The Memory Keepers Daughter

I’m about 2/5 of the way through this book. Reading this has been a difficult task for me…not that it would be for everyone, but it was for me. Those of you who have read my blog for awhile know that I didn’t know my father or my sisters growing up, that I met them when I was 21 (dad) and 22 (sisters), so I missed out on a lot of their lives, as they did mine. One thing that I missed out on was that I had an uncle, Bobby, who had Downs Syndrome. He was my father’s older brother, and he died before I had a chance to meet him. For those of you who have no people in your family born with such difficult medical circumstances, you can’t know what pressure it puts on a family. For those of us who have someone in our family with such needs, we can’t know if life would have been different, or how different, had that person been born healthy, had been able to learn and grow at the rate which most people experience.

My uncle Bobby was born in the early 1940s, and back then, a child with Downs was institutionalized. There was no question, between the doctor and my grandfather, that this was for the best. But for my grandmother, she wanted to keep her son home with her, wanted to raise him herself. The institution to which Uncle Bobby was sent did not take children under the age of 2. Think of that for a moment, of what that means…it means that my Grandma had her son home with her until he was 2 years old, loved him and cared for him and got to truly know him, and then had him taken, against her will, to the institution. She had very supportive family…my grandfather’s mother moved to the town where the institution was, so that she could watch over him and make sure that he was OK. But my grandmother and grandfather did not do so. They stayed in their town, at their jobs, and raised my father as best they could.

But the stress on my Grandmother was immense…I sometimes wonder how much of her personality, her ‘strangeness’ was caused by her son’s illness, the loss of having him at home, the empty spot in her life. I wonder about my father, about how his personality would be different, if Bobby had stayed home. And then again, if he were home well, vs. being home with Downs. My Grandmother went somewhat insane. At one point, I believe, she tried to drown herself, my father, and Bobby. I haven’t heard this story from my father, so I’m not sure, but the image haunts me. My father came home from school one day, to find that his mother had been institutionalized, because she was having so much trouble. My grandmother and grandmother slept in separate bedrooms after that, and I’m not sure how much of that was due to her horrid snoring, and how much to the strain in her marriage.

The stress on my father also was immense.  I found out that he never told my sisters that he even had a brother, until after Uncle Bobby had died.  So if I had known them growing up, I still wouldn’t have known Bobby.  My father says he doesn’t really know why he never told them…he wasn’t ashamed of his brother, but it would have been hard on them to go visit, I suspect, so he was waiting until they were old enough, which unfortunately never happened.  My grandmothers house if full of family photos, and yet, not one of Bobby.  She talks about him a lot, so again, it’s not that she’s ashamed.  There are just so many strange coping mechanisms in this world, and my family has a few of them.

So as I read this book, the story of a family with a daughter who was born with Downs, the father who had a sister with a heart condition that killed her very young, I felt so much for them. For the father, who couldn’t bear to repeat the pain he went through when his own sister died, and so when he delivered his daughter, saw this tell-tale signs of Downs, he sent her away to be institutionalized. But he never told his wife. Instead, he told her that their daughter had died, that her twin brother, healthy, was the only remaining child. The protective shield that the mother puts around her son seems eerily familiar to me, like how protective my Grandmother is with my father. The distance between the husband and wife, the pain that they both suffer every day, gives me a glimpse into the life of my grandparents. I don’t know how accurate this glimpse is. I wasn’t there, I don’t know. I never met my uncle Bobby. But this book, so far, has touched me much more deeply than I had expected it to.

12 thoughts on “The Memory Keepers Daughter

  1. It seems like back then they institutionalized anyone they could get their hands on! That if someone was even slightly “deficient” off they went.

    Hubba-hubba has a cousin with Down’s and he is one of the happiest, most wonderful people you will ever meet. I’m sure it is a burden on them as he is getting older and still needs care, but he is a great joy to them nonetheless.

  2. Life back then was so difficult. I can see how that would make anyone a little strange. How awful for your grandmother and everyone else involved. I would have been a complete mess if someone had taken my baby away. You know, the story of your father’s older brother would make a great novel.

  3. Absolutely fascinating observations about how the similarities to your real life in the story have touched you. Literature opens so many doors both to the outside world, and to within. Very neat-o.

    I had a similar experience when I read We Are The Mulvaney’s. I was stunned by how what was a made up story so closely paralleled something I knew about in real life.

  4. I loved this book–just read it over Thanksgiving. My uncle is retarded–not Down’s, but he has the IQ of about a 4 year old. So very similar. He was not institutionalized (born in 1947) probably because my grandparents couldn’t afford it. He lived with my grandparents until I was in my late teens, which would make him close to forty. Now he lives in a group home about 40 minutes away from my grandmother.

  5. J. I enjoy reading your blog. I know you are trying to catch up on a reading list but here is a suggestion: Jewel by Brett Lott. It is also the story of a DS child and the mother’s struggle to raise her in the 1940’s. I read it a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it.

  6. your post gave me chills, How difficult it must have been for your fathers family. Poor Uncle Bobby. I would also like to read this book, but I know it won’t hit me as hard as it is hitting you. Happy I found your blog.

  7. hey j, thanks for the great post. in my family (but on my mom’s side) we had a similar situation. my uncle was born mentally retarded, but my grandparents chose to keep him home except for a few years away at school (the best years of his life… he spoke incessantly of them until he was past 60). the result was very different from the life you describe for your granparents and father, but still very difficult. imagine a marriage with a 40 year old “kid” with constant needs still living under your roof. imagine my normal mom living under the shadow of a disabled older brother, and never quite able to be “enough” for her parents to pay attention to her. interesting study in family dynamics, eh?

  8. Thank god things are different today.

    I went to elementary school with Down’s kids. I grew up in a neighborhood with Down’s kids. My neighbor’s youngest has Down’s. My son knows about it, realizes it’s a part of life, is interested, but chill. At four.

    Wow.

  9. J, I’m catching up after being off for the holidays. Anyway, I just read your review (partial review because you weren’t finished yet) of this book.

    I can see how this story would hit you so hard. It’s different when you or your family experiences something so traumatic. Your grandmother must have been in agony over this.

    Great review and thank you for sharing this part of your life.

  10. hey! thanks for posting this. I’ve asked the library to hold this book for me and I’m still waiting, but I’ll put up a review once i finish reading it. Have you read the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime? It’s about a boy with autism, and it’s both entertaining and touching. Hope you have a wonderful New Year!

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