The Many Faces of Destiny

Steve Talbott

Notes concerning "Expecting Adam", by Martha Beck New York: Random House, 1999). Hardcover, 328 pages, $23.95.

Science has steadily pulled back from the fullness of our experience, contracting into a subtle and pinched search for reliable mechanisms, abstract and remote. In the face of this science, it is difficult to hold onto any conviction that we bring a resolve, or task, or destiny with us to earth and that we converse with this destiny through all the circumstances of our lives. Such intimations of destiny as we may encounter almost inevitably fade toward the indistinct margins of our existence. Or else they erupt into flaky theories all the more understandable given that the prevailing science, with its necessary discipline, has abandoned the field.

It's not much use arguing for or against such a notion of destiny in general terms. All we can do is to look at our lives as fully and dispassionately possible, ignoring nothing because of our presuppositions. Then we can try to hear what, if anything, speaks through the whole.

Or else look at someone else's life. The author of "Expecting Adam" offers us such a life -- or, rather, a group of lives -- and what speaks through them is powerful beyond words.


Martha Beck had always felt revulsion in the presence of retarded people. This was still true when, in the aftermath of a nearly disastrous automobile accident, an obviously retarded passer-by looked her in the eye and said, "He's a good baby, ma'am. You take care of that baby."

It was only then that Beck -- who a moment before had found herself unreasonably peaceful beside her shell-shocked husband as their car spun wildly through onrushing traffic -- realized she was experiencing the first, faint symptoms of another "accident". She was pregnant. A few months later she would discover that the developing child had Down syndrome.

Beck and her husband, John, already parents of an eighteen-month-old daughter, Katie, were hard-driven, rational, stiff-upper-lip Ph.D. candidates at Harvard. Earlier, John had been roundly castigated as "a disgrace to this institution" in front of eighty-nine other students by a world-famous economics professor when he missed two days of class while Lamaze-coaching Martha through their daughter's birth -- a tongue-lashing "that made him wake up in a cold sweat for months afterward". They knew another couple who aborted a planned pregnancy after a professor scheduled a crucial, three-day test near the expected delivery date. Martha herself was studying the sociology of gender in company with many fellow staunch feminists: "I could hear them in my mind, comparing me to a rabbit, a brood sow, a member of some primitive tribe that hadn't figured out the connection between sex and reproduction".

Falling Apart, Coming Together

But there was also an entirely different set of motifs playing out in Beck's life. She had vaguely sensed it first as a kind of orchestration, an elegant, behind-the-scenes string-pulling the night she conceived -- when, somehow, beneath it all, she knew she was conceiving despite having taken all the usual precautions. The same sense returned a few days after the automobile mishap.

By the time the five minutes had elapsed and the pregnancy test results were undeniably positive, I knew that I would not be scheduling an abortion. That was all I knew. I wasn't sure why I had made the decision to continue the pregnancy. I could feel the puppeteers around me, sounding their invisible bells in some inexplicable but irresistible celebration, and I strongly suspected that this meant I was losing my mind. I checked to see if I was still pro-choice. I was. I examined my internalized schedule for the upcoming year: my teaching, caring for Katie, intense classwork, John's travel. This was simply not the time for a baby, I thought. But at the word "baby", the joyous carol swelled again, and the magic filled my eyes with tears. I stood up, teetered a little, and went to tell John that he was going to become a father for the second time.

Because of what was then an undiagnosed immune system deficiency, this pregnancy, like her earlier one, was in many respects a nightmare. Weakness to the point of immobility, many faintings (sometimes in public places), inability to keep food or drink down, repeated hospitalizations -- these marked the weeks and months of her expectancy.

Once, on the occasion of her first hospitalization for dehydration, Beck fell asleep and dreamed one of those vivid, visionary sorts of dream. An ageless youth handed her a piece of paper. "Here", he said in a voice so resonant and gentle that it brought tears to her eyes. "The intensity of my fear was matched only by the intensity of my desire to see what was written there."

The words on the paper were written in a language she did not know. But they carried a force and significance much greater than any words in English -- a force and significance she immediately grasped.

Reading it felt like coming home to my native country after many years in alien territory. The words of this unknown tongue had been laid down in a firm, graceful hand, and they shone. Literally. A brilliant golden light, like the reflection of the setting sun over water, flashed and sparkled from every mark and line. It was as though the pen had not put down pigment but scraped away material reality to reveal something inexpressibly beautiful shining beneath it. As I read the letter, I felt a deep comfort trickling into my heart the way the glucose solution was trickling into my veins.

The extremity of her physical condition was certainly conducive to "visionary" experiences -- a fact of the sort she continually recalled to her conscious mind. But there are other, less manageable levels of understanding. After the dream, she says,

I was irrationally certain of three things: that the ageless young man across the table from me was the fetus I carried in my womb; that this being loved and respected me as his equal; and that there was "something wrong" with the baby.

Later, when Adam was three years old, and before he had learned to speak at all, there was a time when Beck reached an unusually low point of frustration. She had just spent fruitless hours trying to teach the boy to speak his first coherent syllables. (She compares his speech at that time to the sound of "car wash" repeated backward.) Afterward, as they passed through the supermarket check-out counter, he gestured to her that she should buy him a rose. She didn't understand why he preferred the rose to her offer of a candy bar.

The next morning, he padded down the hallway to her bedroom, appearing at the door with the rose in a bud vase. Beck acknowledges, "I didn't realize that he knew what vases were for, let alone how to get one down from the cupboard, fill it with water, and put a flower in it". He walked over to the bed and handed her the rose, saying in a clear, calm voice, "Here".

It had been years since I had thought about my dream at University Health Services, years since I had heard the incredible gentleness in the voice of the young man who had sat across the table from me -- the same voice I had just heard coming from my mute son's mouth. I stared at Adam, almost frightened, as the dream flashed into my mind. He looked back at me with steady eyes, and I knew what I had known -- what I should have remembered -- all that time: that his flesh of my flesh had a soul I could barely comprehend, that he was sorry for the pain I felt as I tried to turn him into a "normal" child, and that he loved me despite my many disabilities.

Then he turned around, his little blue pajamas dragging a bit on the floor, and padded out of the room.

Throughout her pregnancy, Beck had "the eerie impression that my life was completely under control -- but not my control". Strange, sometimes disturbing experiences kept happening -- things she did not even confide to John, lest he "think I was an idiot". But the underlying effect was always to increase her "irrational" certainty that she was finding the place where she belonged.

Beck's memoir is filled with a seemingly endless stream of inexplicable episodes. Thankfully, she is not unduly concerned either to explain the strange events or to explain them away. She simply offers us the facts of her experience, although she confesses that

It worries me to think that I will be lumped together with the right-to-lifers, not to mention every New Age crystal kisser who ever claimed to see an angel in the clouds over Sedona. I am reluctant to wave good-bye to my rationalist credibility. Nevertheless, the story will not stop unfolding, and it will not stop asking me to tell it.

But the "wondrous signs" are not the real point of the story. The real point was the healing influence Adam brought into her and her husband's lives almost from the moment of conception, even if the means of healing often felt at the time like a crushing blow of fate. That, as it happens, is often the only way we can be saved from ourselves, or else, perhaps, it is the only way our selves can save us.

At Harvard

Fate lay heaviest on her after a mid-pregnancy test revealed her child's Down syndrome. At the Harvard bookstore she picked up a 1950s-vintage text about the mentally retarded. It had a section about Down syndrome children and "gave absolutely false information about the inability of such children to control their bodily functions, and their antisocial inclinations". Further, it listed their IQ as about 35, which it proceeded to compare with a chimpanzee (50) and an oak tree (3)! "It was impossible for me to keep from calculating that this meant my son's IQ would be about 130 points below the average of my oft-tested siblings, and only 32 points higher than the plants in Harvard Yard."

At the time, Beck could only believe all this. She didn't know, for example, that Adam's skills at socialization, like those of other Down syndrome children raised lovingly, would prove superior to most normal persons'. Amid her confusion and torment, she sat through a Sociology of Gender seminar where one class session was about "New Obstetrical Technologies". A young man leaned across the table and declared, "It is the *duty* of every woman to screen her pregnancies and eliminate fetuses that would be a detriment to society!"

There is no space here to chronicle all Beck's struggles at Harvard, except to say that her emotionally jolting portrayal of pretentious professors and students must have a lot of people squirming in anonymous discomfort. One all-too-typical example will have to suffice. John Beck was once called into the intimidating presence of "Goatstroke", an economics professor who spent much of his time with Nobel Prize winners and heads of state.

"Mr. Beck," he said, lapsing into the formal address he used on undergraduates and other lesser beings, "let me tell you something about myself. When I was an assistant professor, working on my first book and trying to get tenure, my wife -- my first wife, that is -- discovered she was pregnant."

"Oh," said John.

"I was quite moved, at the time -- I mean, it really is quite something to think that a child with your genes has been conceived. But you see, the timing was all wrong. If that baby had been born, it would have interfered with my writing, my research. I decided that she needed an abortion, and I've never regretted it."

"You decided," John croaked.

"What?" said Goatstroke.


John was having one of those epiphanies men sometimes get, where for a brief moment they can see what the world must look like through a woman's eyes. He was thinking about the way I pored over my pregnancy books and felt for the baby's hands against my sides and cried at the picture on the ultrasound screen. He wondered how many other decisions Goatstroke had made for his wives.

"You have got to understand," Goatstroke went on, "that this is not some game we're playing. This is your career, John. You must have your priorities in order."

Slowly and with much struggle the Becks did get their priorities in order. It required, among other things, some peculiar, visionary experiences before they could see through to the hollowness of some of their most revered professors. The eventual result was an exhilarating openness to whatever life might bring, even if it meant the sacrifice of their cherished, Harvard-bred goals.

As Martha put it later, when Adam was three years old (actually, the words were given to her uninvited by a weird woman who, out of the blue, accosted her as if with a message from Adam): "He says that you shouldn't be so worried. He says you'll never be hurt as much by being open as you have been hurt by remaining closed".

Enjoying Life

Becoming open was a long process. She tells, for example, about learning from the way others cared:

The people who spend their lives working with disabled children are the most accepting, loving, optimistic-but-realistic human beings you could ever meet. To them, no child, no matter how disfigured or inept, deserves anything less than unconditional acceptance. Adam's therapists probably don't know that I, with my three Harvard degrees and my relatively sound body, got more from their sessions with Adam than did Adam himself. As I sat watching them, feeling the kindness in the air around them, all the parts of me that I had sent to the deepfreeze years before thawed, and stretched and began to consider the idea that the world might not be altogether hostile.

While at Harvard Beck had perfected a fierce and instinctive resistance to any betrayal of inadequacy or personal feeling or need for others. And yet, throughout her pregnancy this resistance was countered by the irresistible force of unsolicited kindness from others. "I had the constant sensation that I was a kind of radio tower, within which Adam sat broadcasting some kind of signal to the world around me -- not a verbal message but an unnamed energy, a sort of *goodness*, that drew out people's best and helped them connect with each other."

Adam doesn't seem to have lost that ability since birth:

When he begins each academic year, I am always surprised that school personnel who aren't used to dealing with "different" children seem concerned, and sometimes even a little angry, at the thought of having Adam around. Even the wonderful teachers and principals who are used to children with disabilities don't act inordinately thrilled by Adam at first meeting. I have to remind myself that the mysterious force field around him takes a while to affect people. By the second or third parent-teacher conference, I introduce myself as Adam's mother and wait for their faces to light up. They always do.

After a couple of years of unexplained dreams about dolphins, Beck read the story of another Down syndrome boy whose mother, afflicted by similar dreams, took her son to a dolphin research center in Florida. The boy seemed to connect with the dolphins in a profound way, and woke up one night in his room several miles inland, grieving for a dolphin friend who, it turned out, had just died.

Beck herself was slightly resistant. Referring to dolphins as "those brainy sea mammals with the endearing expressions and the highly social personalities", she goes on to say: "I was a little chagrined to have developed such a trendy passion, but there was nothing to be done about it. The dream kept coming back."

So Adam, too, visited the center, and there Beck sensed "the same strange electric energy between Adam and the dolphins that I'd sensed around me before he was born". It may sound silly, she grants, "but I've been through too much to dismiss these things. I've also learned that I will probably never fully understand it. That's okay. Just being nearby is a privilege."

Adam disliked the water, and he clung tightly to his mother as she took him into the Florida lagoon. But when the dolphin, Alita, its powerful muscles "flexed like steel springs", suddenly burst through the surface next to them and gently brushed its head against Adam's hand, the boy let go "without a second glance" and abandoned himself to the animal.

That day with the dolphins, Adam wasn't scared of anything. Alita rounded the curve at the edge of the lagoon and headed back toward me, pulling him like a towrope from her fin. Adam was still laughing, the face below his golden hair radiating happiness. It is impossible to look into Adam's face when he smiles this way and not smile back. For some reason, that incredibly contagious grin reminded me of something Albert Einstein said: that the single most important decision any of us will ever have to make is whether or not to believe that the universe is friendly. Adam appears to have made that decision.


Reflecting on the various "paranormal" graces bestowed upon her through her son, Beck wonders about the justice of it all. After all, "people are tortured and killed and raped and pillaged on a daily basis, and if there are angels in the vicinity, they apparently just sit around watching -- wringing their ectoplasmic little hands, perhaps, but letting nature take its course".

Disdaining simple religious formulas about how the righteous will prosper, she tries to figure out "why some people get help from angels, and some get lobotomized by flying debris from freak wheat-threshing accidents". There hardly seem to be any satisfying answers. If there are angels out there, "they are working from a priority list that is very different from mine".

And yet, Beck's own story seems to offer at least a partial answer to her conundrum. The fact is that, for many of us, the news that our child had Down syndrome would hit us with roughly the same force and import as the news that he had been lobotomized in a freak accident. And if, unlike Beck, we held to that stance -- if we were not open to such graces as illumined her life -- our sense of unqualified disaster would surely find its own justification.

One needn't hold any of the established views on abortion to realize that, in a society where aborting "defective" fetuses is the norm, the Adamic graces are not the ones we are particularly looking for or opening ourselves up to. But what if we listened to the speech of all the circumstances of our lives, and then entered into conversation with whatever it was that came to meet us? Who can say in advance, or with stopped ears, what might emerge from such a conversation -- up to and including that most intimate of all conversations, the one with death?

I do not mean to suggest that we should all look for the peculiar signs and wonders that have been Martha Beck's lot. I for one have had a life-long, rock-solid conviction that, whatever the potentials for transcendently strange experiences in today's world, I myself would never have to worry about such things. And I've been right. I've always felt a strong identification with the conventional center and core of my own culture, even while finding myself compelled to seek an intellectual escape from its unexamined assumptions.

But I can nevertheless easily imagine that others live closer than I to those cultural boundaries defining reasonable and respectable experience. Beck seems to be one of them. In a way, though, the twilight-zone aspects of her story only get in the way of the deeper message. Many parents of Down syndrome children have experienced the full joy of a life-changing companionship without any intrusion of the "paranormal". That companionship and joy and change add up to the real miracle.

A miracle, in one worthy sense of the word, is whatever expresses those meaningful potentials of the world we have not yet fathomed. Wherever there is genuine meaning, someone is speaking. With our culture's several hundred years' inattention to the ways in which people and events speak - ways that have little to do with the mere transmission of information - much of the meaningful content of our lives has vanished from comprehension into the miraculous.

So there are far more miracles in our lives today than in the past; it's just that we've trained ourselves not to notice them. But they are there to be noticed. And many of us will find it easier to begin the noticing with the extraordinary help of a little Down syndrome boy named Adam. Proffering this help may well have been the task Adam brought to earth. Can any of the rest of us claim a more noble task?

© 2000 Steve Talbott

Steve Talbott is the editor of NETFUTURE, a most interesting web newsletter concerned with Technology and Human Responsibility. For more information, click here:

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