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The Twilight Of Andrew Solomon

Ever heard of the 1993 play “The Twilight of the Golds” [1]? It’s about a conservative Jewish family who are generally opposed to abortion, until genetic testing reveals that a pregnant member is likely to give birth to a homosexual child. How far do their pro-life convictions go? I’ve not seen the play, but from what I’ve read about it, the prospect of bringing into this world a gay child severely tests the family’s abstract convictions, and reveals the family to be moral cowards.

I thought about that play while reading Cristina Nehring’s astonishing account [2] in Slate of raising her Down syndrome daughter Eurydice as a single mother (the child’s father abandoned them after seeing that his newborn daughter was disabled). Her essay is a response to a new book by Andrew Solomon. Nehring writes:

“Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger,” writes Andrew Solomon in his often incisive and occasionally exasperating new book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity [3]. The arty gay son of pharmaceutical millionaires, Solomon is intrigued by the difference at the heart of parent-child relationships. Why, he asks, in several hundred interviews with exceptional families, “do parents devote themselves to raising children who are nothing at all like the ones they thought they could love?” Why do they commit their lives to kids with Down syndrome, dwarfism, deafness, autism, multiple disability syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other “alien” features? And why, most puzzlingly, do they sometimes “end up grateful for experiences they would [once] have done anything to avoid?”

Nehring admits that had she known that the baby she was carrying had Down syndrome, and would later develop leukemia, and that she would be left alone to care for the child, she would have considered suicide as a rational response. But now, Eurydice is four, and Nehring sees things differently:

Wherever she goes, she brings people together—imperiously gesturing to cantankerous couples to sit down together and lifting their palms onto each others’ thighs, reconciling warring classmates by joining their hands, and charming child-leery adults with flirty smiles and studious imitations of their idiosyncrasies. Her gifts are the opposite of my own: Where I am shy, she is bold; where I am good with (known) words, she is good with drama, dance, and music; where I am frightened of groups, she loves them, and the children in her preschool compete hard to sit by her side at lunchtime as the nurses in her hospital petitioned to be assigned to her room.

Am I “cheerily generalizing” as Solomon says of other Down syndrome parents, “from a few accomplishments” of my child? Perhaps I am. But one thing I’ve learned these last four years that possibly Solomon has not: All of our accomplishments are few. All of our accomplishments are minor: my scribblings, his book, the best lines of the best living poets. We embroider away at our tiny tatters of insight as though the world hung on them, when it is chiefly we ourselves who hang on them. Often a dog or cat with none of our advanced skills can offer more comfort to our neighbor than we can. (Think: Would you rather live with Shakespeare or a cute puppy?) Each of us has the ability to give only a little bit of joy to those around us. I would wager Eurydice gives as much as any person alive.

Later in the piece, Nehring notes that Solomon, for all the wisdom his interviews with parents of “different” children gave him, reveals himself to be a coward:

When all is said and done, Solomon mainly wants to bank an A-1 baby. While quickly regretting the “economic privilege” required for the engineering of his perfect offspring [N.B., Solomon is wealthy and gay. — RD], he becomes “extremely deliberate about the egg selection.” Having prepared the ground for his reproductive missions by marrying his partner in a “shot-gun wedding” at the ancestral estate of the late Diana, princess of Wales, Solomon sifts donor profiles, consults attorneys, and flies around the globe to negotiate optimal parenting conditions.

But when the boy is born and needs a not-uncommon 5-minute CT scan, Solomon is ready to flee. Not merely does he panic, but he finds himself “try[ing] hard not to love” his newborn and has visions of “giving him up into [the] care” of an institution. All this within moments of a very small question being raised about the perfection of his child. All this from the author of Far From the Tree.

Read the whole thing.  [2] An astonishing piece.


18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "The Twilight Of Andrew Solomon"

#1 Comment By Dennis On November 28, 2012 @ 4:48 pm

Great article. Looking at many of the comments at Slate though, offers a disturbing glimpse into the mind of the average Slate reader. They read like a bunch of Peter Singer disciples – ruthless, cold-hearted, and lacking in any human warmth.

One guys says he supports “universal health care” but says he doesn’t want to be forced to help pay for the care of children like Eurydice with Down Syndrome, whose parents “made irresponsible choices” (in the context of the stream, he implies that not only should pre-natal testing for Down Syndrome be mandatory, but that mandatory abortions should be required also, so that Down Syndrome children will be eradicated and won’t be an economic drain on society or the health care system). Sadly, this inhumane mindset seems to be growing.

#2 Comment By Doug Miller On November 28, 2012 @ 4:53 pm

Why, exactly, is her piece astonishing? Your title suggests some connection between Solomon and the Golds. Could you lay that out a bit more explicitly?

#3 Comment By alkali On November 28, 2012 @ 5:08 pm

It was unclear to me from Nehring’s review — and I have not yet read Solomon’s book — what if any moral judgment Solomon was making with regard to his own anxieties. Certainly a writer could truthfully acknowledge having impulses toward, e.g., abandoning a child without endorsing acting on those impulses.

#4 Comment By BN On November 28, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

How do those passages “reveal” cowardice? She asserts it and Rod, apparently, agrees.

#5 Comment By Megan On November 28, 2012 @ 5:34 pm

What a lovely story. Thank you for sharing that essay.

I am amazed by the ability of a child to completely transform his or her parents, to make us into people who live for others instead of ourselves, to cause us to almost completely disregard our previous lifestyles, and readily take up a life of sacrifice and caretaking. It’s happened to me and I’ve seen it happen in my friends’ lives. I think childless people sometimes don’t understand the degree to which becoming a parent makes us fully human, and the ways in which on a collective level, encouraging families is a moral necessity for our society.

It’s another reason why I support SSM, actually. Having seen my friends, gay and straight, achieve this fullness of spirit through parenthood, and having seen how it transformed me (and them) from generally selfish, materialistic people to generally generous, spiritual people, I can’t fathom the idea of constructing barriers to such a transformation (especially when, in some cases, gay parents are adopting children who were “handed over” by heterosexual parens and who would otherwise be considered unadoptable because of ethnicity/health issues/birth defects, etc.).

Solomon does seem, from this review, to be a member of the obnoxious privileged class, to whom acquiring a designer baby is perhaps more important than the act of caring itself. I hope, along with the author of the essay, that parenthood will eventually change him.

Surrogacy is undertaken by both gays and straights in increasing numbers, with it now being common practice to chemically conceive several embryos and then pick and choose the best ones, sometimes using terminations to prune out unwanted siblings, etc. This all strikes me as ghastly. I don’t understand why we as a society are not having a more robust discussion about the ethicality of this practice, and the only thing I can think is that we are so divided on the issue of abortion that it prevents us from talking about other pressing bioethical issues.

#6 Comment By Charles Cosimano On November 28, 2012 @ 5:42 pm

What I find personally incomprehensible is Solomon in any way regretting his economic privilege. That is someone too crazy to be allowed to have children.

#7 Comment By Douglas LeBlanc On November 28, 2012 @ 5:55 pm

Rod, I’ve not seen the play either, but it was adapted into a most impressive film in which Brendan Fraser plays the gay brother of the expectant mother (Jennifer Beals). It is available on Amazon and Netflix and well worth the time.

#8 Comment By tofudog On November 28, 2012 @ 6:43 pm

Not to quibble, but a CT scan on a newborn is NOT “not un-common” and was being done as a suspicion that the infant might have a brain tumor. A terrifying prospect for any parent. Regardless, she wrote a lovely article about the experiences of being a mother of a Downs Syndrome child. But it seems she took a few quotes of Solomon’s out of context and used them to bash him. I am awaiting the book in the mail, so I haven’t read it yet. But his interview on NPR gave me the impression that he came away from his experience of interviewing many parents in awe of them and aspiring to be as devoted as they are.

#9 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On November 28, 2012 @ 6:44 pm

Parenthood is the closest we come to the imitation of God.

#10 Comment By S On November 28, 2012 @ 7:08 pm

My 8-year-old daughter looked over my shoulder while I was reading the Slate article, and saw the last picture of the girl with Down syndrome. She immediately said “she’s SO cute! I wish we could have another baby and it could be her!” 🙂

#11 Comment By bayesian On November 28, 2012 @ 7:15 pm

@Douglas LeBlanc

The made for TV movie (scripted by the playwright) changed the ending quite radically from that of the play – YMMV as to whether better or worse (the latter in my opinion). Quick summary of the differences is in the Wikipedia entry.

#12 Comment By Charles Cosimano On November 28, 2012 @ 8:30 pm

Why is there vigorous debate on medical ethics as regards to designer babies? Because in the end the debate will come down to, “We want to do it. We can do it. We will do it. And if you don’t like it, well sucks to be you.”

#13 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 28, 2012 @ 9:01 pm

…in the context of the stream, he implies that not only should pre-natal testing for Down Syndrome be mandatory, but that mandatory abortions should be required also, so that Down Syndrome children will be eradicated and won’t be an economic drain on society or the health care system…

Yeah, well, apparently this guy who comments at Slate hasn’t heard about Roe v. Wade. Or perhaps his understanding has been tweaked by the perverse propaganda those who call themselves “pro-life” indulge in.

Our constitution restrains the police power of The State from usurping a mother’s right to choose to bring her Down’s Syndrome child to term and raise it for so long as it shall live.

Justice Blackmun did not write “abortion is a good thing and every woman should have one, even if she has to be arrested and forced to.” Justice Blackmun wrote that it was a private decision for a pregnant woman to make, and the state may not coerce her decision. What limited right the state does have to intervene is premised on its growing interest in PROTECTING the increasingly independent new life, particularly in the third trimester. The State has NO right whatsoever to intervene to mandate abortion.

Now, let me be clear. If I were responsible for the pregnancy (I am constitutionally incapable of carrying a pregnancy), and I knew the fetus would have Down’s Syndrome, I would favor abortion. I think it would be a great thing if no babies were born with Down’s Syndrome. I would consider it an act of cruelty to knowingly inflict such a life on a child. I would not consider removing a pre-viability fetus to be “killing the child.” It would be, starting over to grow a child from healthier tissue.

But, I do not begrudge the resources that a family raising a Down’s syndrome child might use up from the community or the public purse. The right of the pregnant woman to choose, uncoerced, means much more to me. Once a child is born, or even viable, we all have to make the best of it, and help them make the best of it.

#14 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 28, 2012 @ 9:30 pm

Sadly the play is based on something nonexistent. I have heard the play and it’s now a movie.

The imaginary world of the ever hopeful contender that homosexuality is anormal function of human relations — based on that non-existent, ever illusive genetic marker.

Knowing that just makes both the play and the movie the worst kind of science fiction tripe as opposed to an exploration of human drama propelled by self imposed moral dillemmas.

#15 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 28, 2012 @ 9:36 pm

Parents commitment to loving seemingly unloveable children is due to some bizarre force not yet understood in all of human existence — love.

#16 Comment By Doug Miller On November 28, 2012 @ 11:35 pm

This just gets better and better. Cristina N. also wrote a book called “A Vindication of Love,” in which she argued, among other things, that love means risk, and great love sometimes means great risk. She is a brave woman and a very fine writer, IMHO. She once complained about a critic’s ad hominem attack based on the acknowledgements section of that earlier book. I wonder if she is prepared for the ad hominem attacks that will flow from this piece. There is almost no way to write about this stuff without making people angry. If you don’t believe me, try Googling the essay “Welcome to Holland.”

#17 Comment By pilgrim On November 29, 2012 @ 7:00 am

I am amazed at how coherently and incisively she writes, given what she’s been through the past couple years. I’ve read some of the health updates on a DS parent list. Makes me want to read her other writing.

You go, Girls!

#18 Comment By Al On November 29, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

The article is beautifully written, but I think Nehring is being harsh in calling Solomon a coward.

From Andrew Solomon’s interview on the subject:

“And I (Solomon) said is that a cause for concern? And she (the Doctor) said, well, she said the fact that he’s not extending them may indicate significant brain damage. She said the fact that he’s not extending them symmetrically may mean there’s asymmetric brain damage, possibly a tumor.

And John, who hadn’t been writing this book, said, oh, I’m sure he’s going to be fine and essentially has a more optimistic temperament than I do anyway. But I had witnessed what all these families had been through and I knew that you often find out in the first few days of a child’s life that you’re on a completely different course than you thought you were.

And I was terrified by it. And I suddenly realized when I looked at George I had been thinking, hmm. I have this baby. Do I love this baby? And then I suddenly found myself trying not to love this baby. I thought what if this baby is going to be incredibly sick and die and I wanted to stop being emotionally engaged. And I realized I couldn’t do that”.

Nothing in that reaction to his son’s situation = cowardice to me – just natural panic/fear that was quickly overcome.

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