The Fifth Child

Happiness.  A happy family.  The Lovatts were a happy family.  It was what they had chosen and what they deserved.  Often, when David and Harriet lay face to face, it seemed that doors in their breasts flew open, and what poured out was an intensity of relief, of thankfulness, that still astonished them both: patience for what seemed now such a very long time had not been easy, after all.  It had been hard preserving their belief in themselves when the spirit of the times, the greedy and selfish sixties, had been so ready to condemn them, to isolate, to diminish their best selves.  And look, they had been right to insist on guarding that stubborn individuality of theirs, which had chosen, and so obstinately, the best – this.

That ‘stubborn individuality’ espoused by the happy Lovatts is their desire for a large family, at all costs. I say ‘at any cost’, because they cannot afford to support a large family on their own, and depend upon David’s rich father to pay their mortgage and help support them. They buy a huge, four story house, with a mammoth dining room and dining table that seats 20+, and start having kids right away.  Their family tries to talk some sense into them, tries to tell them that a family of 8 to 10 children is too big, will take a huge toll on them both financially and physically.  Things start out well. They have their first two children within one year, and their home becomes the gathering place for their families. There are plenty of guest rooms, plenty of room at the table, plenty of love and laughter, and who cares if it costs a fortune to entertain that many people for weeks on end, Dad’s rich, right? Harriet quickly has two more beautiful babies, and her mother moves in with them, becoming practically a servant to their ever growing needs. That it does not occur to either Harriet or David that as the family continues to grow, they will be less and less able to support their brood without the physical and financial help from their families, appears almost sinister and self-deluded.

Harriet’s sister, Sarah, and her husband William, are also the parents of four children, though they had them at a more reasonable rate, spreading them out over 10 years. Their marriage is an unhappy one, though, and their fourth child is born with Down Syndrome. Harriet feels that they have brought their troubles upon themselves.

Harriet said to David, privately, that she did not believe it was bad luck: Sarah and William’s unhappiness, their quarreling, had probably attracted the mongol child-yes, yes, of course she knew one shouldn’t call them mongol. But the little girl did look a bit like Genghis Khan, didn’t she?…David disliked this trait of Harriet’s, a fatalism that seemed so at odds with the rest of her. He said he thought this was silly hysterical thinking: Harriet sulked and they had to make up.

If the unhappiness and quarreling in Sarah and William’s marriage have brought them trouble in the form of their Down Syndrome child, then perhaps it is Harriet and David’s insistence on having more and more children, even though they are emotionally, financially, and physically exhausted, that brings them trouble in the form of their fifth child, Ben. Ben is a problem child from the moment of conception. He exhausts Harriet far more than her first four pregnancies. He beats and bruises her from the inside, heaving and seething within her, and she starts taking downers in order to get some rest in between his angry sessions. Things only get worse with his birth. Ben is an unlovable child. He is angry all of the time, demanding and fierce and non-responsive to attempts at affection. Harriet tries her best to support and love Ben, but she gets no support from David, from her pediatrician, or from society in general. All are afraid of Ben, horrified by him, and yet unwilling to admit out loud that he might be something beyond normal. Harriet feels he might be some sort of goblin, or genetic throwback to a pre-human time.

As Ben gets older, he starts to really frighten the rest of the family.  After he kills two family pets, they fear for the safety of the other kids, and so they lock him in his room most of the time, and at one point have him institutionalized. The family breathes a large sigh of relief with Ben locked away, and life starts to get back to normal. But while Harriet does not love Ben, she does not feel right about having him put away either, so she goes to visit him. What she finds there horrifies her, and she is confronted with the options of letting him die there, or bringing him home and destroying her family.  I found myself angry with Harriet, with everyone in the story, for their actions and inactions regarding Ben.  She brings him home from the institution, because she cannot bear to be the type of mother who would leave him there.  It’s not that she doesn’t wish him dead.  She’s wished him dead on many an occasion, starting before he was born.  But as she says several times in the book, they aren’t the type of people who would leave him there to die.  But they are the kind of people to loose a violent and unbalanced teen into the world, and who breathe a sigh of relief when he finally disappears from their lives, visiting his mayhem upon society at large in the forms of beatings, muggings, rape, and rioting.

The story of Harriet and David’s struggle with Ben appears at first glance to be a commentary on their own hubris, but upon deeper reflection, it turns out to be more than that.  It turns out ultimately to be a commentary on the unwillingness of society to confront its most brutal underbelly.

The Fifth Child is a quick read. I polished it off in one day home with a sick child. I would highly recommend it, though perhaps not a book to read while pregnant. Dorris Lessing won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Fifth Child received the Grinzane Cavour Prize in Italy, and was nominated for the 1988 Los Angeles Times Book Award. I read it for the Book Awards Reading Challenge.

One thought on “The Fifth Child

  1. This sounds like the type of story you don’t want to read but can’t turn away from.

    I know people who have built large families on a similar premise and support system, who teeter on the brink of financial disaster because they cannot/will not admit that they are in over their heads.

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