[Originally posted on April 11, 2012 here]
Bloom: Finding Beauty in the Unexpected by Kelle Hampton
I’ve been reluctant to read this book ever since I first heard, months ago, of its impending arrival on bookstore shelves, given that I’ve been turned off by the whole Kelle Hampton brand since her now famous birth story first started making its way around the internet over two years ago. I finally relented because, let’s face it – it’s pretty much the biggest thing to hit the Down syndrome community since Road Map to Holland. There’s been a ton of hype and promotion of this book, and in the end – especially since, as a parent of a child with Down syndrome myself, I try to read everything that hits the Down syndrome literary landscape – I caved and downloaded Bloom to my iPad.
I won’t lie and say that I wanted to like this book. What I wanted was to be able to read it with an open mind, which I knew would be difficult given my well-settled distaste for most of what Kelle presents and seems to represent, and I wanted to try to understand what it is about Kelle and her story that seems to appeal to the masses so much.
When I first read the story of Nella Cordelia’s birth a little over two years ago, I found it all to be unreal. So much of it seemed staged, and there was very little I could relate to – from the Martha Stewart-esque party favors, to the full makeup while giving birth, to the photos that seemed absolutely intended for a vast audience. Most of all, I just couldn’t swallow the notion that this woman “got over it” – her baby’s surprise diagnosis of Down syndrome – so quickly and virtually effortlessly. It seemed that within 24 hours, she was fine with the whole thing, and I called bullshit. Having gone through it myself about a year and a half before Kelle did, I knew that there is a process of grief involved in coming to terms with birthing a baby who turns out to be different from the one you planned for.
In Bloom, we find out that, indeed, she wasn’t over it in 24 hours. But her account in her book is almost as unreal as the initial nearly griefless account she documented on her now famous blog, Enjoying the Small Things. Rather, there was earth-shattering grief, there was “writhing in bed” with the pain of it all, there was crying “for seven hours straight,” so that in the morning after Nella’s birth, Kelle looked like a prize-fighter with eyes so swollen with shed tears that they were mere slits in her face. And this went on for days.
That’s the thing about Kelle Hampton: it’s all about extremes. Nothing is average or middle-of-the-road, and the constant extremity of it all diminishes her credibility. So does the fact that in the midst of this soul-shattering grief during the first couple of days in the hospital, she was able to pull herself together enough to notice that the on-call OB was hot. In fact, she refers to him in her book as “Dr. Hottie” as she recounts asking him for something she could take to help her “not be so sad.” I can’t help but wonder how it would go over had her husband referred to – or even noticed – a nurse who was “hot” so soon after the birth of their daughter, and during such a time of initial grief, to boot.
I spent a good part of the book feeling disgusted and rather pissed off. Why, oh why, was her grief so extreme? Yes, she gave birth to a baby and received a surprise diagnosis of Down syndrome. That is a shock, and one that everyone who is faced with must come to terms with in their own way and their own time. But, I have to say, as one of many, many moms whose baby’s surprise diagnosis was accompanied by immediate health issues, immediate major surgery, an extended stay in the NICU, and prolonged feeding difficulties, it is very difficult not to feel like – if this is the true account of Kelle’s experience – that she was a big, spoiled baby. Nella was fine. The worst – and only – issue she faced was jaundice, which was treated with photo-therapy right there in Kelle’s hospital room. And though Kelle had a normal, uncomplicated vaginal birth, she was allowed to remain in that hospital room with her new daughter for five days – she never had to suffer through forced separation, she had full access to her daughter at all times. Nella nursed like a champ and gained weight from the get-go. Kelle’s hospital room was constantly filled with dozens of friends from her “net,” bringing her food and beer from the outside, pampering her and holding her hand while she cried for hours on end, keeping her company while she showered, and handing her her makeup so she could primp in order to face this ghastly ordeal.
Sigh. I think it goes without saying that this is not the average Joe’s experience. And I don’t know that Kelle realizes this, either – that truly, in the grand configuration, she has lucked out at every turn.
After five days in the hospital, and after being reassured by her pediatrician again that Nella is “a normal, perfect, beautiful baby,” Kelle tells the doctor,
“You know,” I told her, “I’m gonna do this differently than you’ve ever seen it done before. I’m gonna come up with my own way, and it’s gonna be amazing.”
Thereby rejecting the entire Down syndrome parenting community who came before her (much like Rick Smith over at Noah’s Dad) without even getting to know them, many of whom would become her most ardent fans and supporters. Go figure.
The rest of the book chronicle’s Nella’s first year – or, rather, Kelle’s first year as Nella’s mother, because really, this book is about Kelle and not Nella. Over that first year, we are treated to various parties and trips and outings, a physical therapist who is “a little bit hot,” a recounting of a wild night of drunken skinny-dipping with the neighbors (not really sure what this had to do with anything, except maybe to show everyone how super cool she is?), her ability to identify with women who struggle with infertility because she suffered through four long months of trying to get pregnant, many, many photographs (227 to be exact, 103 of which contain Kelle herself – in case you were wondering), and, oh yeah, the breakup of her parents’ marriage when Kelle was a kid.
I actually do think that this little bit of history is pertinent to the whole Kelle story. Kelle and her older brother and sister had an idyllic childhood with a dad who was a pastor and both parents who approached child rearing like it was “an Olympic event.” When she was in the third grade, she was called out of class to leave school early for the day because, as it turned out, her mother had packed up their belongings and left Kelle’s dad because, as she later found out, her dad was gay. She writes:
“So, for what seemed like six hours, my mom and grandma did what you do when you love your littles and want to spare them from hurt. You pretend it’s okay. You fake smile and tell stories and overcompensate for the slightest moment of awkward silence with forced normalcy.”
And that, my friends, is why she has this need to make everything perfect, or at least to appear perfect. She never learned to truly cope. She learned to fake it, and she learned that if you can make it look good, then it is good. Appearances seem to play such a huge part in the whole Kelle Hampton brand, which to me, makes everything seem very shallow.
Her writing is mediocre – not horrible, but certainly not stupendous. I’ve long wondered if her writing could stand on its own without all the fabulous photographs, and I think the fact that this book is about 50% photos speaks volumes. While she has the ability to dig deep and come up with something meaningful, she’s very prone to melodrama, canned-sounding nuggets of wisdom, clichés, and sophomoric expression. This is not the writing of a mature woman, but rather, of a girl who sees herself as a “rockstar” and a “badass,” and enjoys her position up on a high pedestal.
“I walked through the parking lot, breathing heavy and chanting to the rhythm of my jeweled sandals hitting the pavement, ‘I’m a rockstar. I’m a rockstar. I’m a rockstar.'”
I think the thing that bothers me the most is this whole facade of Kelle having overcome so much adversity and triumphing in spite of it.
“At the fork in the road on this journey, I thought long and hard before I chose my path. And, for the sake of everyone – but especially my kids, who needed a happy mama – I took the path of positivity.”
She is widely seen – and touts herself – as a “positive person,” as someone who sees her glass as “half full.” The truth is, though, that her cup runneth over! And yet, she’s lauded for seeing it as half-full? And what adversity has she overcome? A broken home? Millions and millions of us have come from that and worse. A child with Down syndrome? Tens of thousands of us have also dealt with that, and in her case, Down syndrome is barely more than a label, seeing that Nella has been fortunate enough to be minimally affected by her extra chromosome.
Kelle believes in “living life big,” but to me it just comes across as grandiose and materialistic. I find it very disturbing and puzzling that so many people have chosen someone with those ideals to hold up as a role model.
In the end, she manages some reflection, some regret, and some gratitude, but it’s not enough for me. Fundamentally, I think Kelle will remain too focused on appearances and the audience she now caters to and depends upon for her popularity. I think those who already love her and what she presents will love this book, and those who already don’t like what she’s selling won’t like this book. People who read it and are not themselves touched in any way personally by Down syndrome probably will see her as noble and courageous, since most people on the outside of this experience still see Down syndrome as something inherently tragic, and that to accept it and embrace it is heroic.
I’m most concerned about how this book might impact expectant and new parents facing a diagnosis of Down syndrome; if they are as fortunate as Kelle has been, then it might be a welcome addition to their bookshelf; if, on the other hand, they are like many other parents who do not enjoy the good fortune and resources Kelle has, I think it just might make them feel like shit.
I think Kelle still has quite a bit of blooming to do.