I don’t remember why I picked this up, I have a vague recollection of reading something on someone’s blog. Then I shelved it and forgot about it for a while. It’s not the sort of thing I usually read. Generally I avoid best sellers. Though its funny, when I do give in and read one, I almost always enjoy the book.
Now that I think about it, I can see that my reading tastes have changed quite a bit in the past few years. When I was younger I mostly read science-fiction and fantasy with a good dose of mystery novels. Oh I read classics too, but not so much of the contemporary fiction. I know that my interaction with this novel now is a great deal different than it would have been three years ago. Being a wife and mother has changed who I am, how I see the world. And so I have an insider’s perspective when reading about families, when reading novels from the point of view of parents, that I didn’t have before.
In any case I did like The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, though its not a book I’ll add to my permanent collection. It’s the story of a father who gives away his daughter, born with Down Syndrome, telling her mother that she died at birth. It’s also the story of the mother, the twin brother, and the nurse who instead of leaving the baby at an institution, decides to raise the girl herself.
No Love Without Suffering
Yesterday I posted a passage from Pope Benedict in which he defined love as passion. It struck me as I read this novel that that is fundamentally what is missing from the father, David Henry, he fails to see that “there can be no love without suffering.”
“Anyone who has consistently avoided suffering does not understand other people; he becomes hard and selfish,” continues the Pope and that is exactly what you see in David Henry. His hardness becomes a wall between him and his bewildered wife and son. The wall starts to break down later in the novel when he returns to his childhood home and finally allows himself to grieve the death of his sister. But he never truly reconciles himself with his rejection of his daughter. The nurse, Caroline, fares much better for, though her decision not to let the mother know about the survival of her daughter is not entirely unselfish, she also allows herself to be vulnerable to the pains that loving Phoebe necessarily involves.
This novel isn’t pro-life in a political sense but what Barbara Nicolosi said about Gen X movies in her review of Juno seems to be true of this story as well:
Juno is also pro-life, in the way that just about every Gen-X movie about pregnancy is pro-life, and more so. (I would say Juno is a cultural message movie without being a political one. Certainly, that will be an inscrutable nuance in contemporary Christendom in which almost everything is politics. What I think is interesting is that Gen Xers and Millenials are pro-life without necessarily being Culture of Life. They don’t put together all the pieces in the puzzle….not yet anyway.) The movie is also anti-divorce in the way that just about every Gen-X movie about family is anti-divorce. And people with faith are here too, in a decent and gritty way that shows mere secularism to be selfish and shallow.
The novel shows Phoebe as a fully human person, not the victim of a disease. It shows that her life is worth living. And yet it does so in a way that avoids making a political statement:
He realized, with a deep sense of shame, that his pity for Phoebe, like his mother’s assumption of her dependence, had been foolish and unnecessary. Phoebe liked herself and she lkied her life; she was happy. All the striving he had done, all the competition and awards, the long and futile struggle to both please himself and impress his father—placed next to Phoebe’s life, all this seemed a little foolish too.
Or, rather, there is an overt political struggle in the novel but it’s in Caroline’s battle to get Phoebe and other children with Down syndrome accepted into the public school system. (It seems more like a civil rights battle than a pro-life one.)
What struck me was that the novel is blind to the fact that today it is the rare child with Down syndrome who is born at all (It has been estimated in recent years about 90 percent of unborn babies that test positive for Down syndrome are aborted.) In the author interview at the back of the novel she focuses on how attitudes have changed:
…the attitudes David has about Down syndrome may seem outrageous to us now, but there was a time, not all that long ago, when these ideas were widely held.
The reason attitudes have changed, quite simply, is because the parents of children with Down syndrome refused, as Caroline does in this novel, to accept imposed limitations for their children. The fight that Caroline fights during this book is emblematic of struggles that took place all over the country during this era to change prevailing attitudes and to open doors that had been slammed shut.
Is Kim Edwards unaware that in fact attitudes have shifted so little, that most parents today don’t simply give these children away, hide them in institutions, no, they kill them in the womb? Or are those ideas being obscured by the editor of the interview? The gap in her statement about changing attitudes strikes me as very odd. Like Nicolosi says, there is in her statements a sense of the value of life, but—at least as quoted here—she doesn’t put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
Still, I wonder if the book doesn’t represent a shift in attitude. It spent some time at the top of the NY Times bestseller list. And it presents a very positive portrait of the life of an individual with Down syndrome. It seems to be that if we are to hope for a Culture of Life, a national change of heart, a turning away from abortion and towards acceptance of life, this is precisely the sort of story that will fuel such a tidal shift. Parents kill their children out of fear, especially fear of the unknown. But if more parents facing such difficult diagnoses had encountered positive stories like this one, that show the great value of life, I think fewer parents would be afraid.
And one final thought about the struggle the book details: the parents pushing so hard to get their children into the public school system. It was hard for me to wrap my mind around it at first. For the past three years I’ve spent so much time reading so much about homeschooling, about parents making the choice to pull their children out of schools which are unable to tailor their structures to fit the needs of all sorts of children. I hadn’t thought very much about how just a generation ago schools didn’t offer much if any support for “special needs”. How the tides have shifted.
Hope and Redemption
To return briefly, to the subject of love. If the father, David, exhibits a fear of love, an absence of the self-sacrifice needed to attain true love, the novel shows that there is hope for redemption in the son. The sins of his father have certainly wounded him, but Paul is capable of making the leap his father never does:
For the rest of his life, he realized, he would be torn like this, aware of Phoebe’s awkwardness, the difficulties she encountered in the world simply by being different, and yet propelled beyond all this by her direct and guileless love.
By her love, yes. And, he realized, awash in the notes, by his own new and strangely uncomplicated love for her.
Related Links and Stories
Related story about Italian parents aborting Down syndrome twin.
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