Friday, February 24, 2012

Book Review: The Child Who Never Grew

The Child Who Never Grew by Pearl S. Buck

This is the poignant memoir of a Nobel winning author whose oldest daughter had a mental disability, unable to learn much more than to write her name. It is absolutely beautiful and well worth your time if you can find a copy. The little medical information provided in the book is outdated, but it is first and foremost tender advice from one mother to another (or to a father). The 1992 edition includes an afterward by one of Buck's adopted daughters who gives more details on the family's lives.

If you have never read anything written by Buck, please go immediately to your library and find one of her many books. (The Good Earth is, of course, a perfect place to begin.)
[E]ndurance of inescapable sorrow is something which has to be learned alone. And only to endure is not enough. Endurance can be a harsh and bitter root in one's life, bearing poisonous and gloomy fruit, destroying other lives. Endurance is only the beginning. There must be acceptance and the knowledge that sorrow fully accepted brings its own gifts. For there is an alchemy in sorrow. It can be transmuted into wisdom, which, if it does not bring joy, can yet bring happiness.
When this book was first published, in 1950, children with mental disabilities were hidden away in homes or in institutions, some of which were quite awful. This book was alone in clearly stating that these children were to be loved, that they were to be cherished for whoever they could become.

I was struck especially by her words as I thought about how attitudes have changed toward children and people with mental disabilities. In so many ways, we have grown. I have a sister who will probably never be able to live on her own. She lives happily at home with my parents and attends nearly all regular classes in her high school. I may argue that her education is not what it could be, but I cannot deny that there are teachers and policies in place with at least the intention to educate her. We have laws and norms that protect people like Buck's daughter and my sister...once they are born.
Every now and again I see in the newspapers the report of a man or woman who has put to death a mentally defective child. My heart goes out to such a one. I understand the love and despair which prompted the act...And yet I know that the parents of whom I read do wrong when they take to themselves a right which is not theirs and end the physical lives of their children. In love they may do it, and yet it is wrong. There is a sacred quality of life which none of us can fathom. All peoples feel it, for in all societies, it is considered a sin for one human being to kill another for a reason of his own. Society decrees death for certain crimes, but the innocent may not be killed, and there is none more innocent than these children who never grow up.
As her daughter grew, and yet did not grow, Buck debated and explored many options before deciding to find a permanent home for her daughter, someplace she would be loved and protected even after Buck's death. She found her sorrow eased.
The real secret of it was that I began to stop thinking of myself and my sorrow and began to think only of my child. This meant that I was not struggling against life, but slowly and sometimes blindly coming into accord with it. So long as I centered in myself, life was unbearable. When I shifted that center even a little, I began to understand that sorrow could be borne, not easily, but possibly.
I especially loved when she wrote of what she learned from her daughter.
So by this most sorrowful way I was compelled to tread, I learned respect and reverence for every human mind. It was my child who taught me to understand so clearly that all people are equal in their humanity and that all have the same human rights. None is to be considered less, as a human being, than any other, and each must be given his place and his safety in the world. I might never have learned this in any other way. I might have gone on in the arrogance of my own intolerance for those less able than myself. My child taught me humanity. 
Though throughout the book, Buck speaks directly to parents who have a child like hers, she offers more explicit advice near the end on the love a parent should have for a child.
So what I would say to parents is something I have learned through the years and it took me long to learn it, and I am still learning. When your little child is born to you not whole and sound as you had hoped, but warped and defective in body or mind or perhaps both, remember this is still your child. Remember, too, that the child has his right to life, whatever that life may be, and he has the right to happiness, which you must find for him. Be proud of your child, accept him as he is and do not heed the words and stares of those who know no better. This child has a meaning for you and for all children. You will find a joy you cannot now suspect in fulfilling his life for and with him.

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