Recently, I read Martha Beck's
book Leaving The Saints
, which is a memoir about her experience with leaving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. When I read Leaving The Saints
, I didn't know anything about Martha Beck. I thought she was a very entertaining writer, although she seemed very fond of using hyperbole to make a point. I soon learned that over the past few years, Martha Beck has become one of Oprah's darlings. Oprah Winfrey reportedly declared Martha Beck the smartest woman she's ever known. Beck is also the daughter of the late Hugh Nibley, who was a very well known Mormon apologist. Although Martha Beck often seemed overly convinced of her own intelligence, I did enjoy reading Leaving The Saints
. And that's what led me to read Beck's 1999 memoir, Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth, and Everyday Magic
. Expecting Adam
is Beck's story of finding out she was pregnant with Adam, her son with Down syndrome, while she and her husband, John Beck, were finishing up their doctorates at Harvard. Martha Beck was expecting Adam in the late 1980s. She already had a toddler daughter named Katie and a full schedule at Harvard, working as a teaching assistant. Her husband was regularly traveling to Asia to do consulting work and complete research for his dissertation. It wasn't the most convenient time for the couple to be expecting a baby and they were repeatedly told so by academic advisers. Later, when it became clear that Adam would have special needs, the Becks were allegedly urged by Martha's doctors and their colleagues at Harvard to terminate the pregnancy so as not to derail their careers or their marriage. Martha Beck often reiterates that she's not a pro-lifer; however, she could not bring herself to consider having an abortion, especially after seeing her baby's ultrasound.
Martha Beck has a very engaging writing style and uses a lot of vivid descriptions as she relates her story. It's clear to me that Martha Beck is a very intelligent woman. However, I've come to find that a lot of super intelligent people are not very wise. There were a few instances in this book in which I doubted Martha Beck's wisdom. For instance, she makes it clear that she had a very difficult time with all three of her pregnancies, owing to an autoimmune syndrome. Yet, she writes of several instances, including one in which she almost bleeds to death in front of her toddler child due to an abrupted placenta, for which she doesn't bother to seek medical care.
Martha Beck conveys a lot of cynicism about medical doctors, too. She makes it sound like every doctor on earth would have wanted her to have a late term abortion in order to avoid having a less than perfectly healthy child. I don't believe she's necessarily wrong to be somewhat cynical about doctors, but sometimes she comes across as very foolish. It seems odd to me that Martha Beck would convey that she was such a champion for her son, whom she and a psychic in Utah felt was an angel, yet she would avoid seeking medical attention when her placenta abrupted. The way Martha Beck writes it, every competent medical professional in Cambridge was afraid of kids with Down syndrome. That seems improbable to me, given the excellent reputation Massachusetts has as a place to seek medical care.
Martha Beck also makes some oblique references to her Mormon upbringing in Utah. The Becks grew up in the same neighborhood and their fathers both worked at "the same university", which she never names. I believe she was referring to Brigham Young University, but she never states it outright. By the time the Becks were expecting Adam, Beck makes it clear that they were pretty much on their way out of the church. Yet, in her follow up book, Martha Beck writes about how she and her husband went back to the church and Utah for support. While I can understand the Becks' reasons for wanting support after Adam was born, if the Becks had truly lost their beliefs in Mormonism and wanted out of the faith, it does seem to me that they lacked integrity when they went back to Utah and the church for that help.
I'd like to address the way Martha Beck wrote her story. In the introduction, she writes that she originally considered publishing this book as a novel, since it had some elements within it that seemed fantastic and far-fetched. Beck was later convinced to publish Expecting Adam
as a memoir, since it's actually a true story. As I was reading this book, I got the feeling that Beck had not quite given up her desire to write a novel. She uses what I call a "time tripping" technique, alternating her time and setting by chapter. In one chapter, you might be reading about her pregnancy in Massachusetts. In the next chapter, you might read about Adam as an eight year old in Utah. In the chapter after that, there's a story about Adam as a toddler. Used appropriately, time tripping can be a very effective storytelling technique. However, I often found myself confused and frustrated as I tried to keep Beck's story straight.
And finally, I want to emphasize that this book may not be what prospective parents of children with Down syndrome are looking to read. It's not so much about the experience of having a child with Down's. It's more about how Martha and John Beck decided to stop being so driven to excel in their careers and started to embrace being spiritual. There's a lot of commentary about angels and God in a very non organized religion sense. Readers don't learn so much about medical issues related to Down syndrome or the challenges of raising a special needs child. Instead, the book is really more about Martha herself, which is fine if that's what you're interested in reading. But I'm betting that a lot of folks are reading this book hoping to learn about Down syndrome as a condition. I think they might be disappointed.
I enjoy Martha Beck's writing. She's very witty and I'm rarely bored by her books. However, I think that Expecting Adam
has some major flaws. I didn't like it as much as I liked her far more controversial follow up, Leaving The Saints
. I will recommend Expecting Adam
with a caveat that those who read it don't expect to learn a whole lot about Down syndrome. This book is fairly inspiring and sometimes very moving, but it's really not that informative.
Martha Beck's Web site: http://www.marthabeck.com/