Thursday, May 22, 2008

To CTF Readers from Mary Doria Russell

For The Book Club: Thread of Grace

In my letter to Mary Doria Russell I wrote: The stand out scene in the book for me was between mother and doctor regarding Down Syndrome - never I have read a fictional account that was more accurate about parental love of their kids with DS. How did you come to write this ... why did you think it was important to be in the book? Mary answered with the following. Warning, when I copied this to paste here the formatting was lost. Any problems with the paragraph breaks are mine. Here's what Mary had to say:

I suppose you're expecting that maybe I have some direct personal connection with DS, but I'm afraid it's not that straightforward. See, I'm a biological anthropologist by training (Ph.D., University of Michigan), and even before writing A Thread of Grace, I was conscious of 19th century anthropology's role in spawning the eugenics movement. The logic of eugenics is easy to follow:

natural selection used to remove unfit individuals from the gene pool;
civilization and medicine short-circuits that natural process;
and sounfit individuals survive and reproduce;

and thereforeunfit individuals begin to make up a larger percentage of the gene pool. Obviously, the key word in that is "unfit." Now add 19th century social Darwinism, which proclaimed that white Anglo-Saxon males -- born in Britain, America or northern Europe -- were the pinnacle of human evolution. What you get is a toxic blend of self-satisfied beliefs about cultural entitlement and biological superiority, backed up by political power held only by WASP men who didn't let anybody else participate in politics. Anthropology was their science and it was used to promote and stabilize their grip on power and to justify taking over other people's continents.

The next step for eugenicists was, "Let's do nature's job, and remove the unfit from the gene pool." Unfit at that point included "idiots," drunks, the poor, the blind, the deaf, etc., all of whom were targeted for sterilization, to keep them out of the gene pool. Significantly, forced sterilization of the unfit was put into play in America and Britain decades before the Germans took it up. Fearing that the Brits and Yanks would breed better soldiers and place Germany at a military disadvantage, the Nazis developed their own eugenics program, starting with the elimination (aka murder) of mentally or physically disabled individuals in hospital populations and rapidly expanding to include whole populations of Jews, Gypsies and Slavs.

So in A Thread of Grace, I wanted to face up to the awful heritage of pseudo-science that tainted the beginnings of my own academic field. I wanted to show how easy it was for normal, non-psychotic, well-educated men to become part of the T4 program, and to keep on going, step by step, all the way to the place where they were sorting perfectly healthy people into two columns: one to die immediately and the other to be worked to death on short rations over a period of a few months.

That's why the Nazi doctor Werner Schramm is such a likeable character. He's funny and wry and pretty self-aware, but he's also a thorough-going mediocrity who only got a job in the T4 eugenics program because his father-in-law had contacts. And Schramm's got his own issues -- the hydrocephalic sister, the alcoholic father, the depressive mother. He becomes a doctor, and he wants to fix all this stuff. He truly does desire a better world, and he thinks the world would be better without hydrocephaly and drunkenness and suicidal parents. And really, what's wrong with wishing for a world that wouldn't include all that? None of those conditions is enviable.

That's the moral dilemma I wanted the reader to face. Once the reader gives Schramm the benefit of the doubt on that, where do we draw our own lines? I wanted each reader to understand just how easy it is to move from "I don't envy that life" to "nobody should have to live that way" to "hey, let's fix this once and for all."

While I was thinking about all this, getting ready to write that novel, I also started thinking about Down Syndrome. I was at a library one day and saw an absolutely enchanting little girl. This kid was just so cool, just such a honey, and I thought, Who wouldn't want a daughter like that? She was obviously being raised with full understanding of her differences but also with the conviction that she was valuable and interesting and beloved on her own terms, and her own terms included Down Syndrome.

In the late 20th century, people with DS are mainstreamed -- they're in regular classrooms; they're visible in jobs working with the general public, and in the years I was writing Thread, an actor with DS starred in a TV show. But at the very same time, just as the rest of us are finally giving folks with DS a chance to develop fully and live well on their own terms, there is an unorganized and non-programmatic eugenics movement that removes DS babies from the gene pool. All pregnant women over 35 are offered tests for "chromosomal abnormalities," and if Trisomy 21 shows up, abortion is available and often chosen.

Now, I am not an anti-abortion partisan, but I am an adoptive mother. Our son was born with a clubfoot, and in his natal culture that was considered an awful birth defect and a source of shame to his biological family. When the adoption agency asked if we would consider him, despite that handicap, our reaction was, "Are you kidding? Hell, we'd want him if he was missing the whole damned leg. Who gives a shit about a clubfoot?"

So I know with my own heart how ferociously and passionately a mother can love a child that someone else might think was defective or undesirable. All that emotion went into Mirella Soncini's furious defense of her daughter's existence, a defense that required Mirella -- in 1943 -- to buck her own doctor and her family and her neighbors and her community. "The world is filled with unreasonable hatred," Mirella snarls when she is urged to institutionalize her baby. "What is wrong with unreasonable love?" To me, the most important moment in that passage of the book is when Mirella tells Werner Schramm, "She wasn't a tragedy! She was a little girl. She was my daughter. And she loved to dance."

She loved to dance.

That takes the whole conversation beyond categories and policies and legalities and theories, and brings everything down to the concrete specificity of a little girl, Mirella's daughter, who loved to dance.


Carey said...

I'm a new CTF blog reader and was wondering what book it is that Mary Doria Russell wrote? In her reply she wrote that when Trisomy 23 is detected in prenatal tests, abortion is available and often chosen. If she's referring to Down syndrome, I think she meant Trisomy 21. I may be making too many assumptions here, but if she wrote much about Ds in her book I hope she did enough research on the matter to know that.

Enjoying your blog though and I look forward to reading more of it!

Carey said...

Found it, Thread of Grace ... going to look it up now.

Heike Fabig said...

Posted my 5 cent's worth here. Thaks again Dave, for the brilliant idea. Have you decided on our next read?

painting with fire said...

finally delurking. I love Mary Doria Russell's writing and have done so for years so am thrilled that she wrote you and by extention your readers. Her perspective and presentation on the topic of Nazis and mass murder is every bit as humanistic as I'd expect. and btw, your writing moves me to tears unexpectedly and often.

note to carey - she did write Trisomy 21.

Dave Hingsburger said...

heike, I just popped over and read your blog, thanks for posting about the book. You and I have the same favourite lines. I appreciate your effort and am encouraged that you liked the idea of a 'transglobal' book club. Let's see how this one goes first.

Leslie, I agree about Doria Russell's writing. Have you read all her work?

Carey, sorry, I hadn't finished organizing that post from Mary, I had trouble transferring it from email to blog and it posted right to the blog, it was supposed to have been 'sheduled'. I'm glad you found Thread of Grace, I loved it.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dave:

I loved the book - thanks for bringing it to my attention. I have also read Sparrow and its sequel - which blew me away. MDR is a gifted writer.

There are so many aspects of this book that drew me in. The scene between Schramm and Mirella though was central to this book, I think. Earlier in the book the priest refuses to absolve Schramm of his sin of murdering over 90,000 people because he does not believe that Schramm is truly repentant and that he is not firmly resolved to avoid this sin anymore. In the scene with Mirella we know that he does not repent - he still believes that the lives of people with disabilities are not worth living and worse that these lives, if lived, impoverish the rest of society. He doesn't get it! I find it interesting that near the end of the book Schramm can go to the prison and give the priest who has been tortured a lethal injection. We know that the priest will not be allowed to live by his torturers and we can easily think of Schramm providing a merciful release from his pain - this is an act of compassion, isn't it? Does MDR lead us here on purpose? Is this the start of the slippery slope that leads to the active killing of others - first we put one poor doomed soul out of his misery and then we can do the same for others? Who decides who the poor doomed souls are? So the book comes full circle.

I did not cry at the scene between Mirella and Schramm - perhaps because I have been the mother of a child with a disability - and when that child died was told by well meaning people that she was better off - in a better place - that growing up would have been so hard for her. So I did not cry - I felt I had an ally. I felt gratitude that it was there for lots of people to read. She was my daughter, she loved . . .

I also find it interesting that Schramm is the sibling of a person with a disability. And that Lidia tells him about her child who had a disability. This is subtle. It is not the child with the disability who forms their attitudes - but the prevailing attitudes of society. Mirella's rejection of those attitudes makes a difference for Lidia.

I expected to see a lot more postings for this book discussion. Did I miss something?

Thanks again Dave - can't wait to see what the next book will be!


Anonymous said...

I must go buy this book! I'm just sorry I'm late on it!

Nancy I.

Michelle said...

I need to get this book, too. I recently blogged about the Nazi aspect of eugenics:

theknapper said...

I love the concept of "unreasonable love"
Having the author's comments was very helpful in understanding her book deeper.
I haven't finished the book but have gone past "the slap".......{it's very powerful in the audio book.}I think I'm still processing the images/ethics/relationships to comment further.

Anonymous said...

I posted my full review here on my blog

It was really hard to read some of what happened in the book but so well written that MD Russell just grabbed your attention and drew you into the book. I actually found myself caring about the characters and what happened to them.

FAB said...

This book was incredible! I picked it up right after Dave blogged about it and read it in two days. I couldn't put it down! What I enjoyed about the book was that people with disabilities were woven into the story just as they are woven throughout the real world. It didn't read as if she made a point by including disabilities, just that this was as much a part of the history as anything else.

I too cried when Mirella spoke of her daughter, the words Russell wrote at that time were so eloquent, pointing out that she was just a girl, loved like any other! I struggled with Schramm, when he confessed, I hated him, and it occured to me that I would not have been able to forgive him either, but then something changed and as I read more I began to see him as human, I wanted to see him get back to his family, I began to understand the circumstances that brought him to where he was, much to my own frsutration _ Id idn't want to like him. For me, Schramm began to represent society as whole, confused, self rightousness, making sloppy attempts at compassion that ended in destruction and were really born of hate. This book broke my heart and gave me hope. I feel blessed to have read it. Thanks Dave!

Shan said...

Just catching a minute to check the review, Dave. I haven't been home much today (it was so great to see you guys, by the way) so I'm a bit pressed for time just now but I will be back to this post with my thoughts on the book, as soon as possible.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Wow, thanks all for the comments. I've been lecturing all day and have only now had a chance to read what you've written. I'm glad that those of you who responded found something in the book ... something big ... like I did. I'm glad that others will be moved to read it. I've always loved MDR's writing and now, having emailed her and chatted a bit, I'm honoured to have met her via this process. So, watch for another book club in a few months. This was fun.

Shan said...


I loved this book. I expected not to: from your initial mention, I thought it was more involved with the camps themselves.

I didn't know anything, really, about the Italian resistance prior to reading ToG. It's such a moving story - I will be doing more research into the subject...maybe it's time to delve into those mouldy old textbooks I haven't looked at for 12 years.

I spent a lot of time, after I read the book, thinking about motivation. What makes people do things? What makes people commit, or condone, murder? I think Russell WANTS us to think about that - her first chapter, obviously, is meant to incite reflection on the subject of motive.

I read the book a little fearfully....if it was a scary movie I'd have seen it through my fingers. As it turned out, it wasn't as bad as I had feared, but it was heartbreaking in another way: I didn't realise how much I cared about the people in it, until the last few chapters when.....well, when everyone dies.

I walked around for a few days thinking how scary it would have been to have lived through it all, and how frightening it would be if it were to happen again, and how much fear there must be in those countries where genocide IS happening again.......and then it hit me.

The reason why people do these things? The reason they hate and kill and look the other way?


I've read a lot of posts on Chewing the Fat, and heard you refer to 'disphobia', and read your stories about seeing fear in people's eyes when they see you in your chair before quickly looking away, and I've sometimes been a little doubtful about your use of that word in that context...I wouldn't have called it Fear – not the way I think of fear.

I realised, thinking about ToG, that fear may not be the emotion that shows - it may not seem like it on the surface, but fear is the seed that was planted. Whatever noxious weed might grow from it, the seed is the same. What drove the National Socialists to their ideology? What made the German people ready to turn a blind eye to, even participate in, the persecution, deportation and extermination of millions of their neighbours, fellow citizens?


Germany in the wake of the Peace of Versailles and struggling under the weight of reparations and economic collapse, threatened by the emergence of communism in the east, was a terrified nation. And a panicked crowd only needs one thing to turn it into a brutal mob: one individual, gifted with a forceful personality, pointing them towards somebody they can string up.

In his career Schramm, feeling his own inadequacy as a physician, watching the breakdown in his family, agonised by what he saw in the hospital that housed his sister and terrified that someone would discover the ‘abnormality’ in his own bloodline, is backed into a corner where he needs to make a choice – in this case literally to separate trainloads of Jews into two lines. He chooses to mete out death in order to prolong his own life…all out of fear.

It’s interesting what Ms Russell says about Schramm being a sympathetic character. When I read that scene between Mirella and Schramm, I did have a lot of sympathy for him. I felt like the propaganda he spouted during that scene was a retreat – a way of hiding from his own conflict. His character up until that point, his private struggles that we are privileged to read through the omniscient narrator, show that he has a conscience. I never got the impression that he didn’t love his sister – I got the impression that the agonies of life’s unpredictability were simply too much for him. He has comforted himself with dogmatism. What he says to Mirella is terrible, but he says it out of “an ancient anger”.

I don’t want to come across as if I’m defending the indefensible. He was awful. He was disgusting. He was selfish and ignorant and a coward. But he’s a product of his environment.

Mirella’s line about “unreasonable love” is beautiful. Her ferocious defense of her daughter’s right to live and be loved is wonderful, inspiring. I didn’t think much of her character for the first half of the book – I thought she was self-absorbed – until we get to know her in the hunchback’s house. (Interesting aside – I didn’t notice until this moment that here is another disabled character, though an absent one – the hunchback whose home provides Schramm with a refuge.)

I feel like I’m drifting a little, writing this. I haven’t fully clarified my thoughts on this book, yet. I feel like there's enough here to write a master's thesis on, but it's late and I wasn't able to take proper notes while reading Thread of Grace…I had meant to do another read, with pen and paper handy, but just ran out of time.

Thanks Dave, for arranging this discussion. Thanks for putting me onto this novel…I’ll reread it and lend it out. I think it’s an important story.

And one last note – there were many, many mentions of spinning and knitting in this book! It was great fun. In fact there’s a whole other essay to write on the subject of domesticity in the novel…with a lot of interesting things to explore.

Anonymous said...

A thought about the disabled characters in the novel - for many of these characters disability has not been life defining - the priest for example and the postman with one arm - their disabilities are not life defining. They get on with their lives. At first the postman seems to be having his life defined by his newly acquired disability but he finds something he is passionate about and a way to contribute.

This is a contrast I hadn't noticed until I read the comments.

All 4 My Gals said...

Oh how cool to get to read some of her insight to the writing process of this novel. I can not wait to read another of her books. Thanks again Dave!

Emma said...

Finally finished reading the book - read it pretty much cover to cover yesterday and didn't manage much else that day. But it certainly was a day well spent.

An amazing book.

I posted my thoughts about it here ~

Rene said...

I think the important issue of this book is univerasality. Most everyone I can think of would love to have been able to stand up to an injustice, but could you truly put yourself, your family and your community in jeopardy for a stranger.

Realistically, I do not know. So the plot of this book to me is the story of a village, that surrounded by isolation and mountains becomes an area where it is more safe to stand up to injustice, because the system that you do not support (Nazism)has to work that much harder to find and punish you.

Along with that because of your isolation you rely on your village for support. Your village is your village. People are people and are not defined by their differences but rather by being a part of your village. The longer people stay the more a part of village life they become. To me this explains why one family leaves in the beginning of the book.

They understand the risks and when the villagers try to speak a different language to them,they can only relate to their reality which is that their family is important to them. They cannot relate to the village theme where the town relies on each other. They only know that family is everything, so they leave to not put other families at risk. The village does not seek them out. It is self- sustanining and will not inflict its philosophies or attitudes on others. Each individual can participate in the village, destroy the village, or move to a different reality.

That means individual differences are not discussed. They just are. The importance is the village acting together.

Or I could be wrong.