Welcome, everyone, to 2014. I’ve been on vacation, doing a bit of travelling and afflicted by some sort of nagging virus that seems to wax and wane inexplicably. But now I am back and lo, it is a new year. I hope the season has treated everyone well.
Mostly what I’ve been doing is reading and, for once, reading fiction. I tend to read mysteries (ones that are not too tense) and also current literature (think The Goldfinch, which I highly recommend.) And I’ve had a lot of time to do that recently.
What struck me–more forcefully than it has before–is how common it is for plots to turn around the paternity or parentage of a character. This seems to be particularly true in mysteries. How many times have I read a story where the key lies long in the past, where a child is born and the parents aren’t quite who they should be or are believed to be or whatever. (I just finished one of these last night.) There are infinite variations: the child is born to the wife but is not the husband’s and the husband doesn’t know; the child is born to the wife and is not the child of the husband and the husband does know; the child is actually adopted but no one has told the child and so on.
But it isn’t just the stuff of cheap mysteries. I read The Lowland this break. (It’s by Jhumpa Lahiri.) It’s made several ten best lists and is a fine novel–quite few tiers above the cheap mystery shelf. It’s really worth a read.
It starts with two brothers in India. One comes to the US to study, one stays there. The one who remains becomes politicized and eventually is murdered by the police. When he dies his wife is pregnant. The surviving brother returns to India, marries his sister-in-law and they return to the US together. There they raise the daughter born to the wife. (All of this is pretty much on the book-flap so I don’t feel a spoiler alert is needed.) The plot, which carries over many years, is in large part propelled by the relationship of the two adults and the child as the child grows to be an adult herself. Who, after all, are the child’s parents?
Now there are two points I’d like to make, I think. One is just the observation–I think this is a surprisingly common plot device–the questionable parentage of a child. While it is possible that I just see it everywhere because I think about it a lot, it really does seem to me to be remarkably prevalent. The second point is that often, particularly but not only in the mystery genre, the origin question is shrouded in secrecy. Mysteries, after all, need a dark secret to provide motive and tension.
What strikes me, though, is that the concealment is never (that I can think of, anyway) good. The secret has always festered and/or become cancerous and/or warped the characters in profound ways. You could say that this is necessarily so given that we’re talking about literary plot devices, of course. If the secrets were benign, there’s be nothing to write about. But still, it seems to me that taking the topic as a whole there’s a clear message sent: conceal at your peril.
And that, it seems to me, is worth noticing. We’ve talked a lot here about the importance of honesty–something I feel very strongly about. I think parents (by which I mean the people raising the child) need to be honest with their children about their origin stories–in ways appropriate to the age of the child. I know it isn’t easy, but I think the alternative–dishonest/secrecy–is only easier in the short run. In the long run it’s a bad idea. And that, it seems to me, is the message of these novels. Over and over, the story is told–it’s not just the that child was not the child of the husband, it’s that the truth of that was concealed.
Which leads me to think that there is nothing so new or so remarkable about a stance that people need to be open and honest about these things. The challenge, I think, is seeking ways to encourage honesty to seem a plausible option for people–which among other things probably means reducing shame and stigma.
Tomorrow I’ll return to a more conventional topic, but I wanted to close with one other observation, which is also a question. None of what I’ve read has anything to do with ART–there are no hidden sperm donors, no concealed surrogates, in the books I’ve been reading. It’s all plain old conception by sex and/or traditional adoption. This might be a function of time–perhaps those stories just haven’t been written yet? But it might also be that the ART story is more fundamentally different. There is no original betrayal in it–where the wife takes a lover, say. And maybe this robs it if the dramatic focus it needs to make a novel really go? I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see?