Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Millers' Son

As Dolores pointed out in the comments to this post, Arthur Miller's claims to being a great moral example are severely compromised now that the story of how he institutionalized his son, who had Down's Syndrome, has been revealed. What really stings is the fact that Miller rarely visited and never talked about Danny; it's one thing to decide that doctors and professionals can take care of your disabled child better than you can, but another thing to pretend that he doesn't even exist.

Though it can never be easy to raise a disabled child, I feel it must be worse for people who work in creative fields--people who don't earn a steady salary and who need time each day to be alone with their thoughts. For someone who works a regular nine-to-five job, raising a disabled child may require cutting back on overtime hours, advancing more slowly up the career ladder, socializing less often with friends. But for a playwright like Miller or a globetrotting photographer like his wife, Inge Morath, it may require completely abandoning one's artistic vocation--an integral part of oneself. And most artists aren't even as successful/famous as Miller and Morath were when they had Danny; if Miller needed money he could always give lectures or something, but most other artists need to have a day job to pay the bills. It would be superhuman for anyone to work full-time, and raise a disabled child, and write great plays. It might be possible to do two of those things, but not all three...

Therefore, even though I'm not sure whether I want to have children and if I do have them it will be many years in the future, I already worry about giving birth to a severely disabled baby and being forced to give up writing and theatergoing and everything that I have worked so hard to achieve. Could I accept it without bitterness? Could I find the strength and selflessness that would be required of me?

Even if I didn't have playwriting aspirations--if I were just an intellectual young woman--these worries would still haunt me. I have written before that I think I am very much like A.S. Byatt's character, Frederica Potter. In Babel Tower, Frederica is the mother of a little boy named Leo. Previous books show Frederica as very cerebral and quite self-centered, so you assume she'll be a cold and distracted sort of mother, but I like that Byatt makes a less obvious choice. Although Frederica doesn't really do baby-talk and cuddles, she is nevertheless a very good mother--because she takes Leo seriously, listens to what he has to say, answers his questions with care and honesty. The mind is so important to Frederica that she cannot help but be concerned with what is going into the formation of Leo's mind and personality--as all parents ought to be.

This strikes me as a very truthful portrait of how cerebral women express their love for their children. And if I ever am a mother, I think I will be similar to Frederica. Thus, the idea of having a child who is mentally disabled--who may never learn to talk--with whom I could never share a mature conversation, or even the kind of conversation that adults have with curious five-year-old children--frightens me a lot. Because it wouldn't play to my natural strengths as a mother. Because to me, the reward for raising a child is watching him develop all the way to adulthood and feeling your relationship with him evolve.

Other people must have similar worries, and in fact, I just learned about a new play that addresses this issue. When Jason Grote tweeted that a play called Precious Little is the best thing he's seen in years, I quickly looked it up. It is by Madeleine George (who, let me note in passing, is another former winner of the Young Playwrights Contest) and deals with "a linguist who, in her early forties, decides to have a baby on her own and discovers through prenatal testing that the child may have a genetic abnormality... She tries to figure out whether she can deal with having a child who might never speak to her."

I'm intrigued already.

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