by Kim Edwards
It’s hard to believe that this novel was originally published ten years ago already. The first time I read it was in 2006 or 2007 – I can’t remember which, but I was pregnant at the time with my sixth baby who, unbeknownst to me at the time, would be born in the summer of 2008 with Down syndrome. I’ve wanted to reread it ever since Finn was born, wondering how my take on the story might be changed by my own personal experiences.
The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, which has become somewhat of a staple on the bookshelves of parents of children with Down syndrome, is a profound story of loss and regret. The story centers around a lie, one told with the best of intentions, but which reverberates through the years in ways never imagined by the person who utters the lie.
The story opens as snow begins to fall on a March evening in 1964 in Lexington, Kentucky. Norah Henry, only twenty-two and still a newlywed, young, beautiful, and trusting, goes into labor three weeks early on this night. It is her first child with her handsome doctor husband, David. As the young couple realizes that their baby is determined to be born this night, the falling snow grows into a full-fledged storm, and they make their way across town on treacherous roads to the clinic at which David works, knowing they won’t make it to the hospital in this weather. When they reach the clinic, David’s nurse is waiting, and she delivers the startling news that the doctor who was supposed to meet them there to deliver the baby went off the road into a ditch in the storm. David must deliver his own child.
The birth goes smoothly, with the nurse administering gas to Norah through the worst of it, which renders her mostly unaware of the events unfolding at the foot of the delivery table. A healthy boy. But then, David realizes that there is another baby, and soon that baby also slips out into his hands. They didn’t even know that they were expecting twins. David immediately recognizes that the second baby, a girl, has Down syndrome. He makes a split-second decision that will set in motion a future he cannot foresee in that moment: as his wife lies on the table unconscious, he hands the baby girl to the nurse and instructs her to take the infant to a home for the feeble-minded. When his wife regains consciousness, he utters the lie that forms the basis for the rest of the story: he tells his wife that she gave birth to twins, but that the second baby died before drawing her first breath.
Now, I have trouble with this part, because no matter how I turn it over in my mind, I can’t understand why he even bothered telling his wife that she gave birth to a second baby. She was essentially unconscious during the birth and had no memory of it; it seems that he only complicated matters by telling her about the second baby at all. However, this is a story, and this lie was necessary in order for the rest of the story to happen.
So. Norah grieves for this daughter she neither knew she was carrying, nor ever saw or held. I don’t doubt that there would nevertheless be a profound grief, but it would seem that it would be based largely in shock at finding out one gave birth to a baby one didn’t even know one was carrying. But, I digress.
Caroline, the nurse to whom David handed his newborn daughter with instructions to take her away, does go to the institution with the infant, Phoebe, and finds it to be a terrible place. She can’t bring herself to leave the baby there, and impulsively leaves the home and takes the baby with her. Not knowing exactly what she’ll do, she takes the baby home with vague some expectation that David will come to his senses and do the right thing and claim the baby. However, when she sees a notice in the paper a few days later announcing a memorial service for Phoebe Henry, stillborn daughter of Dr. David Henry and his wife Norah, she understands what David has done, and she leaves town with Phoebe to start a new life elsewhere, raising Phoebe as her own.
The novel spans a quarter of a century, alternating between the Henry family’s lives in Lexington, and Caroline’s life with Phoebe in Pittsburgh. After the death of their daughter, Norah never fully recovers; her daughter’s absence is a void inside her, and she draws more and more into herself as David, coping with guilt and regret, builds an invisible wall of distance between himself and not only his wife, but his son Paul, as well. Paul grows up feeling the distance between his parents and the hole left by his dead twin sister, and tries to bury his rage in music. The anguish in this family is palpable.
Meanwhile, miles away, Phoebe grows up with the only mother she knows, Caroline. Fortunate to be free of most of the health problems associated with Down syndrome, Phoebe is healthy and well-loved. Caroline fights for Phoebe to go to school and receive an education, and she willingly sacrifices her career and dreams, as mothers do, for her child.
Predictably, Norah eventually learns the truth: that her husband lied to her, that their daughter never really died, that she’s alive and well and living in Pittsburgh with Caroline Gill, the nurse who helped deliver her babies all those years ago.
Luminous and deeply affecting, Edwards spins this story with almost dreamlike prose. The characters are so richly and vividly drawn, their feelings and thoughts so well revealed – it all just felt so real. Parts of it I questioned, like David telling his wife about the second baby in the first place. I also thought that when Norah does finally learn of her daughter’s existence, she doesn’t seem shocked or troubled at all to find out that she was born with Down syndrome – and I thought that unrealistic. Although finding out a child you thought was dead is not actually dead would certainly trump finding out that child had Down syndrome, I still think that the Down syndrome piece would nevertheless be something to grapple with and come to terms with.
I appreciated that Edwards did not conjure up an ending that was neatly wrapped up. There really is no happily ever after. Once Norah and her son Paul learn of Phoebe’s existence, they try to forge a relationship with her, but it’s clearly fraught with awkwardness and uncertainty. Edwards did a fabulous job, I thought, too, of portraying a person with Down syndrome and attitudes about Down syndrome and intellectual disability in line with the time periods of the story.
The tendency for those who read The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, I think, is to rail against David Henry, not only for lying to his wife, but for giving his daughter away at all. The tendency, I think, is to believe that if only he hadn’t handed the baby over to Caroline and instructed her to take the baby away, all of this anguish and heartache would have been avoided. One only need read Theresa Shea’s The Unfinished Child, however, to realize that the harsh truth is that chances are almost certain that Norah would have also sent her baby away had she known of its live birth and chromosomal makeup. That’s generally what was done up until only twenty or thirty years ago. Shea paints a stark and utterly realistic picture of what generally happened when women gave birth to babies with Down syndrome back then: they sent them to institutions because they were advised to and because there really were no resources available to parents who actually wanted to raise their disabled children at home – and then they mourned them forevermore. There were very few happy endings in those days; although Caroline throws convention to the wind and raises Phoebe herself, and does it well, she does it at great cost to herself and against great odds.
The Unfinished Child then brings us to the present day, and shows us how Down syndrome is viewed today; we have more choices now, but those choices have their own consequences.