Les AutresMy 38-year-old son Aaron, who has an extra chromosome 21 (Down Syndrome), lived in our family home until the age of twenty-one. He then moved to a group home where he lives during the week, but he continues to spend most weekends with me. We normally take in movies, or visit favorite haunts like video game parlors, the aquarium, or the zoo. At the zoo, Aaron can always be relied upon to read the information placards aloud to me, often adding other tidbits of animal information that he has picked up elsewhere.Aaron was taught to read between ages three and five, earlier than most normal children. This training was part of an experimental early childhood stimulation/education program for Down Syndrome children at the Experimental Education Unit of the University of Washington. Aaron's mother brought him to the program for a couple of hours every weekday, from before age one until he began kindergarten. One of the EEU's pioneering departures, during the early 1970s, was teaching the children to read and write, and starting them early.The program's success with its first class became rather celebrated in the little world of special education, and in a way so did all the members of that class. All of its members --- Aaron, Denny, Kari, Martha, Lupita, Jeff, Glenn, Christy, Patrick, Scott, Lori, and BJ --- learned to read and write, most at an early age. Their facility varied. Martha and Lupita, from Latino families, became literate to some degree in both English and Spanish. The most fluent readers in the class were Denny (who died last Spring, at age 38) and Aaron.Besides reading placards at the zoo, Aaron regularly peruses the film advertisements in the newspaper... and sometimes the film reviews ... in order to pick movies for our weekend outings. At times, Aaron even proposes foreign films (with foreign titles) that he has seen advertised.
We decide which film to see by negotiation. I absolutely veto certain categories of cinematic art, such as anything by Quentin Tarentino, but otherwise we consider a wide range of choices. Once, when we were considering a film called "Squall," I pointed out that it was reputed to have a realistic and really scary storm at sea. "Oh good," Aaron replied, rubbing his hands together in anticipation, "violence!"
Aaron's reading does not extend to modern theater, so it is unlikely that he is acquainted with the work of Arthur Miller. However, Aaron does have a connection to a part of the famous playwright's life which was virtually unknown until it was revealed in recent articles in Vanity Fair and the New York Times. In 1966, Miller and his third wife Inge Morath had a son, Daniel, born with Down Syndrome. Inge wanted to keep the baby, the articles report, but Miller was adamant that it had to be sent away. Daniel was institutionalized soon after his birth, spent his infancy at an institution in New York City, and the entire rest of his childhood at the Southbury Training School for retarded children in Connecticut. The latter had earlier been one of the best such facilities in the nation, but underfunding and overcrowding made it rather dismal by the time Daniel grew up there in the 1970s and early 80s.
Inge visited the boy regularly at Southbury, but his father never did, and eliminated him from his life entirely, never mentioning his existence in public nor in his autobiography Timebends. Despite the limitations of life in Southbury, Daniel grew up to be a rather high-functioning Downser. For many years after graduating he has held a job and lived semi-independently. His good nature and high spirits have charmed everyone who has met him. In his old age, Arthur Miller finally had some limited contact with his now grown Downser son, and explicitly included Daniel in his will, leaving him a share of the estate equal to that of each of Miller's other children.
The story has generated much comment, not surprising in view of Arthur Miller's reputation as a humanitarian, moralist, and unofficial tribune of the Left. Conservative bloggers, in particular, have been having a field day excoriating Miller's character in the light of his apparently heartless treatment of his youngest child. I find this unseemly, not least because Danny himself would never look at matters that way. But it is surely a haunting story, in view of the central role that the relations of fathers and sons play in Arthur Miller's own work: think of All My Sons, as well as Death of A Salesman.
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Arthur Miller's decision was entirely conventional for people of his time and background. My wife and I had not the slightest hesitation about raising Aaron at home, and neither, I believe, did the parents of Denny, Kari, Martha, Lupita, Jeff, Glenn, Christy, Patrick, Scott, Lori, and BJ. Our generation was very different in this regard from our parents' generation. Among the generation that grew up before World War II, it was normal to institutionalize developmentally disabled children, and in fact physicians invariably advised parents to do so.
This outlook stemmed partly from a tragic underestimation of the educability of developmentally disabled children, particularly of those with Down Syndrome. It also came partly from concern that the burden of raising a special needs child at home would be damaging for the other children. Finally, there must have been the straightjacket of bourgeois propriety: after all, Downser children are not quite like the others; they look a little different and their behaviour can be goofy.
Arthur Miller, born in 1916, belonged to the generation which carried this mindset. It is not exactly news that bourgeois Leftists carry the prejudices of the bourgeois category as much as the Left category --- whatever they imagine or pretend. Moreover, turning Danny over to an institution comported exactly with the prejudices of the second category. The state-socialist inclinations of the Old Left preached that difficulties of life ought to be entirely the responsibility of the state, or the collective, or society as a whole --- anything, dear God, anything, other than ourselves as individuals.
Different axioms lead in a different direction, regardless of propriety. Anne de Gaulle, born in 1928 with Down Syndrome, was the daughter of the young officer Charles de Gaulle and his wife Yvonne. Anne was never separated from her parents throughout her life, and her father always made time to spend with her. Famously chilly and formal in public, the General was reputed to be warmer and more outgoing with Anne. When she died at the family home of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, General de Gaulle said simply: "Maintenant, elle est comme les autres." [Now, she is like the others.]
Charles and Yvonne de Gaulle were unusual parents for their time. But their course of action had become the normal one among the generation that grew up after World War II. This one-generation transformation of mores in regard to the rearing of special needs children at home is really quite remarkable. Indeed, in its way it is nothing short of revolutionary. It pertains to human rights at the most fundamental level, although the human rights of a special sub-population. It may even belong to the same complex of attitude changes which enabled the civil rights movement in the USA to finally make good on the promises of the 14th amendment, after 100 years. In Britain and northern Europe a similar change undermined the old class-culture of deference and subordination, and in the western world generally liberated women from limitation to traditional social roles.
What produced these remarkable post-WWII changes in conventional social attitudes? I don't understand how it took place in detail. But, like everything else associated with the "baby boom" generation, the clues must lie in the 1950s, during which we spent our childhood and youth.
It has long been commonplace to run down the 1950s as that awful, awful period of McCarthyism and suburban growth and Man-in-the-Grey-Flannel-Suit conformism. I myself remember viewing the 1950s as awful when I lived through them, although I cannot now put my finger on what actually was so awful. In the 60s, we fancied that we were "liberating" ourselves from the 50s, but it is possible that we were just enacting a zeitgeist that we had already breathed in as we were growing up in that previous decade. Perhaps we didn't notice this for the same reason that fish do not notice water.
Or perhaps it was another kind of liberation, simply the great post-war economic expansion. This was exceptional not only in the rate of economic growth, but also in the broad diffusion throughout society of greater affluence and ease of life. I suspect this is what gave us the cultural change in all its facets: the suburban sprawl and consumerism which we now dismiss as "awful;" the spirit of liberation, social tolerance, and experimentation that we ascribe to the 60s (as if these things came out of nowhere); and the new empathy for those not comme les autres which led us, in contrast to most of Arthur Miller's generation, to welcome our special needs children directly and wholeheartedly into our lives.--- Jon Gallant