“A wonderful book, funny unbelievably tender, and smart. It shimmers.”Anne Lamott
Includes an all-new afterword about Adam.
John and Martha Beck had two Harvard degrees apiece when they conceived their second child. Further graduate studies, budding careers, and a growing family meant major stressnot that they'd have admitted it to anyone (or themselves). As the pregnancy progressed, Martha battled constant nausea and dehydration. And when she learned her unborn son had Down syndrome, she battled nearly everyone over her decision to continue the pregnancy. She still cannot explain many of the things that happened to her while she was expecting Adam, but by the time he was born, Martha, as she puts it, "had to unlearn virtually everything Harvard taught [her] about what is precious and what is garbage."
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About the Author
MARTHA BECK is a writer, life coach, and columnist for O, the Oprah Magazine. She has a B.A., an M.A., and a Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard. Beck's other books include the New York Times bestseller Finding Your Own North Star, Leaving the Saints, The Four Day Win, The Joy Diet, and Steering by Starlight. Dr. Beck lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with her family.
Read an Excerpt
This happened when Adam was about three years old.
I was sitting in a small apartment with a woman I had barely met, talking to her about her life. I'll call her Mrs. Ross, because it isn't her name. I had been doing similar interviews for months, collecting data for my Ph.D. dissertation. Mrs. Ross was a scrawny forty-five-year-old with a master's degree in art history and a job as an elementary school janitor. I was taking notes, considering what this woman's experience had to teach about the real-world value of the more refined academic fields, when she suddenly stopped talking.
There was a moment of silence, and then I looked up and said, "Yes?" in a helpful voice, which was normally enough to keep an interview rolling. But Mrs. Ross wasn't acting normal. She had been sitting on a straight-backed wooden chair, both feet set firmly on the floor and her hands resting primly on her knees. Now she was curled into an almost fetal position, forearms crushed between the tops of her thighs and her chest, her eyes tightly closed.
I became alarmed. "Are you all right?" I said, trying to sound politely but not overly curious.
Mrs. Ross waved a hand at me. "I can't ... quite ... make it out," she said.
I just stared at her.
"Usually," she gasped, her eyelids clamping down tighter, "usually I can tell which side of the veil it's coming from ... that's usually the first thing I can tell ... but this time I ... can't."
"Uh-huh," I said cautiously, glancing toward the door, wondering if I could get to it before Mrs. Ross leapt upon me like a mad dog.
"It's like ... he's not really on one side of the veil or the other ... maybe he's on both." She shook her head, troubled. "At least I know it's a he."
"Uh, Mrs. Ross," I said, gathering my notes together for a quick exit.
At this point Mrs. Ross's eyes flew open wide, fixing me with a bloodshot stare.
"You know who it is!" she said in a low, accusing voice. "You know who it is, but you're blocking!"
At this point my curiosity began to get the better of me. "I know who?" I said.
"That's right!" Mrs. Ross uncurled a little. "You see, I have this ... well, it's a gift." She sounded as though she wasn't quite sure Santa had gotten her letters.
"Gift?" I repeated.
She nodded. "I get messages for people." She sighed and sat up. "There was a point in my life when I stopped talking about it, you know, because it's very embarrassing."
"Oh," I said.
"And then, you know," Mrs. Ross continued, "I began to lose it. It was getting fainter, and sometimes the spirits would be angry at me, because I wouldn't help them get through to people."
At this moment, I swear to God, a large green parrot walked out of Mrs. Ross's small kitchen and into the living room. It paced slowly across the carpet, peered at me suspiciously with one flinty eye, then proceeded on foot up the leg of Mrs. Ross's chair and onto her shoulder. She's a witch, I thought. I'm sitting here talking to a genuine witch. The parrot was obviously a familiar. I would have been willing to bet it was her husband.
Mrs. Ross kept talking, stroking the bird absentmindedly. "So I promised God that I would always deliver the messages as soon as I got them. No matter what."
"No kidding." I said this without any sarcasm. That's how much I had changed. Four years earlier I would have dismissed Mrs. Ross and her "gift" immediately. Back then I had known exactly how the world worked. Back then I had been sure of my own intellect, sure of the primacy of Reason, sure that, given enough time and training, I could control my destiny. That was before Adam. But now it was four years later, and Adam was at home with the baby-sitter, and I had learned a lot about how much I had to learn. So I sat still and waited for Mrs. Ross to go on. She did.
"The messages are usually from the other side of the veilI mean, from the spirit world," she said. "Sometimes they're from living people who are far away and need to get a message through immediately. But that's always the first thing I can tellwhich side of the veil the message is coming from." Her brow furrowed. "And this time, I can't tell"
By now, I admit it, I was hooked. I wanted my message.
"Just relax," I suggested helpfully.
Mrs. Ross shot me a glance that would have pierced steel, a glance designed to shove me off her turf.
"Or not," I said.
"We should pray," whispered Mrs. Ross.
"Uh, okeydokey," I responded. I mean, what would you have done?
So Mrs. Ross and I bowed our heads, and I drew a deep breath and relaxed for just a second, and then her head snapped up like a Pez dispenser and she said, "All right, you stopped blocking. It's your son."
"My son?" Even after everything that had already happened, this surprised me. I had been hoping the message would be from my guardian angel, or perhaps a stray ancestor with an interest in my career.
"You have a son who's halfway between worlds," stated Mrs. Ross.
I felt the hair go up on my arms. You see, no matter how much evidence you have, over time you tend to block out the experiences that aren't "normal." Who wants to turn into a Mrs. Ross, blurting out gibberish about spirits and veils? How much of that sort of conversation are you allowed before people stop inviting you to parties, and you end up pushing a mop in an elementary school?
"Well" I said to Mrs. Ross, "maybe I do have a son ... uh ... like that."
She gave me a withering look. "You do," she said flatly. "And he wants me to give you a message." The parrot nibbled tenderly on her ear.
By now my whole body was bristling with a strange electricity. The sensation had become familiar to me over the past few years, yet it was always a surprise. At least I kept my mouth shut.
Mrs. Ross closed her eyes again, gently this time. "He says that he's been watching you very closely from both sides of the veil."
The veil again.
"He says that you shouldn't be so worried. He says you'll never be hurt as much by being open as you have been hurt by remaining closed"
She opened her eyes, scratched the parrot's head, and smiled. She didn't look like a witch at all anymore.
"That's it?" I said.
Mrs. Ross nodded, smiling.
I didn't return the smile. "What the heck is that supposed to mean?"
She shrugged. "Beats me."
"Oh, come on," I pleaded. "There's got to be more. Ask him." This is not the way I was taught to behave at Harvard.
"I don't ask questions," she said. "I just deliver messages. Like Western Union. What the messages mean is none of my business."
And that was all she had to say.
After a pathetic attempt to pretend I was still conducting an interview, I raced home to confront Adam. He was in his crib, asleep. He was about half the size of a normal three-year-old, had barely learned to walk, and had never spoken an intelligible word. I reached down and poked him in the tummy, and he woke up with his usual jolly grin on his face.
I looked into his small, slanted eyes. "Adam," I said seriously. "You've got to tell me. Are you sending me messages through Mrs. Ross?"
His smile broadened. That was all. And he hasn't said a thing about it since.
So here I am, still wondering what the hell happened that day, wondering whether Mrs. Ross was really channeling my three-year-old, wondering what he meant. I wonder a lot of things, since Adam came along. I wonder about all the strange and beautiful and terrible things that accompanied him into my life. My husband, John, knows about my wonderingshares it, in fact, since his life, too, was changed when we were expecting Adam. But when I wasn't talking to John, I learned to keep it all to myself. I learned to ignore the miraculous in my life, to pretend it didn't exist, to tell lies in order to be believed. In short, I kept myself closed.
This has not been easy. It is difficult not to tell people when one of your interview subjects turns out to be Parrot Woman. The strangeness, the curiosity, the wonder keeps pushing outward, begging to be communicated, needing air and company. On many occasions, I have tried to talk about Adam without letting on that I actually believed in everything that happened to me. I have written this book twice already, both times as a novel, to wit: "This is the story of two driven Harvard academics who found out in midpregnancy that their unborn son would be retarded. To their own surprise and the horrified dismay of the university community, the couple ignored the abundant means, motive, and opportunity to obtain a therapeutic abortion. They decided to allow their baby to be born. What they did not realize is that they themselves were the ones who would be 'born,' infants in a new world where magic is commonplace, Harvard professors are the slow learners, and retarded babies are the master teachers."
You see, by calling it a novel, I could tell the story without putting myself in danger from skeptics, scientists, and intellectuals. "Fiction!" I would assure them. "Made it all up! Not a word of truth in it!" Then they would all go away and leave me alone, and perhaps a few sturdy souls would be willing to believe me, and I could open up in safety to them.
It hasn't worked out that way. The editors and agents and writers I respect most have always come back, after reading my "novel," with the same question: "Excuse me, but how much of this is fiction?" And I would hem and haw a bit before admitting that aside from making John and myself sound much better-looking than we are, I didn't fictionalize anything. It's all true, I would say. Then I would sink into my chair five or six inches and wait for them to call security.
So far, that hasn't happened. It has been five years since Mrs. Ross reared back against her parrot and delivered Adam's message, and in all that time my favorite people have continually repeated his advice. Open up, they say. It will feel better than remaining closed.
I am none too sure about this. I am very much afraid of being caught in the firestorms of controversy over abortion, genetic engineering, medical ethics. It worries me to think that I will be lumped together with the right-to-lifers, not to mention every New Age crystal kisser who ever claimed to see an angel in the clouds over Sedona. I am reluctant to wave good-bye to my rationalist credibility. Nevertheless, the story will not stop unfolding, and it will not stop asking me to tell it. I have resisted it for what feels like a very long time, hoping it would back off and disappear. But it hasn't.
So, Mrs. Ross, wherever you are, thank you for delivering my son's message. After all these years, I've finally decided to listen.
John and I disagree about the precise moment we lost control of our lives. He thinks it was the car accident in New Hampshire. I say it was two weeks before that, when Adam was conceived. Either way, it was sometime in September of 1987, which ever since has been known in our family history as the month It All Went to Hell.
We had just returned to Cambridge from a summer in Tokyo, where John had been doing research for a Ph.D. dissertation on the Japanese employment system. We were dazed with jet lag, which is bad enough for an adult crossing fourteen time zones but turns into an epic struggle when you're traveling with a toddler. Our eighteen-month-old daughter, Katie, was still operating on Japanese time, babbling and playing through the Boston nights while John and I took turns trying to sleep. By the time the sun showed up and Katie closed her maddeningly bright little eyes, we would have to stumble off, haggard and woozy, to deal with the welter of logistical tasks involved in preparing to go to Harvard.
There are some things you have to understand about Harvard. First of all, John and I both grew up there. I'm not talking about childhood. I mean later on, when all our adult thoughts and expectations were being programmed. As for childhood, we both spent that in the same small town in Utah, a state that doesn't register as part of the known universe to anyone in the Ivy League. (One of my professors once told me he'd just returned from my region of the country. I said, "Oh really? Where?" He said, "Iowa." And he meant it.) As a matter of fact, this writing marks the first time I've actually admitted in public that I am a child of the lovely Beehive State. Harvard trained me to believe that this is like admitting to a history of mental illness or shoplifting. It would have bought me much more credibility if I'd been able to claim that I'd been reared by wolves.
The point is that neither John nor I relied on anything that happened to us before Harvard to guide our behavior once we got there. John arrived when he was eighteen, and I showed up two years later, in 1980, aged seventeen. We had known each other in high school, but only vaguely; by the time we really got acquainted, we'd both managed to become thoroughly Harvardized. We had a lot in common: the dirty secret of our western public school past, an intense drive to succeed, a longing to fit in. We worked like demons, taking heavy loads of the most difficult classes we could find, so that when we got the phone call saying that the admissions department had just realized its glaring mistake in accepting us, we'd have a fighting chance of remaining enrolled. As a result, we did well academically and ended up going to Harvard over and over again, like addicts. We both applied to combined master's and Ph.D. programs before we'd even graduated from the college. John pursued his passionate study of Asia, while I focused on the sociology of gender. By September of 1987 we had been Harvard students for almost a third of our lives, and we weren't anywhere near finished.
You might assume from all this that John and I found Harvard pleasant. Oh, how wrong you would be. Actually, I don't know if I ever met anyone at Harvard who found it pleasant. It seems to me (although I may well be projecting) that all the people there scurry anxiously from one achievement to another, casting wary glances over their shoulders, never quite sure that they've managed to throw failure off their scent. To me, being a student there was heady, exciting, even thrilling, but these sensations came laced with heavy doses of fear and misery. It was like having lunch with a brilliant, learned, witty celebrity who liked to lean across the table at unpredictable intervals and slap me in the mouthhard. Was it interesting? Very. Stimulating? In more ways than one. Pleasant? I don't think so.
And so, no matter how many times we did them, the muddle of small tasks surrounding each semester's registration always threw John and me into jittering anxiety that made us snap at each other and break things accidentally. Of course, neither of us would have confessed this under torture, not even to each other. We had been trained against it. At Harvard, the appearance of confidence is essential to social survival. Without it, you're like the wounded animal in the herd, attracting the full attention of predators and the disdain of most potential mates. (It was only after John and I fell in love, during finals the first semester of his senior year at Harvard, that I worked up the courage to tell him how scared I was of failing. He had confessed to similar feelings. This interchange was enough to bond us forever. It was more intimate than sex.)
Now John was in the third year of his doctoral program, and no one would have guessed that he'd ever had a moment of lagging confidence. He appeared sublimely self-assured despite the fact that not only was he finishing his degree (which would have been stressful in itself) but he had also jumped at an opportunity to work as a management consultant. The firm that hired him had a branch in Boston and was opening a new one in Singapore. John's job involved commuting from New England to Southeast Asia every two weeks during the upcoming year. This would be a tricky thing to pull off without ruffling various feathers at Harvard, so John was even more nervous than usual. Of course, no one knew this except me, and I was just guessing.
To say that hiding my fears did not come naturally to me is to make a profound understatement. I had a tendency to babble hysterically and blink a lot whenever I dealt with Harvard. At least I'd learned to fake self-confidence, probably as well as the next graduate student. I was very deliberate about this. Before I went on the campus for any reason, I would consciously call up a portion of my personality I call Fang. I would focus very hard on being Fang, until I could squash down every thought or feeling that wasn't part of her. Fang fit in beautifully at Harvard. She was fearless, aggressive, sardonic, voraciously competitive. She never ate entire pound bags of M & M's or sat with her feet in the bathroom sink, crying, the way I was wont to do after a hard day's lunch with the slapping celebrity. I had relied on Fang since my freshman year, and she had served me well. But for some reason, in the fall of 1987 I couldn't quite get her revved up. It wasn't just the jet lag, the fatigue, the change of climate. Even then, when Adam was almost entirely unassembled, I knew it was something more.
I remember the very moment I felt the life controls slip out of my fingers. It was the first time since our return from Tokyo that Katie actually dozed off before sunrise. John and I were both trying, unsuccessfully, to fall asleep ourselves. We stared fitfully at the ceiling, the walls, the window that looked out over Harvard Square, thinking about the dangers that awaited us at daybreak. And then, somewhere toward morning, we rolled over simultaneously, met in the center of our queen-size futon, and began to grope for comfort in each other's arms. I told myself it was a bad idea. I told myself I'd better get some rest while Katie was napping. I told these things to John, too. He agreed with me. And then, of course, we went right ahead with it.
In Japan I had seen a style of puppet theater called Bunraku, where the puppeteers stand right onstage, moving these elegant dolls around without the slightest pretense of invisibility. The puppeteers are so skillful that you actually forget they're on the stage, even though there are often three of them to each puppet. After a few minutes, you'd swear the puppets were moving themselves. That night in our apartment, I kept expecting to see two teams of Bunraku masters standing behind John and me, pulling levers in our heads, sculpting every move we made. I could feel them. And without letting it anywhere near my conscious mind, I knewI knewthat I was in the process of getting pregnant, and that it was exactly what I wanted to do.
Mind you, this was insane. I didn't have time to be pregnant. I was well aware of this, because I (or at least Fang) was the kind of person who made elaborate and detailed plans for my life several years in advance. I am not exaggerating here. You could always tell where I'd been by following the trail of paper scraps with time grids and to-do lists scribbled on them. I was the unofficial mascot of the Franklin Dayplanner people, my schedule fixed in fifteen-minute intervals for years to come. That September was the worst possible time for me to exercise my fertility option. I was taking a full load of classes, teaching sections for a course in Caribbean society, and planning to be Katie's single parent when John was in Asia. The very last thing I could afford to do was bear live young again. For one thing, during my first go-round, pregnancy had made me feel only slightly better than the Ebola virus would have. For another thing, I had to guard my reputation as a scholar.
I understand that nowadays there are enough young parents in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to support a graduate student "parenting center," but this was not true when I was young and fruitful of loin. Back then, even the potential for motherhood was most definitely a blot on the credibility of female students and staff. I had several friends who obtained abortions when accidental pregnancies threatened to scuttle their academic progress. One woman I knew decided, with her husband, to abort a planned pregnancy when a crucial three-day exam was scheduled near her due date. I don't know whether she even asked if the exam could be rescheduled. That sort of thing simply wasn't doneespecially not for "personal reasons."
It often seemed to me that success at Harvard depended on being willing to put "personal reasons" so low on one's priority list that they dropped right off the bottom. John and I had learned this lesson the hard way. For instance, a year and a half before It All Went to Hell, when John was going through the first year of the Harvard Business School curriculum (en route to his Ph.D. in organizational behavior), he missed a day of class taking me to the hospital and Lamaze-coaching me through Katie's birth. The next day, when he went back to the Business School after forty-eight hours without sleep, he received a tongue-lashing that made him wake up in a cold sweat for months afterward. It was delivered in front of the eighty-nine other students in the class by one of his professors, a world-renowned economic theorist I will call Stinky.
"You are a disgrace to this institution," ranted Stinky, while John's classmates sat looking uncomfortably at the floor. "You will never succeed in business, scholarship, or anything else. You have set a bad example for this entire section, and I intend to hold you personally responsible for the poor performance of any student in this room."
When John mumbled that he had wanted to see his child's birth, the professor sneered, said, "You probably think that's a good excuse," and suggested that John should fail out of the class then and there.
You've got to understand that we took this very seriously. I had been away from Harvard for years before I began to realize that not everyone in the United States would agree with Stinky. What amazes me now is that, at the time, both John and I assumed that everyone in the Real World (read: anywhere but Utah) shared Stinky's opinions. So you can see why getting pregnant again on the very eve of an academic year was not part of my conscious master plan, and why that night on our futon felt so trancelike and alien to me. It was like swimming against a riptide: you think you're making lots of progress as you slap away at the water, not even feeling the current, because it is so large and powerful that you aren't able to comprehend it. Then you look at the shore and realize you are in a place you never intended to be.
After that first moment, during our sleepless night on the futon, I felt this sensation often. I tried to explain it to John, but I didn't really know how to articulate it, and he didn't know what I was talking about. Then, of course, came the car accident, and after that I didn't need to explain.
We were headed north at the time, into the gorgeous deciduous forests of upper New England. The trees in that part of the country put on a truly awesome autumn display. The sky is so blue it makes you want to cry, and the leaves look like they're on fire. The traffic out of Boston and into the backwoods of New Hampshire is pretty much bumper to bumper, although it moves along at a good, fast clip. Everyone goes north in the autumn. The volume and brilliance of the foliage is a major topic of conversation at the innumerable wine and cheese parties that kick off every academic year. John and I didn't own a car, but we were tired of being left out of these discussions, so we'd rented one to go up to New Hampshire. We were planning to spend a few days at a cabin with some friends, to celebrate surviving registration and returning to our native time zone.
We had left Massachussetts behind us and were cruising along on the freeway to Franconia when, for no apparent reason, a battered Chevy truck pulled off the shoulder, at right angles to the flow of traffic, and stopped directly in our path. There was no room, no time, to do anything. I heard John give a strangled yell as our car yawed violently and began to spin like a top across our lane and into the path of the oncoming traffic. The Chevy loomed up at me through the passenger window, then disappeared into a blur of leaves, which disappeared behind an eighteen-wheeler, then leaves again, then a Volkswagen bus, leaves, cars, leaves, cars, leaves. On our way home, we would stop at the site and see from the skid marks that we had spun around at least four times, careening across both lanes of the busy highway twice. I still can't see any way we could have done that without being hit, probably several times. But we did.
The odd thing is that I never had any doubt we were completely safe. I remember being mildly concerned that the spinning motion might make Katie carsick. I tried to turn around to look at her, strapped into her car seat behind me, but I was pinned against my own seat by a centrifugal force stronger than anything I had ever felt. I couldn't even move my head. So I just relaxed and watched the leaves go by.
All of this took about two seconds, maybe three. As we Tilt-A-Whirled back into our own lane and onto the shoulder, I could hear the brakes screaming and feel the car slowing down. Then there was a loud pop! and we were all thrown forward against our seat belts. We had hit the wooden post of a stop sign, breaking it in two and denting our bumper. I watched the top half of the sign tremble, sway, and collapse into the dust like a martyred lollipop.
We sat in silence for a minute, taking a mental inventory of our limbs and digits, before John reached forward to turn off the ignition. His hands, like his face, had gone bone white. I felt fine, except that my seat belt had clamped down too tight. I also detected a strange sensation in my lower abdomen, as though someone was pressing a firm but gentle thumb against my bladder. I seemed to remember having felt it before, but I couldn't remember when. I looked over at John. He was clutching the steering wheel as though his life depended on it, which, come to think of it, it did.
"I lost control!" he gasped, as though this were an unfathomable mystery.
"Uh-huh," I said. I turned around and looked at Katie, who was beaming at me from her car seat.
"Whee!" she said.
I laughed. "That was fun, wasn't it, Boofus?"
"Do again?" she asked hopefully.
"No, honey, I'm not sure Daddy could do it again." I turned to smile at John, because the whole situation seemed so interesting. My reaction could have come from shock, I suppose, but all I remember is an entirely inappropriatethough rock solidsense of well-being. John was still staring straight ahead, gripping the wheel.
"I lost control," he repeated. He was trembling.
I began to wonder why John was making such a big deal about this. True, it was probably the first time since he was potty trained that John had ever lost control of anything. But it was utterly obvious to me that we had never been in any danger. The Bunraku puppeteers wouldn't have allowed it. At this thought, the hair began to prickle all over my body, because I could feel them again. They were all around us, all around the car, as powerful and invisible as an ocean current. And I suddenly knew why John was so thoroughly spooked. He hadn't lost control to the forces of nature. He had lost control to them.
There was a sudden, loud rap on the window by my head. John and I jumped so violently that only our seat belts saved usagainfrom bashing our heads against the windshield. I turned to see two old men in overalls standing by the car, peering into the interior. I rolled down my window.
"The grace a God was with you then!" one of the men told us in a thin, accusatory voice, as though we had stayed out too late after the prom.
"The grace a God," echoed the other man. He was wearing a fluorescent orange hunting cap, and his voice was thick and slow. He had the strangest pale-silver eyes I had ever seen. I could tell immediately that he was not, shall we say, fully cooked.
"Car still runnin'?" asked the first man.
John turned toward him and gave him a huge smile. The more upset John is, the happier he acts. It's a Harvard thing.
"Everything's great!" he said, grinning like a maniac. He turned the key, and the car vroomed obediently.
"Everything's great!" the man in the hat repeated in a singsong voice. I couldn't stop looking at him. Retarded people had always filled me with revulsion. I wanted to look away, but I couldn't. The puppeteers wouldn't let me.
"Okay!" John chirped, like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm on an especially magical day. "I guess we'd better get going!" He put the car in reverse and backed slowly, cautiously, away from the stump of the stop sign.
The first man grunted, turned, and walked away from the car. The one in the hat was still watching me.
"He's a good baby, ma'am," he said. "You take good care of that baby."
I remember being puzzled that he had taken Katie for a boy. I thought of correcting him but decided it wasn't worth the effort. For some reason (probably the aftereffects of the accident), I felt gooseflesh rising on the back of my neck. I gave the man an artificial smile, mostly because I was so glad we were getting away from him. The pressure against my bladder seemed to grow stronger, and I suddenly remembered when I had felt it before. It was the first sign I'd had that I was pregnant with Katie.
John was driving very carefully, searching the road intently. "Did you see that idiot?" he said.
"The guy in the hat?" I said.
John glanced at me as though I were short a few brain cells myself. "No," he said. "The guy in the truck."
"Oh, the truck. Yeah, sure ..."
"He pulled right into my lane!" John fumed. "Right into it!"
"I know, honey" I said, trying to sound soothing. "It was all his fault."
"I ought to report him," said John. He wasn't trembling anymore, but his shirt was soaked with sweat. I thought about continuing to play the supportive wife, encouraging him to vent his testosterone rage on the enemy trucker, but I was too preoccupied searching my memory for any acts of indiscretion involving birth control.
"Let it go, John," I said. "He's long gone."
We'd been very careful, I was sure we had. I was particularly cautious about contraception since my physiology had proven incompatible with birth control pills. That night in the apartment, when the ocean current had caught me and carried me along with it, John and I had been as conscientious as usual. But I was well aware that the methods of contraception at my disposal were not fail-safe.
"He's going to kill somebody," John brooded. A car passed us on the left, and he jerked the steering wheel much too hard to the right.
"Just relax," I said. "It was a freak accident." I was trying to make my voice sound the way Mister Rogers's does when he's telling viewers they can't go down the drain, but it cracked with tension. John didn't notice. He was too busy slamming on the brakes to avoid a falling leaf.
We went along that way for the next fifty miles, John driving like someone's grandmother, while I did my best to reassure him that everything was fine. But deep down in my heartwell, all right, deep down in my bladderI knew better.
What People are Saying About This
Set half in Harvard and half in heaven, Expecting Adam is a tough-minded yet tender-hearted book of spiritual discoverya rueful, riveting, piercingly funny, thoroughly modern and deeply old-fashioned memoir: In short, a book to be reckoned with.
"Wickedly funny and wrenchingly sad memoirs of a young mother awaiting the birth of a Down syndrome baby while simultaneously pursuing a doctorate at Harvard. . . . Even skeptics will find magic in this story, and parents of a Down syndrome child will cherish it." -Kirkus
Expecting Adam is not one of those grit-your-teeth, lemons-into-lemonade sagas that leave the reader feeling more besieged and guilty than the writer. It is a long hymn, from a practical woman caught flatfooted by amazing grace. Martha Beck is a celebrant skeptics can trust.
Author of The Deep End of the Ocean
A wonderful book, funny, unbelievably tender, and smart. It shimmers.
Author of Operating Instructions and Traveling Mercies
I laughed. I cried. I couldn't put it down. I didn't want it to end. I wish I knew Adam and his familyand of course I do. A brave, uplifting, life-transforming book.
An Interview with Martha Beck, Author of Expecting Adam
Barnes & Noble.com: What kind of response have you gotten to Expecting Adam since it was published last year?
Martha Beck: The most important thing has been the number of parents who have called and written to tell me about their own children with various disabilities. It's been incredibly humbling, because here I wrote this whiny book about this terrible thing that happened to me, and compared to some of the things that other people have been through, it was nothing. But nobody points that out. Everyone is incredibly kind and gracious. I expected a lot more flak, frankly.
MB: Well, I spoke to a woman the other day who couldn't believe that I wrote this book. I said, "What do you mean?" And she said, "It must have destroyed your reputation -- your career must've gone right in the potty." I was living in an environment where you don't talk about believing that you had supernatural help, or that it's okay to be retarded. I was all prepared for a lot of hostility, and instead I've gotten so much sweetness from people.
B&N.com: Did you feel that publishing the book was somewhat cathartic?
MB: I really feel that people don't need to read your therapy. Everybody's miserable, everybody's got to get through something. By the time I wrote the last draft, I'd really come to terms emotionally with the whole experience, and I was very much at peace. It wasn't just a piece of therapy anymore; it was a story about this incredible little kid and the mystery surrounding his birth. And I think that just makes better reading.
B&N.com: I don't have any direct experience with Down syndrome, yet I was so moved by this book. I found it really exhilarating -- I was reading it on the subway and late at night and waiting in line. I was rooting for you in the book. At some point you write that you were hoping, even unconsciously, that the tests were wrong and that the baby would be born normal. I found that I was hoping he would be born with Down syndrome, but that it would be somehow transformative for you. Do you think Expecting Adam touches many people in the same way?
MB: I always say that I didn't write the book for people with disabilities, I wrote it for the poor slobs at Harvard. What it really is about is not dealing with Adam's disability but dealing with my own, which was this desperate belief that I could never be good enough, I could never achieve enough, I could never be intelligent enough. I think that every child who goes through the school system is vulnerable to that kind of pain. Now I really understand a lot better what it's like to be constantly compared to other people along these very, very narrow and limited measurements. Everybody experiences that, and I think that's what a lot of people identified with. It's that terrible fear that we ourselves are never going to be enough.
B&N.com: Has anyone at Harvard softened in the meantime?
MB: There's a woman professor at Harvard Divinity School who wrote me a letter and sent me a syllabus to prove that she'd assigned the book as required reading. Here is this book that I thought would destroy any hope of my ever being accepted at Harvard, and it's now required reading in a class!
B&N.com: Is that enough to tempt you to return to that kind of culture?
MB: No. I developed a really strong confidence through the whole thing that when it's time for us to do certain things in our life or go certain places, we'll feel it strongly and circumstances will conspire to encourage it. I may someday consider going back to academia, but right now I think that's about as likely as me going into exotic dance. [laughs] It just does not sound good.
B&N.com: Has Adam read the book?
MB: I don't think that his reading skills are up to that yet, but he definitely knows what it's about. I've seen him looking through it. And he has some of the posters that were shown in book tours hanging in his room. It happened before he was old enough to realize that it's unusual to have a book written about you. Now he just thinks this is the way everyone should live. [laughs] We just went to Jamaica and he met the prime minister, and he just sort of feels that that's the way it's supposed to go!
My oldest daughter, Katie, got really clingy one morning and wanted to crawl into bed with me. She wouldn't tell me what was wrong at first, but then she admitted that she'd read the manuscript. I said, "Oh, honey that must've brought back so many memories," and she said, "No, it's not that, it's just that the book is so emotionally charged." She's so precocious. It's funny, the contrast between having two very gifted little girls and then Adam, who is gifted in a completely different way.
B&N.com: You write a lot about the magic that entered your life from the time that you became pregnant with Adam. "Magic" is kind of an overused word in our culture; it can mean anything from coincidence to joy. But your use of "magic" is often literal. The story that stays with me is the one about the fire in your apartment building; you realize later that the man who rescued you from the building was possibly not a real human being. It was a chilling story. Do you still have that kind of magic in your life, even if the experiences aren't so dramatic?
MB: I really do believe that the world is a lot more mysterious than we think. In every other culture there is acknowledgement that people have these mystical and magical experiences, that they're just part of the human experience. I think if you cultivate it, it actually grows. I did that a lot after Adam was born, because I was not totally over it; I had to know how it worked. I still do the thing where if [my husband] John is gone, I can try and see where he is -- and nine times out of ten, it works pretty well. I was writing a proposal for another book and all of a sudden I thought, Maybe I'll write about that tribe in Africa where all the men at puberty paint themselves in white and then go into the forest and burn all their possessions. I'm typing this and I start thinking, What tribe? I don't know anything about this tribe! [laughs] An hour later John called me from Africa and told me how he spent the whole morning with this cool tribe where the men paint themselves white and burn all their possessions. So I called my editor at Times Books, and I told her about it and she said, "It works! It works!"
B&N.com: You also tell a really great story about when you and your children were in a garden store and Adam was sniffing around the plants and you told him to hurry up. An older man beckoned you all back and said, "Do you see what he's doing?" And then you all spent some time smelling all the plants and flowers. When you learn that the man has a child with a disability, you describe him as "one of us." Did publishing this book sharpen that sense of belonging to a new community?
MB: Oh, yeah. I had no idea how many families are touched by some kind of disability in a child. It's one in every 600 or 800 live births with Down syndrome alone, and then you count all the other types of things that can go wrong when children are being born. Instead of being isolated or uniquely cursed, you've just entered a huge fraternity of people who know what it's like to have something happen like this in their family. It's quite wonderful, because it bonds you with humanity. I thought there would be a few people I would connect with; instead it's almost everyone!
B&N.com: What other projects are you working on now?
MB: In March, I have a book coming out called Your Own North Star, which is about the work I've been doing with clients. I teach in a business school, and my students became fascinated with the way I approach life and asked me to design a course around it. Then they started hiring me outside of class. I try to put people sort of artificially through the same kind of process I went through because of Adam.
B&N.com: In what way?
MB: People always told me there's a certain way to live and a certain way to have a successful life and to be happy and this is how to do it -- you go to Harvard, etc. That was the message I got. What I found was that when I ostensibly threw away everything that was supposed to make me successful, like choosing to have the baby, what I'd done was place myself outside the system. And I found that I could choose to be anything I wanted. For example a couple of years after Adam was born, John and I decided we both hated academia so we quit our jobs. We didn't have any income at all for 18 months. We'd literally get up in the morning and say, "What seems right today?" [laughs] And then we'd do it. That's the way I talked to my business school students, and that's what's in my new book.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I, too, was instructed to terminate my pregnancy when my daughter was diagnosed with Trisomy 13. Like Martha Beck, I chose life for my child and it was the most important thing I have and will ever do while on this Earth. Ms. Beck gives a very honest and raw account of her experience, interwoven with wit and faith. It is a must read for any family going forward with a pregnancy after a diagnosis such as Down's Syndrome or other Trisomys. They will relate to her feelings and appreciate her candor.
I think I have read this book 3, maybe 4 times now. This is how much I love this story and love the authors insight into her own life. It reads like fiction, only it is so much better because it is true. It is the type of book you wish Martha Beck would write another so we can continue to share the story of how Adam changed their lives for the better. Thank you Martha Beck for being brave enough to reveal this story. I, for one, was uplifted and inspired by your tale.
Martha beck is funny and insightful. It is a must read
Thought provoking and inspiring. A beautiful story of how perceived adversity can turn out to be a vehicle towards discovering the best in ourselves and everything and everyone around us.
I love books and if you love books like I do, you know that a good book is a treasure. This book is a amazing. Not only is the story remarkable, Martha Beck's writing style is outstanding. She is one of the best female writers I've read. This book will change you. It will stay in your mind for months. It is the type of book you need to read twice, just to digest the wonderful truths found inside. I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did!
I loved the book, I loved Adam, I felt every inch of being pregnant with Martha--smile!
I was primed for this book. Our third grandson, Adam, had just been born (August 5), when I visited a bookstore just down the street from the hospital. So the title, Expecting Adam, quite naturally practically leapt off the shelf into my hands. I originally thought, what a great gift for my daughter (the new mother), but when I read it was a story about having a child with Down Syndrome, I reconsidered. Our particular Adam, although a few weeks premature, seemed pretty much perfect, and I didn't want to needlessly upset the new mom. I needn't have worried. This is an absolutely wonderful book, told with humor, compassion, wit, wisdom and a nearly other-worldy sense of wonder. And did I mention humor? Because this woman is a very funny writer. The numerous references to invisible beings, whether she calls them angels or Bunraku puppeteers, and intercontinental telepathy are the kind of thing that would normally put me off, as I am a natural skeptic. But somehow Beck pulls it off. Probably because she believes it, she makes me believe it too - all of it. My wife wants to read it now. (She'd seen Martha Beck on Oprah some time ago, she tells me.) We will then pass the book along to our daughter to read. We know she will relate, and probably cry a little, when she reads Beck's perfect descriptions of a tiny foot the size of a man's thumb and a head the size of an orange. Babies. Ain't they just the grandest things?! I'll say it again. This is a wonderful book.
I love Martha Beck. Sometimes I feel like she's in my head doing my thinking for me. She is definitely one of the five people living or dead, fictional or real that I would invite to dinner!
Martha and her husband were graduate students are Harvard with a little girl when they unexpected got pregnant with second child. As with her first pregnancy, Martha was sick beyond belief during the entire pregnancy, making keeping up with her young daughter and her classwork very difficult ¿ especially when her husband took a job that caused him to split his time between Harvard (for classes) and Asia, leaving the country for weeks at a time. Already somewhat looked down upon for having even one child while at Harvard, many people disapproved of Martha¿s second pregnancy, particularly when they became aware that the baby she carried had Downs Syndrome.Until becoming pregnant with Adam, Martha really bought into the whole Harvard mentality. Although she still did her best to keep up with what was expected of her while pregnant, her priorities began to change while carrying Adam. Part of what changed Martha was a series of very serious circumstances, all happening while her husband was out of the country. First she felt too weak and nauseous to make food and eat for long enough that she was effectively starving herself, later in her pregnancy there was a fire in her building, at one point she began bleeding profusely. In all of these circumstances, Martha felt the presence of some other, even mystical being(s) protecting her and Adam. Although everyone around them expected Martha to abort the baby ¿ even her doctors and, initially, her husband ¿ Martha became convinced that she HAD to have him. You do know from the beginning how this book turns out. I believe Martha wrote this when Adam was 3 or older and she makes frequent references to what he is like as a toddler.I read this for book club and, in general, we all really enjoyed it, although we were taken aback at just how hostile Martha perceived Harvard as being towards family life in general and towards a baby with Downs in particular (granted this did take place during the 1980s). We also became VERY frustrated with Martha. She was later diagnosed with an immune disease that made her so sick durnig pregnancy, it seemed as if she was trying to do everything BUT take good care of herself and her daughter when her husband was out of town. If you are feeling nauseous with pregnancy, the solution is generally to eat small doses of whatever does NOT make you nauseous frequently. Knowing how extremely sick she could get, we felt it was inexusable for Martha to allow herself to get to the point where she could eat when she was the sole caretaker for the baby she was carrying and her daughter. She also neglected to go to the doctor when she was bleeding so badly, saying she knew she had been healed, which disturbed us all.Despite some of our gripes with Martha¿s actions, this was a very well-written memoir on an extremely interesting topic and I think we would all recommend it. It certainly made for a good conversation at book club, even in a book club where I am the only one married (although others are engaged) and anywhere near children.
A young scholar woman expecting a child with Down Syndrome is able to find joy and discover little miracles in everyday struggles.
Great premise. Touching story. But way too much whoo-whoo for this reader!
Can't put this one down! Absolutely one of my favs!!!
This book is amazing! I love it so much that I now own the paperback edition and the Nook edition. I read it when I need reassurance that life is good, that "bad" things happen for good reasons, etc. I am a mom to a disabled child, so I empathize with this couple. Their stress, their fighting, their eventual unification together over their special needs son. The story is so unbelievable at points that it comes across as completely honest. Which is where the magic comes in. Open your mind, open this book, and allow yourself to believe.
I've enjoyed Martha Beck's witty and meaningful page in every O Magazine. I was interested in the subject of this book, and excited to see Martha's name as the author. Her writing talent is superb, and the way she tells this story of her son, Adam, brings light to the subject of compassion and appreciation for children who aren't quite the "norm." Martha reveals her courage in continuing her pregnancy despite everyone's advice to abort, and her personal growth in faith. We see Adam taking on his own personality and becoming a well-loved person who makes a difference in the lives of those he touches. Martha shares wonderful bits of her wisdom throughout the book, each one worthy of being framed.