Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart
To the Birdhouse
One hundred and six years ago, Huck Finn lit out for the Western territory to escape domestic life. The high proportion of American novels about family life published in recent years would almost suggest that there is now no place for him to go. An ordinary English family might have a reproduction of a Constable or a Gainsborough in the house; an American family is more likely to have a photograph album. Family Pictures, Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart, and To the Birdhouse suggest each in different ways that the idiosyncrasies of family life are among the few real national common denominators among Americans.
Sue Miller’s Family Pictures is the story of a middle-class Chicago family from 1940 to 1979, presented in vignettes (family dinners, baseball games, Christmas, neighborhood cocktail parties, etc.) and narrated largely by their photographer daughter, Nina. David, the husband, is a psychiatrist, “tall and sober and steady,…reliably connected to the world of events” and of knowledge: he knows the names of stars and the Mendelian laws. His wife, Lainie, is a force of nature, a woman of “desperate quick embraces,…sudden anger…. A set of mysterious private emotions…ruled her.” Together they have six children, the third an autistic son named Randall, whose illness determines the course of their marriage and family life.
David practices and teaches at the University of Chicago medical school during the period when autism was thought to be caused by maternal rejection, before it was widely held that the illness is neurological. David, hoping to find a cure for Randall’s illness by tracing it to what he believes to be its source, subjects Lainie to a barrage of psychiatric evaluations and interviews to understand her contribution to what happened to the child. Over the years she retaliates by keeping the boy at home, demonstrating a tortured devotion to him, and by having three other children without her husband’s consent, “hoping that…these bright, beautiful, normal babies would mend the rent in their marriage that had begun with Randall.”
Miller manages some elements of her family chronicle well; she describes vividly the sheer physicality of family life, the cycles of shared meals, house-keeping, nighttime vigils with feverish children. And she shows how inevitably children are affected by and even brought up in the style of their parents’ marriages. But perhaps in her outrage at the burden of guilt placed on the mothers of autistic children, Miller has stated here a counterclaim by focusing intensely on the mother, Lainie. The reader is constantly cued to perceive her as blowsy and imperfect, but compensatingly vital and full of feeling. Miller’s prose lights her flatteringly; when she is overheard talking to a friend, one of the daughters remarks, “It seemed female to me…. When my father talked to his friends, there weren’t these long rich silences full of meaning….” Sitting up at night with her autistic son, she is shown with “her hair still …