Monday, June 15, 2009

Timeless or culture bound: The Memory Keeper?

I'm at the beach reading a novel called "The Memory Keeper's Daughter" by Kim Edwards. I found it on the bookshelf in our rental house.

It's a beautifully, lyrically written book that reminds me of Virginia Woolf, but I am bothered by the way it imposes a "post 1980" sensibility on the years 1964 and 1965. (The book is divided into sections that represent different years: 1964, 1965, 1970, ending in 1989. I am just finishing the section "1965." The book was apparently published in 2005.)

Here is the plot in brief: The beautiful young wife of a doctor goes into labor on a snowy evening with their first baby. Because a heavy snowstorm is so unusual in Lexington, Kentucky, where they live, the medical clinic is deserted when they get there. The doctor calls his nurse, a 30 yesr-old "spinster" who is in love with him. She comes and helps deliver the baby. The wife is "gassed" at crucial moments, so goes in and out of consciousness.

The couple has twins rather than a single child. The first child to come out, their son, is perfectly typical, but the second, surprise child, a daughter, obviously has Down Syndrome. The doctor is horrified. His wife is unconscious. The doctor, wanting to spare his wife grief, quickly hands the baby girl over to his nurse with an address for a home for the "feebleminded" and tells her to drop the baby there. He then tells his wife, who is aware of having pushed out a second infant, that the baby girl died.

So far so good. The details are believable and vivid (though I imagine in 1964 the doctor and nurse would have seen nothing wrong in calling the baby a "mongoloid"). But here is where things begin to go awry. The young wife, starting in the clinic, wants to have had the chance to hold the "dead" baby. The author, thank the heavens, doesn't use the word "closure," but you know that's what the wife wants: closure. She feels cheated and upset that she didn't get to hold the baby and that there's no acknowledgement of the baby's death. She even goes as far, at the urging of her hippie sister, Bree, to put a notice in the paper advertising a memorial service for the dead baby. The existence of the "dead" baby also puts a rift in her relationship with her husband.

Ok. The wife is having a perfectly normal post-1980 response to a death. But I grew up in the 1960s, and this kind of response bears no relationship to anything I remember from that very different culture.

I remember two death incidences from my elementary school years. In the first, when I was in the fourth grade, my third grade friend Eileen--my other friend Aimee and I would walk home from school with her-- developed leukemia. We didn't know that leukemia was 100 percent fatal at that time and parents didn't tell us. We did know that Eileen was sick, because she had radiation treatments and her hair fell out. She would wear a light blue silk scarf, ala Jackie Kennedy, tied under her chin. She was a very sweet, cheerful girl.

Not long after the radiation ended, she died. We were a bit shocked. I heard from Aimee, whose family was close with Eileen's, that under advice from their doctor, the family was getting rid of any reminder of Eileen. They had another daughter and they were going to seal up the hole around Eileen by pretending she had never existed. This way they would not grieve. It seemed a bit sad to me that they would erase Eileen, but it made a certain amount of sense: Eileen couldn't come back and why should the family suffer?

The second instance was my classmate Richard's dog. His very cute Yorkshire terrier was a kind of class mascot, who'd been with us through fourth, fifth and finally sixth grade at our new school. He was so adorable that sometimes when he followed Richard to school, the teacher would let him run around the classroom for a few minutes before shooing him out.

In the sixth grade, the dog got run over by a car and killed. Our teacher informed us of this, along with the information that Richard, who was out of school for the day, was going with his parents immediately to get a replacement Yorkshire terrier who'd be "just like" the former dog. By having no gap between dogs, he wouldn't grieve. We were admonished to treat the new dog as if it were the old dog to "help" Richard. This was 1970. To my 11 year old mind, you couldn't just replace a dog, and other kids must have raised that question, because our teacher insisted all the more vehemently that dogs were indeed interchangeable. After a day, Richard wouldn't know the difference.

A larger cultural representation of this attitude was expressed in an original Star Trek episode. Captain Kirk is so stricken with grief over the death of a young woman that Spock offers him the ultimate 1960s mercy: a Vulcan mind meld that erases the memory. There's no sense at all that Kirk's grieving is healthy or necessary.

Of course, to our 21st-century sensibilities, these responses to death are shocking. At the time, they were presented as very modern, clinical, cutting edge, clean, rational and enlightened, a way to avoid wallowing in the morbid preoccupations of the death that characterized the past. Mourning was uncomfortable. It could be dispensed with by using logic and forethought.

We know now that you can't simply will grief out of your life. We can't just forget. Mourning, holding a dead baby, memorial services for dead babies and miscarried infants, public and family remembances of the departed, are cherished cultural ideals.

But in 1964? No. People soldiered on. Although this thing called the "1960s" was happening, especially from 1967 on, and women were wearing miniskirts and college students were protesting the war, none of this was more than superficial to the culture of the Baltimore suburb where I lived. We went on as we always had. Family secrets stayed in the closet. Avoiding shame was more important than finding closure. The 1960s women I knew would not have advertised the death of an infant because gossip and blame or pity would have been more likely than encouragement and support or empathy. (Remember "Diary of a Mad Housewife?" In this early 70s movie, the woman, after outlining her utterly barren and horrendous life, is excoriated by her "support group" for not being happy with a well-to-do husband, a Park Avenue apartment and two children.)

I wonder why imposing contemporary cultural norms on the past bothers me so much? I suppose on one level it's simply the falseness, the "that's not the way it happened" feeling. But I also think that by exploring how people used to respond, by going deeper than getting the superficial facts of car makes and clothing styles down, we learn more about ourselves. We learn that our attitudes and our responses are not necessarily universal or given. We understand that at different times and in different cultures, cultural norms we take for granted might not have been accepted or allowed. In a spiritual sense, we can learn gratitude for what we have that other's didn't, such as the ability to mourn openly, and can better evaluate what may seem eternal in our culture as perhaps very transitory.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Hi Di,

What an amazing post. I think books like "Memory Keeper" are written in an attempt to make some sense out of the past. Your contention that "people did not think that way" is probably true. How did people think in the 60s? How accurate is your memory of these events?

I have my own dog story, from 1965. I had a black cocker spaniel puppy named George. He was a great dog. I really loved him, in the way six year old boys do.

George also got run over by a car, right in front of my house. I didn't see it happen, but I heard it. George wasn't killed, but he was hurt badly. I remember someone (my Dad, probably -- was he home? I can't remember) carried him back to our side porch and put him in his little plastic dog bed. There was a lot of blood I remember. A vet was never considered. I remember that he lay quietly in his bed until he died.

Why did my parents not take the dog to the vet? I've always thought it was because it would have cost too much. Plus there was my father's assessment that George couldn't be saved anyway, so what was the point? The idea of getting another dog was out of the question too -- look what happened to the first one! So, as you say, I "soldiered on."

In my memory of the event, I don't remember thinking that my parents were being harsh or unfeeling. And my six-year old's memory of this is undoubtedly different from my parents' or siblings. But thinking about it now, 40 years later, I can't help but feel that they were. There is a doubleness to the memory, which is neither of the 60s or the 2000s, but exists somewhere else.

Tom Smith said...

Being "trapped" in cultural trappings reminds me somewhat of "The Giver." Things seemed completely "normal" within the culture until the "giver" becomes a seeker.

I think it is critical to understand what has been "given" to us as accurately as possible but not to become trapped in what is given but to continue to seek our own understanding.

Mary Ellen said...

I read that book too - a good "airplane book." I didn't think about the possibility that the author had shown the mother acting out of character to the period - rather, it seemed more far-fetched that the young husband would send the Down's syndrome baby off to an institution to protect the mother. One thought: I imagine that women did indeed grieve stillborn babies, and and find their way into the dark woods of depression with no communal holding of their grief in sacred space. And we know that the perception that it simply is untrue that Puritan or other early settlers didn't grieve for the many children who died, even though it wasn't publicly supported, and they were expected to move on quickly. So - how does it come about that these social patterns change? Someone, somewhere along the line telling the truth about their condition, making it accessible to others, imaginable.

Mary Ellen said...

Sorry - mangled that sentence: And we know that it is simply untrue that Puritan or other early settlers didn't grieve for the many children who died, even though it wasn't publicly supported, and they were expected to move on quickly.

I got that perception from reading the published diaries of Cotton Mather, who indeed keenly felt the loss of his young daughter (possibly more than one) who was burned to death when her bonnet caught on fire from the fireplace - but it never occurred to him to let the other daughters dispense with wearing the bonnet.