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The Degenerates



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About The Book

“Respectful, unflinching, and eye-opening.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Historical fiction that not only depicts a cruel, horrifying reality but also the strength and courage of the people who had to endure it.” —Booklist

In the tradition of Girl, Interrupted, this fiery historical novel follows four young women in the early 20th century whose lives intersect when they are locked up by a world that took the poor, the disabled, the marginalized-and institutionalized them for life.

The Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded is not a happy place. The young women who are already there certainly don’t think so. Not Maxine, who is doing everything she can to protect her younger sister Rose in an institution where vicious attendants and bullying older girls treat them as the morons, imbeciles, and idiots the doctors have deemed them to be. Not Alice, either, who was left there when her brother couldn’t bring himself to support a sister with a club foot. And not London, who has just been dragged there from the best foster situation she’s ever had, thanks to one unexpected, life-altering moment. Each girl is determined to change her fate, no matter what it takes.


Chapter 1

London couldn’t stop thinking about the girl in the iron lung. The metal barrel had been keeping the girl alive now for two weeks. It was the same amount of time that London realized she had been keeping something alive inside her. One had nothing to do with the other, London knew, but she couldn’t help connecting them. Three miles away a girl was encased in a machine that was pushing air into and pulling air out of her lungs, tethering her to life. Just thinking about it made London suck in a deep breath of chilly October air as she walked down Chelsea, knowing that this air was sinking deep inside her… tethering her to a life, a very small life.

Better to think about the machine.

She pictured a bellows-like tool shoving air into each of the girl’s lungs, which London imagined looked like the pigs’ bladders hanging out to dry at Flannery’s butcher shop on Decatur.

The iron lung fascinated her. Not the polio part. London knew sickness well enough. Sickness had taken both her parents, along with thousands of others, ten years before, when the flu had swept through Boston. The only memory she had of her parents was the morning they’d all docked at the commonwealth pier following the long trip over from Abruzzo. It had been the summer of 1918, and she’d been only four years old, but she remembered her mother’s nervous, excited eyes as the ship pulled alongside the largest building London had ever seen. She remembered her father swinging her onto his shoulders, the smell of his hair, the feel of his smile through the long reach of her arms around his chin. He was dead within a month. Her mother didn’t last much longer. Sickness whisked people away from you in an instant—it was what it was. Girls living day in and day out inside iron machines, that was something else.

London felt close to the girl somehow. She herself had spent many nights trapped inside filthy orphanage dormitories or in even filthier foster homes, sleeping in rooms full of people she didn’t know while some sort of bellows-like force kept her alive.

Two weeks ago—the day the girl went into the iron lung—London had vomited into the leaf-choked gutter on her way to school. After spitting out as much as possible of the nasty taste of the old lady’s watery oatmeal and wiping the thick spit from her face with the back of her hand, she had turned toward the butcher shop on Decatur Street, and then stood on the sidewalk until Alby came out.

It had only taken him a moment to understand. London had always admired this about Alby, how quick-witted he was—his mind whipping colorfully about like the long row of flags lining the front of the Fairmont Copley Plaza on St. James. Her own mind moved more at the speed of the old milk wagons along Meridian. Although the expression on Alby’s face that morning was anything but colorful. Instead it had matched the bleached-out apron he wore, too early in the morning to be splashed with the dark red of blood. When he didn’t move from the shop door, London understood.

Alby was done with her.

She’d approached him. Controlled. Except for her eyes, which she could feel burning in their sockets. Alby didn’t move—as quick as his brain worked, it wasn’t quicker than London’s boot, and she kicked him hard, right in his goddamn plums.

The kick had been nice. After, she’d swiveled on her heel and headed to school, leaving him on his knees. She could feel him holding his tongue while he watched her walk away. London understood immediately that he did this for himself—not for her—so that later he might be proud of how he’d held back, turning his restraint into some sort of atonement or payment for what they’d done. It was a cheap price.

Hers would be higher.

Now London turned off Chelsea onto Bennington, and then crossed the bridge over the tracks. She didn’t mind heading to the old lady’s house. She’d lived all over Eastie in a hundred shitty places, where she had minded it a lot. Living with old lady Dumas suited her fine.

Thelma Dumas rented a single room on the second floor of a triple-decker. The sink ran only cold water and the room had no toilet, so London and the Missus—as London called the old lady—had to descend a flight of stairs and exit the back door to where an outhouse sat inside a yard surrounded by the ricketiest fence London had ever seen, and she’d lived all her life in East Boston, the land of rickety fences. Otherwise, the room wasn’t bad. Its sink was flanked by shelves lined with tins of food and an assortment of cracked dishes. There was also a coal stove that heated the room reasonably well, a table with three chairs, and two beds, one of which London had been sleeping in for three years. Her own bed. Besides a dress, coat, boots, and two pairs of underwear, it was all she could call her own.

Two of the chairs in the room sat on either side of the table, while the third was pulled up close to the room’s single window, which overlooked Bennington Street. This chair was where the old lady spent her days, and except for on the very coldest or rainiest, the window was always open. “To blow the stink out of the place,” the Missus would grumble.

But London knew it was really open for another reason—so the old woman, perched just inside it, might be able to share her lovely opinions with passersby. Opinions such as, “The world is going to hell in a handbasket,” and “Nobody’s listening,” and “Shit like this doesn’t happen in Chicopee,” the small town miles from Boston where the old woman had grown up and thus constantly upheld as the rightest location on earth. Although her favorite opinion, and therefore the one most oft repeated, was, “People are crap.”

The neighborhood was overly familiar with Thelma Dumas’s opinions, which were mostly ignored. However, London’s first few days of being exposed to them were enlightening. A swell of understanding rose within her, and she immediately felt this was the place for her, even if the Missus also believed that London was crap. London tended to agree. She quickly fell into the rhythm of life inside the single room on Bennington Street, staying longer here than she ever had anywhere else. Believing maybe she’d stay forever.

But now London knew her time on Bennington was likely limited. And maybe because of this, she began to notice things, like the way her boots stuck lightly to the greasy stairs as she climbed to the second floor, the crack in the umbrella stand outside Thelma Dumas’s door, or the way the old woman’s face sagged with sadness sometimes as she sat at the window.

London knew she’d have to tell the old woman eventually. She had little hope the Missus would allow her to stay. But then London had never been the hopeful type. She was fourteen, and it was nearly time for her to leave school for the factories anyway. She’d keep it from the old woman, find a job, and then save her scratch until the job fired her and the old woman most likely kicked her out. Past this, London didn’t allow herself to think or plan. Not being the hopeful type, she was also not one to believe things could work out differently from the way she saw them working out all around her every day. Therefore, she knew that this growing being inside her might very well soon be living with her own Thelma Dumas. Still, this stark thought had driven her deep inside herself. Perhaps it was why she didn’t notice that the door was ajar when she reached the second floor.

“Run!” the old lady growled, before she was knocked from her chair by an angry silver-haired cop looming over her.

London was so startled by the strange scene that she didn’t do anything in that first moment but watch the old woman’s head hit the window frame. That was a mistake—London’s hands were violently secured together, and she was shoved against the metal frame of the old woman’s bed, where she tumbled to the floor and then lay desperately trying to catch her breath.

She could hear the old lady shouting at the men. How many, London couldn’t tell. All she could see were boots surrounding the woman’s ratty slippers. London struggled to make sense of what was happening. What had she done? What had the Missus done? Besides the old lady’s hooch, London could think of nothing. Why would a crowd of bulls be interested in a couple of bottles of illegal whiskey?

The cops dragged the Missus from the floor and tossed her back into her chair. London’s head cleared. She could now see there were three cops, making five of them inside the small room, and they seemed to be talking about her. The entire scene was beyond anything London could understand. No one had ever taken any notice of her in her life, except for Alby, and that hadn’t turned out so well.

“I told you what would happen if you didn’t cooperate, you hag,” the silver-haired cop shouted into the old lady’s face.

She responded by spitting into his.

London closed her eyes so she wouldn’t see it, but she sure as hell heard it, as the woman’s head struck the window frame again.

London stumbled to her feet toward the Missus, but one of the badges grabbed a fistful of her hair and dragged her toward the door. London kicked and bit, fighting mightily to keep herself inside the room, but the cop was a genuine baby grand, and with his fist locked in her hair, her body followed her head, her boots scraping across the floor.

The cop stopped abruptly in the doorway, and London, hanging from his hand, finally caught her first solid glimpse of the old lady. Her face was bloodied, her gray hair was a tangled mess, and her dress’s collar was ripped off one of her shoulders, but her eyes shone more brightly than the electric streetlamps in Scollay Square.

“This dago bitch is a moron,” barked the cop holding London by the head, and he shook her in response to his words.

“Piss out your ass!” London cried.

London could hear the old lady’s cackling laughter over the crack of her own skull against the doorframe, making the pain more than worth it.

“Not only are you a moron,” the cop said, turning London’s head to face him, “but you’re also a knocked-up little slut.”

His words struck her harder than her head had hit the doorframe—hearing it like this, out in the open. Pregnant. Yes. She was pregnant. How this man could possibly know, or care, London didn’t have time to ponder. She went limp with confusion as the man jerked her out the door…. The last thing she saw was the old woman’s fists striking out at the gray-haired cop.

London threw herself back toward the room, grasping for the doorframe but only succeeding in slipping off her feet. Her cheek struck the umbrella stand, which spun down the sticky steps, cracking into loud shattering pieces.

“My umbrella stand!” Thelma Dumas screeched. “You broke my stand! That was from Chicopee!”

As London was dragged down the stairs past the shards of clay, the old woman’s voice rang in her ears over and over.

“Chicopee! Did you hear me! Chicopee, goddamn it!”

After London was tossed onto the floor of the waiting police wagon, she could still hear the old lady shouting the word “Chicopee”—that is, until the metal door was slammed and locked, and the vibration of the truck’s motor thumped into action beneath her chest.

The gritty floor felt cool against her throbbing cheek. It was dark in the metal box, and the girl in the iron lung sprang back into London’s mind. For a moment, London imagined she was there, curled up inside the lung, but then the truck ground into gear and jumped forward.

London leaped to her feet and beat the hell out of the locked door of the police wagon as the vehicle took off toward the tracks.

Later, she wished she’d taken one last look up at that window.

Reading Group Guide

A Reading Group Guide to

The Degenerates

by J. Albert Mann

About the Book

The Massachusetts School for the Feebleminded Youth was not a happy place. It was more of a prison than a school, and people diagnosed as morons, imbeciles, and idiots were locked away there for life. Set in the early twentieth century when the poor, the disabled, and the marginalized—including people of color and members of the LGBTQIA community—were rounded up and locked away, The Degenerates follows four young women determined to change their fates. Alice is brought to the school by her brother when he decides he can’t support a sister with a clubfoot. Fourteen-year-old London is dragged there when she becomes pregnant. Sisters Maxine and Rose are deemed disposable in a family with many mouths to feed. This fiery novel delivers a shocking portrayal of the way society once dealt with people who did not conform to the perceived physical, social, and moral standards of the day.

Discussion Questions

1. How would you describe London’s removal from her foster home? What does it tell you about the legal rights of children at the time? The policeman told London, “‘Not only are you a moron, but you are also a knocked-up little slut.’” Why was his use of the word moron dangerous for London, and why was her pregnancy considered an offense?

2. After a woman on the street noticed Alice’s clubfoot and her sister-in-law’s pregnant belly, she urged the expectant mother to, “‘Pray to the Lord this next one don’t come out tainted.’” What assumption was this woman making? What did she mean by “tainted”? Why do you think she felt free to make such a comment?

3. At the school, a nurse tested London’s intelligence and concluded she was “a high-grade moron.” In what way was this test biased? Why was this problematic? Do you think there was any chance that London or any other girls could have passed? Explain your answers.

4. Discuss the meaning of the words moron, imbecile, idiot, and degenerate as they were understood in the early twentieth century as compared to today. How has or hasn’t the use of these words changed?

5. Life inside the school was an endless routine of whistles for waking up, group toilet time, walking in circles, clapping to stand and dress and undress, and bedtime at 5:30. Define the word monotony and how people, in general, react to it. What everyday freedoms do you enjoy that the characters in the book do not? Imagine having these freedoms restricted or taken from you. How would your life change as a result?

6. Rose asked why the walking paths went in circles and was told, “‘My dear, the feebleminded body is lacking a vital force. The paths circle to remove decision or choice.’” Why is freedom of choice vital for human beings? What choices do you make every day? How do you think your life would change if you were not allowed to make personal choices? How does this wear on the girls inside the school?

7. London felt like she had been “punched in the stomach” when she learned she had been committed to the institution for life: “You have been deemed unfit. This isn’t prison. There is no parole. You just live here now.” How does that statement make you feel? Why was London’s first thought for her unborn child? What does hereditary mean, and what were the implications for her child?

8. Maxine struggled with the sadness and confusion she felt about being exiled from her home. The superintendent of the school assured her she had committed no crime; instead, she praised Maxine’s mother for recognizing Maxine’s feeblemindedness at an early age, saying, “‘Because, my dear, every moron, especially the higher-grade moron, such as yourself, is a potential criminal.’” What do you think Maxine felt at that moment? Have you ever been unfairly judged or underestimated, or watched someone else be treated that way? How did it make you feel? How did you handle the situation?

9. Rose kept a stick hidden near her bed, which she curled up with at night “like it was some sort of baby doll.” Why might Rose develop a relationship with an inanimate object? Why do you think she chose a stick?

10. What did Alice mean when she said she “could feel herself slipping, unlearning things she’d once known. Stitching hems and washing bedsheets didn’t help you learn.” How is exposure to new thoughts, ideas, and information vital to human growth and development? Give an example from your own life to support your answer.

11. When Maxine confessed to stealing money to protect her sister, she was wrestled to the ground and strapped in a straitjacket. She cried out, “‘I hate you! I hate you! I hate you all!’” Why was such an expression of raw emotion dangerous? What does it reveal about the hierarchy within the school? Consider Alice’s explanation that begins with “They were allowed to feel—the attendants, the nurses, the doctors,” and relate it to her “walnut” coping mechanism.

12. After escaping a second time, London was recaptured when she broke the window at the Flannery family butcher shop. Alby Flannery was the father of her baby, and we learned his father had turned London in to remove the threat of the “knocked-up dago bitch.” Discuss Alby’s character. Why wasn’t he labeled a degenerate and locked away? How have attitudes changed or not changed regarding men, women, and pregnancy?

13. Badly beaten, London was returned to the school where she suffered a miscarriage. An attendant promised to “‘lay the little thing to rest . . . It will be buried as proper as I can do it.’” Another nurse proclaimed the miscarriage was for the best: “‘God knows, we don’t need another generation of mental defectives.’” Discuss these statements in the context of what society believed about the value of human life. What might a more sensitive healthcare provider have said to London? How might this experience and the way it was handled affect London’s future?

14. London was forced to listen in silence as the head nurse admonished her: “Be thankful you’re here in Massachusetts. Almost any other state would have you sterilized, as well you should be. Motherhood is a privilege, my dear, not a right.” How does this statement make you feel? What was meant by sterilization? How did society justify this position at that time? What kind of arguments can you make against this justification?

15. In the Back Ward where London was forced to hose down other women and “scoop shit into a bucket,” an attendant called the women “animals.” In response, London “turned and sprayed the attendant directly in the face for two solid minutes.” How would you describe London’s action and motivation? How did the scene relate to the one in the autopsy room where London said incurables “don’t need to be prevented”?

16. A doctor proclaimed that the babies in the crib room were “‘insensitive to hunger, cold, and pain.’” By way of demonstration, he “reached in Miriam’s crib and pinched her. Hard.” London had to stop herself from “leaping at him and ripping out his throat.” How did the doctor’s attitude align with the eugenics movement of the day? Discuss the meaning of the word dehumanization, and relate it this scene.

17. “‘Alice,’” London snapped. “‘It’s time to stop wondering if this piece of shit place has you pegged right. You won’t make it out of here if you believe these pricks.’” What does it mean to have someone pegged? How can being pegged make life difficult? Why is what you believe about yourself more important than what others believe? Explain your answers.

18. During London’s struggle to save the babies, Rose, and herself from the fire, Rose and her beloved stick played an important part in their rescue. Discuss how this scene demonstrates that every person has something to contribute.

Extension Activities

Are You Worthy? One of the book’s historical notes says, “The early twentieth century saw the emergence of a powerful union between science and social policy called Eugenics—the pseudo-science of human improvement or human breeding.” Using The Degenerates and internet sources, ask students to compile a list of human traits that eugenics considered unworthy. Discuss the stereotypes and prejudices that arose from this, and why it was problematic. Research the way society accommodates and celebrates people with differences today. For example, businesses are now required to provide equal access for the handicapped.

The Presumed Guilty Make Fine Punching Bags. London is punched, kicked, and tossed around by the police despite being pregnant and only fourteen years old. Search for news accounts of contemporary incidents of police brutality against teenagers. Write an essay about how a particular incident was similar to or different from London’s treatment. What has changed or stayed the same with the police, society, and/or our judicial system? What might account for the changes or similarities?

The Next Chapter? At the conclusion of The Degenerates, London is still at the institution. Divide your class into two groups and ask them to brainstorm about the next chapter of her life. Based on their knowledge of her character, what do they think happens to her? Ask each group to develop a detailed theory, supported by their own insights into her character, and present it for classroom discussion.

A Ball and a Stick. Human needs do not change, even under difficult circumstances. Ask your students to watch or read about the movie Cast Away, paying close attention to the volleyball character, Wilson. Lead a classroom discussion about the psychology behind the relationship that Tom Hanks’s character develops with Wilson, and compare it to Rose and her stick.

Dear Rebel. The author dedicates The Degenerates “To every girl who has ever been told to take it down a notch.” Instruct students to write a letter to London explaining how they feel about her treatment before and during her confinement, and encouraging her to keep standing up for herself.

Lexile ® HL820L

Guide written by Colleen Carroll, literacy specialist, education consultant, and author of the twelve-volume series, How Artists See and four-volume How Artists See, Jr. (Abbeville Press); and Elaine Marranzano, for Carroll Education Services. Elaine is a freelance writer specializing in health and education. Contact Colleen at

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit or

The Lexile reading level has been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®

About The Author

Photograph © J. Albert Mann

J. Albert Mann is the author of several middle grade and young adult novels, including The Degenerates and What Every Girl Should Know. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in writing for children and young adults. She prefers books with unhappy endings to happy ones. Visit her at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (March 16, 2021)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781534419360
  • Grades: 9 and up
  • Ages: 14 - 99
  • Lexile ® HL820L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®

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Raves and Reviews

“The author portrays the movement's prejudice, racism, and violence with brutal realism; an author's note explains that the doctors' dehumanizing dialogue comes verbatim from real medical notes. Crucially, she reminds readers that such prejudice still exists. . . . Respectful, unflinching, and eye-opening.”

– Kirkus Reviews

Awards and Honors

  • Kansas NEA Reading Circle List High School Title
  • TAYSHAS Reading List (TX)
  • Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year Selection Title
  • Massachusetts Book Award Honor Title

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