2018-06-11 12:30:23 UTC
The Boston Globe
Arguable - with Jeff Jacoby
Monday, June 4, 2018
The 1960s' Down syndrome problem — and ours
Arthur Miller’s moral authority takes a beating in “Fall,” a new play now
having its world premiere at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston.
Miller, the renowned American playwright who wrote “Death of A Salesman,”
“The Crucible,” and “All My Sons,” was a caustic observer of moral
shortcomings and fathers’ failures, and of the shame that results from
ethical compromise. “My way of writing plays,” he told interviewers,
“involves the birds coming home to roost.”
The story told in “Fall,” which was written by former New York Times
reporter Bernard Weinraub, is the story of Miller’s own moral shortcomings
and failure as a father. It’s based on the true but not-widely-known fact
that Miller had a son, Daniel, who was born with Down syndrome in 1966.
Daniel was placed in an institution for disabled infants, against the wishes
of his mother — Miller’s third wife, photojournalist Inge Morath — but in
keeping with advice commonly given to the parents of Down syndrome children
in the 1960s.
For the rest of his life, Miller barely acknowledged the existence of his
Down syndrome son, the youngest of his four children. He refused to visit
Daniel, rejected Morath’s periodic pleas to bring him home, never spoke of
him in public, and omitted him entirely from his 1987 autobiography,
Timebends . Among Miller’s friends, the few who knew about Daniel generally
steered clear of the subject. Only at the very end of his life, just weeks
before his death in 2005, did Miller take a step to do right by Daniel: He
revised his will to provide that his fourth child would inherit a one-fourth
share of his estate.
What makes Miller’s unconscionable disregard for his son a fruitful subject
for a drama is that for years the Pulitzer Prize-winner and celebrity-social
activist was hailed as one of America’s great moral truth-tellers. When he
died, The New York Times praised him for having “grappled with the
weightiest matters of social conscience” and for his “fierce belief in man’s
responsibility to his fellow man.”
But if Miller — who famously defied the House Un-American Activities
Committee, who vigorously opposed the Vietnam War, who defended the rights
of dissident writers behind the Iron Curtain — was such a champion of
morality and justice, how could he have abandoned his own son with such
“Fall” paints a damning portrait of Miller as a coward and an egotist, ever
ready to preen for his admirers and the press, but quick to recoil from the
prospect of being seen with a defective child — a “mongoloid,” as Miller
referred to him. Weinraub pulls few punches. To an extent, the play is based
on real reporting — a 2007 exposé in Vanity Fair by Suzanna Andrews that
first documented the existence of Miller’s abandoned son, plus, as the
Huntington notes in an online essay, Weinraub’s own interviews with “social
workers, caretakers, and acquaintances who could shed new light on the
complicated story.” But it deploys plenty of dramatic license as well,
casting Miller as a selfish hypocrite who claimed to be enlightened but — at
least in this case — was anything but.
“Fall” makes clear that attitudes toward Down syndrome have changed over the
past half century. The audience is told that doctors no longer recommend
that babies diagnosed with the condition be institutionalized, and that
children born with Down syndrome (like Daniel Miller himself) routinely go
on to live happy and fulfilling lives. In the “Fall” playbill, theater-goers
can read an essay — “Down Syndrome, Then and Now ” — by the Huntington’s
dramaturg, Charles Haugland. The picture he outlines is of a world vastly
more tolerant and welcoming than the one into which Daniel Miller was born:
Today, the emphasis in research has shifted towards giving individuals with
Down syndrome dignity and self determination in medical decisions. . . .The
cultural and medical landscape that a child with Down syndrome is born into
today would be unrecognizable to people living in the 1960s. Children and
adults with Down syndrome appear in advertisements and television programs;
they write books and appear publicly as advocates for their community.
That’s true. But it is far — far — from the whole truth.
Neither Weinraub’s play nor the Huntington’s dramaturg so much as hint at
the much larger, much darker reality of Down syndrome today. Namely, that
the vast majority of babies with the disorder don’t grow up amid love and
dignity, because they are never born in the first place: They are
deliberately killed in the womb.
Lucas Warren of Dalton, Ga., a 1-year-old with Down syndrome, was named the
2018 Gerber baby. He captivated the judges with his "winning smile and
If it was appalling for Arthur Miller to airbrush his son Daniel out of his
life in the 1960s, what is the word to describe the overwhelming majority of
parents in the United States and Europe in the 2010s who respond to a
prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis by destroying their unborn baby outright
In a new essay for Slate, Ruth Graham wrestled with the conflict between
women’s legal right to choose an abortion and the monstrousness of killing
unborn babies solely because they have an extra chromosome. Here’s an
In many parts of Europe, including the United Kingdom, the termination rate
after a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis is now more than 90%. In Iceland,
where testing is widespread, “we have basically eradicated, almost, Down
syndrome from our society,” one geneticist told CBS last year . In Denmark,
where all pregnant women have been offered screening scans since 2004, the
disorder is heading for “extinction.” In Ireland, one of the few Western
European countries where it is still commonplace to encounter people with
disabilities like Down syndrome, citizens voted overwhelmingly on Friday to
reverse the country’s strict constitutional restrictions on abortion. Down
syndrome had become a contentious element in the public debate. A billboard
from the “Save the 8th” campaign, which favored maintaining restrictions,
featured a boy with Down syndrome and the tagline, “Abortion discriminates.”
One mother of a 10-year-old with Down syndrome told a reporter that she
worries her son’s community is “being wiped off the face of the Earth with
abortion.” The stakes of this debate are clear: It’s a conversation not just
about prenatal testing but about personhood, about whether Down syndrome
should be considered a condition or a disease.
In the United States, screening is not as widespread, but about
three-quarters of women who do receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome
terminate the pregnancy, according to a survey of recent studies published
in 2012. Though not widely discussed in public, the default assumption in
certain milieus is that aborting after a Down syndrome diagnosis is now the
natural and obvious thing to do.
Reread that last line: The default assumption . . . is that aborting after a
Down syndrome diagnosis is now the natural and obvious thing to do. The
Huntington and its playwright are silent about this cultural embrace of
prenatal extermination for people with Down syndrome. But they invite us to
sit in judgment on Arthur Miller for turning his back on his son.
Aborting an unborn baby because it has been diagnosed with Down syndrome is
an act of selfishness and depravity. It is the destruction of an innocent
human life by parents who want a baby — but only if that baby is perfect.
Worldwide, millions of unborn girls are aborted each year by parents
determined to have a son. There is no moral difference between aborting an
otherwise healthy baby because of her sex and aborting an otherwise healthy
baby because she has Down syndrome.
Here and there, glimmers of light are beginning to pierce the darkenss. The
2018 Gerber Baby is Lucas Warren, a 1-year-old from Dalton, Ga., who was
born with Down syndrome and whose “winning smile and joyful expression won
our hearts,” in the words of Gerber CEO Bill Partyka. No surprise there:
Winning smiles are practically the signature of Down syndrome.
Researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston reported in 2011 that “the
experience of Down syndrome is a positive one for most parents, siblings,
and people with Down syndrome.” In three linked national surveys, the
research team found that 79% of parents of a child with Down syndrome
reported that their outlook on life was enhanced because of their child,
while 94% of brothers and sisters of someone with Down syndrome expressed
pride in their sibling. As for the Down syndrome resondents themselves, an
astonishing 99% said they were happy with their lives, 97% liked who they
are, and 96% liked how they look. Only 4% expressed sadness about their
And yet the “default assumption” is that killing these cheerful,
heartwarming, sunny people before they can be born is the “natural and
obvious thing to do.” Whatever else may be said about Arthur Miller, he didn’t
snuff out his child’s life. Luckily for that child, he was born in the
benighted 1960s, not in our supposedly enlightened and tolerant age, when
boys like Daniel Miller are routinely denied the right to life.
The Epictetus of Bay State Road
During dinner the other night the conversation turned to recollections of
college, and a visitor from California who hadn’t been to Boston in many
years, was trying to remember the name of the university president with a
reputation for facing down student demonstrators and disdaining political
She was thinking, of course, of John Silber, the longtime president of
Boston University who died in 2012. For anyone who spent time with Silber —
I was his assistant for 16 months in the mid-1980s — his name and
personality remain indelible memories. He was one of the most consequential
figures in American higher education and a tenacious combatant in the
culture wars of the second half of the 20th century. He was also, as a
Democratic candidate for governor in 1990, a political experience unique in
As it happens, I had been thinking of Silber ever since Tom Wolfe, the
legendary journalist and novelist, died last month. The obituaries for Wolfe
prompted me to re-read some of his writings, one of which was the foreword
to Seeking the North Star , John Silber’s final book, a collection of
speeches and essays he finished editing during his last illness. I had
gulped down Wolfe’s rollicking encomium when the book first came out — how
often do you get to read one of the greatest writers of the age describing
one of your most unforgettable characters? — and it was a treat to read it
all over again.
Boston University Chancellor John Silber (r) confers an honorary doctorate
of humane letters on Tom Wolfe, the speaker at BU's 2000 commencement.
Here’s how Wolfe began, swashbuckling punctuation, italics, and all:
I pledge you my word, it came popping out of my mouth just like that, as if
The Force had commandeered my voice box to make an announcement.
This was the evening of October 16, 2008, nineteen days before the
presidential election, Barack Obama vs. John McCain, a matter of minus-10
interest to me at that moment. I was here in Chicago for a Chicago Public
Library book program . . . holding forth, as requested, upon a book about
the original Mercury astronauts and their adventures half a century ago, The
No sooner had I left the rostrum than an ace blogcaster for the online
Huffington Post, Greg Boose, appeared: “Do you think that either of these
candidates in 2008 have ‘the right stuff’?”
Without a moment of reflection, without even a Well . . . or an Ummmm . . .
my voice box said, “I’m voting for John Silber, a write-in vote. He was
president of Boston University — not College — and he almost won the
governorship of Massachusetts in 1990. He’s a Democrat, but no matter what,
he’s like Epictetus the Stoic. He cannot assent to what he knows is wrong.
He cannot disagree with what he knows is right.”
I turn about and it’s a man whose face I recognize…but I can’t think of his
name. So I adroitly come up with “Hey, Big Guy!” and we exchange
pleasantries while mainly I’m wracking my brain to figure out who he is. . .
. Then I turn back to the blogcaster, Greg Boose —
— and he’s not here. Where’s he gone? Bango — it hits me. He must have
thought I had room to let upstairs . . . telling him that in this election
for president of the United States I’m going to write in by hand on a paper
ballot the name of some loser who had last lost 18 years ago . . . and how
much this loser was like Epictetus the Stoic, some maxim-mouthing Greek
slave-turned-philosopher in Rome at the time of Nero, the 1st century A.D. —
— out to lunch, playing with half a deck, falling out of my tree, slipping
off the platter or not, I was factually correct. Throughout 45 years of a
very public life in politics and academia, Silber might as well have been a
sworn and tattooed Stoic. He refused to compromise, temporize, flatter,
double-talk, or bleach the facts in order to make things go smoothly. He
didn’t merely anger vast majorities of his own constituents from time to
time — students, faculty, administrators, alumni, librarians, service
workers, not to mention the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s electorate . . .
no, he charged into them headfirst, like a bull.
Though he was a lifelong Democrat, Silber was regarded in Massachusetts as a
tough social conservative. But his reputation in Texas, where his career
began, was as anything but conservative. Indeed, wrote Wolfe, as a professor
of philosophy, then dean of arts and sciences, at the University of Texas,
Silber in the 1950s and 1960s built up a reputation “as a flaming liberal.”
It began as far back as 1957, the year Silber was first hired as an
assistant professor, when he weighed in on the side of decency in an ugly
racial controversy. Wolfe summarized that episode:
[Silber] stood out especially in the Barbara Smith case in 1957. Barbara
Smith, an undergraduate, had been chosen as Dido in Dido and Aeneas, a
student production of Henry Purcell’s famous 17th-century of romantic
tragedy, ill-starred love, and, above all, passion, passion, paff paff paff
passion and more passion. Barbara Smith was an immensely talented,
ravishingly beautiful mezzo-soprano. She was also black . . . a member of
the first contingent of black students to enter the University after it had
been desegregated by law. In Dido and Aeneas , her love, Aeneas, would be
played by a white boy with blond hair and blue eyes. When the Texas
Legislature got wind of this scheme to promote not just desegregation but
also musical miscegenation, they ordered the University to remove the black
girl from the production. The UT administration buckled immediately. The one
outspoken voice of protest from within the UT ranks was John Silber’s.
Against the wishes of the University’s president, he wrote a very public
letter of protest . . . a brave try for a teacher his first year on the
faculty, and a lowly assistant professor, at that.
Re-reading Wolfe’s description of Silber as a Stoic who could never assent
to something he knew to be false reminded me of a conversation I had with
him late one afternoon in his office on Bay State Road. Silber was
resolutely anticommunist, and somehow the conversation had turned to the
lies by which Communist regimes sustain themselves. Those lies were so
palpable, he said, that anyone who defended communism had to be a knowing
Surely not everyone, I said — didn’t it go without saying that some
communists were true believers?
Silber conceded that people who simply didn’t know any better — uneducated
peasants or workers or children — might become communists out of sheer
ignorance. “But an educated man who professes communism? He must be
fundamentally dishonest, a man without integrity.”
I’m not sure why I continued to press the point, but I took one more stab at
disagreeing with someone who was not only my boss, but who could be
mercilessly intolerant of weak arguments. Racking my brain for an example
that would disprove Silber’s blunt assertion, I thought of a famous ex-
Communist — a spy who had broken with the Soviet Union and risked his career
to expose espionage in the US government.
“What about Whittaker Chambers?” I asked. “Do you really think that when he
was a loyal communist he was insincere in his beliefs? It makes no sense to
say he became a man of integrity only after he changed his mind.”
Silber looked at me hard. For a moment he didn’t say anything. I braced
myself for the derisive retort I assumed was coming.
“You’re right,” he said at last. “I think that argument is one I won’t make
It was the only time Silber ever conceded that I was right about something
he had disagreed with. But I was the one who learned more from the
experience. He had come to the conclusion that his long-held position was
false and resolved on the spot never to repeat it. I don’t know if he kept
to his resolution. But I’ve never forgotten it.
Site to see
Amid the internet’s vast ocean of drivel, some websites are alluring islands
of knowledge and discovery. Each week, in “Site to See,” I call attention to
one of these online treasures.
This week’s site is The Poetry Archive [URL:
https://www.poetryarchive.org/], an online home for poetry in English read
aloud — by the writers themselves, whenever possible. The creation of the
site was spearheaded by Andrew Motion, who was Britain’s Poet Laureate from
1999 to 2009. More than 2,000 poems can be heard for free (or read) at the
Poetry Archive; even more can be purchased for download, either singly or in
albums of a poet’s work.
While the focus of the archive is on contemporary poetry read by
contemporary poets, it contains much more. There is a glossary of
poetry-related terms, such as sestina, cadence, and alliteration, with links
to poems that exemplify the term. There are collections of poems organized
by themes as diverse as the Caribbean, World War I, and landscapes. And
there is plenty of beginner-friendly material on how to read and understand
Most intriguing of all, perhaps, are the historic recordings made by poets
long dead, among them Rudyard Kipling, Siegfried Sassoon, and W. H. Auden.
You can listen here to Dylan Thomas reading his 1946 poem “A Refusal to
Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” — but before he gets to the
reading, he introduces it with some ironic thoughts and jarring language on
poetry and on how a poet reading his work aloud is apt to get it wrong:
"To choose what I should read tonight I looked through 70 odd poems of mine
and found that many are odd indeed and that some may be poems. And I decided
not to choose those that strike me still as pretty peculiar but to stick to
a few of the ones that do move a little way towards the state and
destination I imagine I intended to be theirs when in small rooms in Wales,
arrogantly and devotedly I began them. For I like to think that the poems
most narrowly odd are among those I wrote earliest and that the later poems
are wider and deeper, though time, if interested, may well prove me wrong
and find that the reverse is true or that each statement is false. I do not
remember, that is the point, the first impulse that pumped and shoved most
of the earlier poems along and they're still too near to me with their
vehement, beat-pounding, black and green rhythms like those of a very young
policeman exploding, for me to see the written evidence of it."
Recommend a website for this feature! Send me the link and a short
description (***@globe.com), and put “Site to See” in the subject
My Sunday column compared American political contests with the culinary
competitions on the Food Network, and lamented that the former aren’t more
like the latter. While political campaigns are relentlessly negative and
candidates make empty promises, the contestants who square off on a show
like “Chopped” have to produce real results or lose. On the Food Network,
competitors don’t bad-mouth each other or lash out at the judges. On the
campaign trail, politicians filibuster and evade and insult all the time.
Want to fix our broken political system? I say we run the 2020 presidential
race the way the Food Network runs “Chopped.”
(Update: Well, that was quick.)
And speaking of things wrong with politics, my column last Wednesday pointed
out that both major parties have abandoned political and social ideals they
used to uphold as recently as a decade or two ago. Republicans, for example,
have walked away from free trade and an emphasis on good character, while
Democrats no longer have a big-tent approach to abortion and national
security. Bill Clinton’s greatest achievements as president — welfare
reform, NAFTA, four budget surpluses, tax cuts — would be rejected out of
hand by today’s Democrats. To many in the modern GOP, Ronald Reagan’s
openness to immigrants would be anathema. The parties have changed, and not
for the better.
The last line
“‘It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,’ Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they
were upon her.” — Shirley Jackson, The Lottery (1948)
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