Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Disability in Kim Edwards's The Memory Keeper's Daughter

Standard pre-natal care these days includes an impressive battery of tests, intended to inform prospective mothers and fathers about the health and able-bodiedness of fetuses in utero. Surely all parents who choose to undergo these tests anxiously await the results, hoping that their babies will be declared healthy and “normal.” Of course, even if a child is born without a disability like Spina Bifida or Down syndrome, for instance, his or her future able-bodiedness is never guaranteed. My son was recently immunized with MMR, a vaccine linked in some popular discourses to the development of autism. Even though I am familiar with the official medical stance on MMR—that it is a critical vaccine and most likely does not cause autism—I felt a twinge of fear when the nurse injected Wes’s perfect little body (see for yourself in the image to the left!) with what seemed at the moment a potentially dangerous serum. My point is that—like me—most parents are deeply afraid of their children being diagnosed with or developing a disability of any type. It is no surprise, then, that much of the online discussion of Kim Edwards’s 2005 best-selling The Memory Keeper’s Daughter centers on the character of Phoebe, a girl with Down syndrome who was tragically given away by her father, a man who at her birth in 1964 refused to accept her into that which he perceived as his ideal middle-class family.

Disturbingly, I would argue that the novel portrays David Henry’s—admittedly tormented—decision to give Phoebe up and then lie to his wife, Norah, and son, Paul, for the rest of his life, telling them the little girl died at birth, as grounded in the particular context of the 1960s. David carries out this horrendous and ongoing act of rejection and dishonesty only in order to live up to the impossible standards set out for the traditional nuclear family unit of the mid-twentieth century, a unit headed by an authoritative man, managed by a loving woman, and completed by children free of “defects.” In this blog, I claim that the novel’s recurring bee/wasp imagery contributes to its characterization of the Henrys as caught in a patriarchal system that, because it devalues anything perceived as outside of the scope of traditional middle-class family life, causes irreparable loss in the lives of all of the book’s characters.

I published an article on Sylvia Plath’s 1965 bee sequence a couple of years ago, and I find that the depiction of bees and wasps in The Memory Keeper’s Daughter resonates with Plath’s use of bees to symbolize the stifling nature of motherhood and housewifery for middle-class women in the mid-twentieth century. In my article on Plath’s bee poems, I argue that Plath uses the life cycle of a queen bee to represent the typical life stages of middle-class womanhood in the 1950s and 60s. A young female bee must fight with other females for the contested position of queen bee. Once she has secured the position, her job is to reproduce. When she is too old to fill this role, the queen bee is removed from the hive. Just like a middle-class woman, as Plath demonstrates in the first of her bee poems, entitled “The Bee Meeting,” the queen bee is forced to compete with others of her sex for the attention of males. She then settles into a routine of baby-making for as long as possible, and she is set out to die when she is no longer useful. In another of the bee sequence, “Stings,” Plath describes the last flight of an elderly queen, a final act of angry retaliation against the system that has trapped her in a life of service to the hive. In this way, Plath uses bee imagery not only to delineate the systematic oppression of women coerced into the traditional roles of wife and mother but also to express the anger that women feel toward the patriarchal forces that oppress them in various ways.

Edwards taps into the rich imagery surrounding bees in three key scenes in The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. In one of these, set in the year 1970, a discontented Norah determines to dismantle a nest of wasps near her garage in preparation for a party at her house that evening. After she is stung a couple of times in pursuit of this goal, she decides to use her brand-new Electrolux vacuum cleaner to sweep up the wasps. Afraid that the wasps will escape the vacuum cleaner, a slightly drunk Norah then slips the end of its hose into the exhaust pipe of her vehicle. She returns to the house for a few minutes, until she hears a loud noise and sees parts of the Electrolux fly across the lawn. Gas fumes from the car had caused the machine to explode. It is at this point that Norah’s anger at the circumstances of her life comes to a head. She pulls the bag out of the vacuum cleaner remains and stomps on it frantically. As she is “dancing on the pulpy mess, wild and intent,” Norah fights “for some understanding of herself” (138). She considers her roles of wife and mother and “discover[s] that these words were far too small ever to contain the experience” (138). The incident with the wasps becomes a turning point in Norah’s life, after which she stops drinking and takes a full-time job at which she later excels. As the hive is destroyed, so too is the fa├žade of Norah’s life as a fulfilled wife and mother. In this way, of course, Norah explores an option perhaps not available to the female characters of Plath’s poems written in the early 1960s, employment outside of the home. Although her devotion to her career does not take the place of her love of her son or fill the emptiness left by the daughter that she lost at birth, it does provide her with much-needed intellectual stimulation and allows her to develop an identity as a successful business woman instead of merely an overprotective and grieving mother. Norah is able to crush the hive representative of a patriarchal system which positions her as subservient to a husband and subjected to the consequences of the choices that he makes about their lives and go on to forge a subjectivity on her own merit and make decisions for herself.

Despite Norah’s escape from the oppression of the patriarchal middle-class family system, her children remain the victims of this institution. Both Paul and Phoebe inherit an allergy to bees, and both experience near-death episodes after bee stings as small children. In this way, of course, both children are depicted as indoctrinated into a system that harms them. It is important, too, to remember that they get their allergy to bees from their father, who suffers as much as his wife or either of his children as a result of his effort to rid the Henry family of defect, to fall in line with the mid-twentieth-century popular perception of the “perfect” middle-class family life which leaves no room for a daughter with a disability.

Overall, then, the bee and wasp imagery in the novel tie David’s decision to give away a daughter with Down’s syndrome to the dominant ideologies of a particular era in history, a time when men were supposed to have complete decision rights over their families, when women were supposed to find fulfillment in motherhood and housewifery alone, and when a suburban family was supposed to consist of a mother, a father, and able-bodied children. Disability specialist Simi Linton claims that the novel’s depiction of Phoebe provides us with “an opportunity to consider the ongoing oppression and discrimination that mark most disabled people’s lives” (par. 8). I disagree. I argue, in fact, that Edwards covers over the continued mistreatment of and prejudices against the disabled in our own time, the still-present anxieties that cause us to undergo so many pre-natal tests and fear vaccines. In short, by dismissing David’s choice as understandable under the circumstances of the 1960s, the novel relieves readers of their own responsibility for perpetuating the stigma attached to disability in our own time.

Works Cited

Edwards, Kim. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. New York: Penguin, 2005.

Linton, Simi. “Reading The Memory Keeper’s Daughter: The Missing Disability Perspective.” [Weblog Entry.] Disability Culture Watch. 12 Feb. 2007 (http://www.similinton.com/blog/?p=14). 24 May 2010.

Plath, Sylvia. Ariel. New York: HarperCollins, 1965.

Wolfe, Andrea Powell. “(Re)visioning the Cinderella Myth: Sylvia Plath’s Bee Poems.” Interactions 17.2 (2008): 111-23.

1 comment: