently, for like 3 weeks or more, and I finally had to stop re-writing it from scratch and just send it. If there are continuity errors or inconsistency within the confines of this chapter, please let me know, because I need to not read this chapter for a little while in order to continue the story, because I’ve been obsessing over it.
I’ll close this by saying: This Origin Story may or may not be updated, moved or re-written entirely in the future. If that happens, I’ll make it clear here, and in the content warnings up top.Dave
Thanks for reading.