Today we have a book review by Karin Melberg Schwier! This came about because Karin emailed me about this book she was reading. Her emails about the book, and her reaction to it, had me asking ... why not write a review for my blog. Karin quickly accepted. There are spoilers in this review - lots of them - but I think they were necessary in order for Karin to discuss her reaction to the novel.
Just Like Other Daughters
By Colleen Faulkner
Kensington Publishing, 2013
Review by Karin Melberg Schwier
This is a fictional tale about a single mother in her 50’s and her daughter, 25, who has Down syndrome. We are told it’s about a mother’s struggle to support her daughter, despite her disabilities, to live a full life that includes marriage and a sexual life with a partner. I don’t think it is. And it made me grumpy.
Despite reviews I’ve read that paint this mother as a saint for devoting her life to her daughter, I think this novel a profile of a mother with a classic case of Munchausen’s by Proxy. She’s a woman with a constant need for others to see her as a martyr caring with supreme sacrifice for her daughter who, according to Mom, can never really care for herself. This mother fiercely “protects” her daughter with a disability, but from I could see, makes little effort to teach her daughter any real independence. Maybe I’m just grumpy, but Alicia is the kind of parent I am determined to never become. If you read on, there will be spoilers.
This story is described as “an unflinching yet heartrending story of mothers and daughters, and of the risks we all take, both in loving and in letting go.” Alicia Richards, the main character, is a single mom and college professor “trying to do her best” for her “Down syndrome daughter” Chloe, 25. Alicia terminated her first baby when she and her academic ex-husband had an affair (she was his student, he was married). “But my arms never stopped aching for the first child.” Big foreshadow. Then she and Randall married and had Chloe. Now her ex is still a serial womanizing department head who fools around with his students and, she says, is no help at all in her life. He barely sees Chloe long enough to take her to a fast food restaurant once a week. Alicia’s own father and stepmother are distant and can’t interact with Chloe. The reader is again and again reminded that Alicia must do everything herself. “I’m her mother and I love her more than anyone else in the world loves her. How can I not do everything for her until the day I die?” Well, giant red flag here. At first I hoped this character was just having a momentary martyr moment, but it just goes on. And on.
I started stewing when I began reading this book and have been stewing since I finished it a couple of nights ago. I should say I get that this is fiction. I think Colleen Faulkner is a skilled novelist. She weaves a good story and I was drawn in, irritation with the protagonist aside. In the author’s Q & A at the back of the book, Colleen notes that a friend who works in a group home informed her research about “these special people.” I found the not infrequent “factoids” and generalizations about “Down syndrome people” – a phrase that rankles – to be distracting and steeped in the custodial model of care. These were sprinkled throughout the story and felt like educational PSAs.
Or maybe I’m just totally ticked off at Alicia, the main character. I kept hoping her gay Jiminy Cricket friend Jin would grab her by the shoulders and yell, “This isn’t about YOU!” But it kept coming back to that, all the way through the story. Alicia presents everything she does in the guise of helping Chloe, of being a protective mother. She offers choices, but sadly they are choices between French fries or mozzarella sticks. Stop with the fast food already! Oh, she knows she needs more “me” time. She tries valiantly but just can’t establish a relationship for herself through on-line dating, but nothing works out. Besides, she sighs, caring for Chloe leaves her without any energy for any other relationship. We see Mark the “hunky plumber” obviously waiting in the wings, even if she can’t.
Chloe interjects her point of view in the first person periodically in the book (not enough, in my opinion). I felt Chloe’s voice was used as a reminder to us that she is really “just a child.” Chloe seems relatively capable, and expresses herself well. At 25, however, her mother treats her more like she’s 6. Alicia drops the ball in helping her daughter to mature; Chloe wears childish clothes, has temper tantrums, overeats junk food and drinks chocolate milk with alarming frequency because it’s genetic and, after all, “Down syndrome people” have “a zeal for food.” I got the distinct impression that everything childish and immature about Chloe was because that’s just the way “Down syndrome people” are and confirms all Alicia’s fears that her daughter will never grow up, really.
Alicia indulges her daughter, keeps her child-like and therefore dependent. Chloe weighs more than Alicia, who vaguely thinks about introducing a healthier diet, though she never seems to get around to it. Reluctantly, Alicia allows Chloe to attend a church day care (instead of volunteering or getting a job) and does crafts. Alicia hovers, following the bus to the church in her car, even showing up to sit at the back of the room, much to Chloe’s disgust. To her credit, Alicia worries that she might be too overprotective and discusses it with a therapist. Turns out, she and Chloe have been seeing a psychologist once a month for years because “it was my duty, as a parent, to see that Chloe got counseling.”
When Chloe meets Thomas Elden, she immediately develops a girlish crush and soon insists on getting married. There is no sexuality education, no real preparation for an adult relationship. Allowing Thomas to come over so they can watch Disney movies and kiss each other seems to be the biggest initial concession Alicia makes in “allowing” Chloe to have this relationship. When Chloe says she wants to get married “just like Beauty and the Beast,” maybe that would have been a clue for Mom to get some serious education started. Why it hasn’t happened yet is beyond me; Chloe is 26 for heaven’s sake. She searches the Internet for information on “sex and the mentally handicapped.” When Randall suggests “we need to accept that our daughter is maturing and she needs to be taught the aspects of adult sexuality,” Alicia feels he has no grasp on reality. “I’m willing to let her spread her wings,” she tells him (I seriously doubt that) and goes on to say, “But it’s my job to make sure she doesn’t fly to close to the sun.” Wow, talk about taking the moral high road.
Got to give it to Chloe, she persists in snagging Thomas and insisting she get married. The birth control happened, as far as I can tell, because Alicia was terrified that she would have to parent a child with disabilities, as if that was a forgone conclusion. The first doctor they visit (Thomas is not included in this) says he doesn’t want to prescribe birth control to someone who doesn’t seem to understand. Instead of seeing the opportunity to better educate Chloe (and presumably Thomas) not just about sex, but about relationships, the basis for all socio-sexuality education, she screams at the doctor about how catastrophic it would be for Chloe to get pregnant by her “mentally handicapped husband!” She makes a point to chastise the doctor by informing him that her title is also “Doctor.” Never mind that she teaches literature. Alicia says Chloe can barely manage the simplest of self-care, and still hands over birth control pills with minimal instruction. She just checks the pillbox to see if the daily dose has been taken. Spoiler: turns out Thomas was “eating” them.
In short, I found Alicia’s character to be someone who, instead of really working to help her daughter become a more mature, responsible adult, seems to relish her martyrdom. No one understands. No one loves Chloe more. Chloe’s father was a big disappointment (“I don’t think Chloe misses her dad; she certainly misses the chicken and fries.”) She feels the boyfriend’s parents are in “some incredible land of denial” about their son’s disability, “a place I wish I could go, if only for a visit.” Wow, again.
Thomas turns out to be a mama’s boy and a dud as a husband. Conveniently, they move away, take Thomas with them and give up all paternal rights before Chloe’s baby is born. They don’t even send Christmas presents. Leaving Alicia to deal with everything…yet again. “I realized then, that I’m strong. I never thought I was…I come to the full realization of my strength. I’m fifty-three. Young. I can take care of this baby and my daughter. We don’t need Thomas. We don’t need the Eldens. We don’t even need Randall.” On the other hand, she finds several online networks “dealing with parenting the mentally challenged” so she doesn’t have to “feel as alone as I did the first time around” and she laments being the only one who has to make “life and death decisions about Chloe all the time.”
Big spoiler alert—I stumbled across this as I read the publisher’s media release, so don’t read that either if you’re not ready to find out! After Chloe and Thomas’ marriage ultimately descends into spoiled brat pushing and hitting matches over whether to watch Aladdin or Toy Story (what a surprise), Alicia makes another ‘factoid’ statement about people who support marriage between people with disabilities: they simply don't understand the ramifications, not like she does. They forget “the practicalities.” She underscores that when Chloe gives birth, is suddenly only concerned with having a drink of Gatorade. She doesn’t even want to hold the baby, something I found unbelievable. Of course, Alicia holds the newborn and expresses desperate relief that the baby doesn’t have disabilities, too. Moments later, in the ultimate martyr development, Chloe dies. Yep. And remember how Alicia still “ached” for that first perfect baby she terminated? Well, Chloe leaves Alicia with “my baby” who already “scored a perfect ten on his APGAR” and showed “no evidence of mental retardation.” Eventually, as in all good fairy tales, Alicia gets a “healthy baby boy” and remember Mark, the hunky plumber? The three of them live happily ever after with, undoubtedly, sweet sad memories of her “Down syndrome daughter.”
I’ve said before, Colleen is a good writer; that’s not my beef. This is a well-written piece of fiction with believable dialogue. There’s action to propel the reader forward. She’s fleshed out the characters in nice detail. But the morning after I finished this novel, I did my best time ever on the elliptical as I worked out my frustrations with Alicia. But maybe the author wanted to mess with my head. Maybe Colleen set out to create a martyred, self-indulgent character with all the earmarks of Munchausen’s by Proxy who doesn’t recognize or acknowledge what she’s doing. If so, she nailed it. But if this character is somehow to be held up as a model of good parenting, that scares me.
Chloe and Thomas’ marriage was doomed from the start. It reminded me of teachers who poo-poo inclusion because “we tried it once and it didn’t work.” Dropping a student with a disability into a classroom without support rarely works; the same goes for relationships. Instead of helping her daughter grow up, Alicia infantilized Chloe, and in so doing, made herself forever needed and forever heroic in the eyes of others. The thing that scares me most about this story is how easy it is for a parent of a son or daughter with an intellectual disability to do that. If I ever do, please send Jin over to give me a good shake.
(Karin Melberg Schwier is an author of several books about people with disabilities; she co-authored Sexuality: Your Sons and Daughters with Intellectual Disabilities with Dave Hingsburger (Brookes Publishing, 2005) which was translated into German, Italian and Korean. She lives in Saskatoon with husband Richard, a professor of education, and Jim, an 18-year veteran volunteer with the YMCA, who celebrates his 40th birthday in May. Jim has Down syndrome.)