Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for December 6th, 2012

Family Pictures

Posted by nliakos on December 6, 2012

by Sue Miller (Harper & Row, 1990)

Somebody gave me this book, and it’s been sitting on my shelf for years. Not having another book lined up after On Saudi Arabia, I picked it up last week.  It’s a novel about a family: dad David, a psychiatrist; mom Lainey; kids (in order) Lydia/Liddie, Macklin/Mack, Randall, Nina, Mary, and Sarah. The novel is set mostly in the fifties and sixties in Chicago as the children are growing up, with two chapters in the seventies at the end. Nina, the “family historian” and a photographer, narrates the first and last chapters as well as one chapter at the beginning of Part Two, and the remaining chapters are written in the third person, but each one focuses on just one person’s point of view. This was a little confusing at first; at first, I kept waiting to return to Nina’s first person point of view until I finally realized it wasn’t going to happen (not soon, anyway). I don’t really understand why Miller used the first person for Nina in these three chapters (she also has several third-person chapters), but I suppose they kind of link the other chapters together: a beginning, a middle, an end which, alone among the chapters, are not dated (and consist of Nina’s memories of things that happened within the scope of those thirty-plus years). Actually, I found the dates confusing, although they were generally in chronological order, and since Miller only rarely mentions the ages of the characters I was never quite sure how old they were. Maybe it just didn’t matter. I don’t believe she ever tells us their last name, either.

This family’s great tragedy is that their third child, Randall, is profoundly autistic, languageless and evidently severely mentally retarded. Randall’s condition affects everyone in the family. According to the “wisdom” of the day (shall we say, with hindsight, the stupidity of the day?), David blames Lainey, accusing her of not loving the baby enough. Lainey responds with a fierce love and protectiveness for Randall, as well as three more pregnancies to prove to her husband that she is, in fact, a good mother. The five neurotypical children, particularly the three youngest, grow up with the burden of needing to be perfect, to somehow compensate for their brother’s deficits. Naturally, this doesn’t work out, and Mack and Nina, in particular, have turbulent adolescences and young adulthoods, causing themselves and their parents endless grief.

The novel examines the changing relationship between David and Lainey, who are very different from each other and who react very differently to their handicapped son.  Their marriage goes through several different stages which I won’t describe here.

The one person whose point of view is never explored is Randall. At one point, Lainey tells David that Randall is who he is, and there is not another Randall, a neurotypical Randall, trapped inside him, wanting but unable to get out. Now, some autistic people are using technology such as iPads to express themselves, like Elizabeth Bonker, believed to be languageless but in fact a gifted writers and poet. So there could have been a thinking person trapped inside that body, with thoughts and feelings that he couldn’t express. The author could have devoted a chapter or two to him. Perhaps there was no way to know, in 1990, that people apparently without language were not necessarily without thought. Or perhaps there are people who truly have no inner life that we can imagine, at least not in words. As I was reading, I did wonder what Randall’s “take” on his parents and siblings was, if he indeed had a “take.” He is described as being mostly oblivious to human interaction, responding only to inanimate objects, sometimes with fascination and sometimes with an eye to destruction. But those who have read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime will wonder what was going through Randall’s strange, different mind as his parents and siblings lived their lives around him. As the minister says at Randall’s funeral, “Randall had lived always in a state of childhood, a state of grace, as it were. . . . He’d escaped time, lived untouched by the struggles that dominated our lives–the struggles of choice, of will, of love and hate. He was free. . .of human experience, which the rest of us must suffer, endure, and try to learn from.”  Maybe, and maybe not. I wonder.

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