Deformity and love in Martha Beck’s memoir Expecting Adam

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

I overcame a thrill of horror when I purchased Martha Beck’s memoir, “Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth, and Everyday Magic” about giving birth to a child with Down Syndrome. I like to think of myself as an accepting person. But since deformity, by definition, breaks the mold, it challenges my acceptance. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to read Martha Beck’s book. I was hoping her love for her son would help me grow.

By the time I reached page 70 I had already cried four times. These were good tears, of empathy and insight. I am grateful for her ability to share her experience so clearly and compassionately. And while she does not mention any particular belief system, I find this to be one of the more spiritual books I have read in recent years. For some reason it reminded me of William Blake’s poem, Auguries of Innocence, about how spirituality is wrapped up neatly inside ordinary life.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

I looked up the text of this poem, and was surprised to discover how passionate Blake was about protecting those who are different or helpless. “Expecting Adam” also reminds me of my father’s brother Harry. My father Sam was six feet tall and lanky, a great looking guy with blue eyes and a gorgeous smile. His older sister was also tall and good looking, while his younger brother Harry was about three feet and change, with a flattened nose, a forehead that took up way too much of his face, and legs so short he scampered rather than walked, all symptoms of what is known as dwarfism, or achondroplasia. Harry was a kind and energetic member of the family, helping his father and sister take care of the apartments they owned. We never talked about his stature, and so it was almost invisible to me, other than unavoidable details like the way the foot pedals in his car were built out so he could reach them.

When I went away to school, Harry discovered Little People of America, and he converted from being a freak to an accepted member of his own clan. When I came home for holidays, Harry began acting more like teenager than a 50 year old, having discovered dating for the first time in his life. Then while I was off finding myself, Harry died and I have not thought about him since, until recently when folks of his stature showed up on a reality television show. Despite my affection for Harry and my lifetime striving to accept people in all their diversity, I still find it harder to embrace differences than I would like.

I suppose my life would be simpler if I pushed this problem aside, and loved only the people who look like me. But that would cut me off from all of humanity, one way or another because there are a zillion ways humans can be different, or at least 8 billion, anyway. We are all unique, even though we expend a lot of energy pretending we’re like everyone else. One of the reasons I love memoirs is that they give me the opportunity to see into the minds and hearts of individuals, and learn how life works for them. By sharing her love for her son, Martha Beck’s memoir Expecting Adam has assisted my project of respecting the entire human race, one individual at a time.

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5 thoughts on “Deformity and love in Martha Beck’s memoir Expecting Adam

  1. A touching essay about a problem that seems to affect us all — our difficulty in accepting those who are different with warmth and humanity.

  2. I always seemed to remember growing up some friend of my mother’s who had a child who had Downs or some other form of developmental and other forms of disability and that child being shunned or kept in the back bedroom. It was an especially challenging time, I think. Many people grew up with skewed views of DD. I remember being morbidly curious — to the point of staring and staring. My daughters have a cousin who has a form of cerebral palsy, and he is no different in our life than any other cousin. My girls haven’t been sheltered from people who are different the same way I was.

  3. Thanks so much Jennifer. A spiritual friend of mine told me that she believes that a mother’s love for her child is what keeps this earth with all its faults and horrors from turning into a hell. When I read your site and feel the oceans of love that you are bringing into the world I can see her point.

    Jerry

  4. Pingback: Nine Reasons To Read Memoirs | Memory Writers Network

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