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In the Bosom of the Family

The unfairness of family life has been a favorite theme through the ages, with all ages. The Bible is full of stories about the wildly contrasting fortunes of siblings, and so are fairy tales. Parental care in the many riven, envious clans of legend is not always consistent, to say the least. Yet it is nature (or God) that ultimately accounts, in more and less capricious ways, for the different destinies that unfold. The scientific-minded twentieth century has produced much less fatalistic stories—and many far from definitive case studies—about how families shape children’s futures.

Darwin, who had an important hand in giving nurture a fighting chance against nature, spun a hopeful tale of so-called “gemmules.” Gemmules, which he said were secreted by every cell in the body, influenced inheritance, but could themselves be influenced by the environment. This idea helped to inspire the view that the offspring of “inferior” parents, if reared in wholesome surroundings, could produce “good” children in their turn. And good children could become even better, promised Darwin’s influential American followers as “the century of the child” got underway. With the right “scientific” upbringing, a race of “supermen” would arise.

Gemmules and supermen: they now sound like characters from a TV fantasy. But the optimism underlying those notions has continued to flourish in America. Great expectations for every child’s bright future, mixed with guilt about many children’s clouded fortunes, are a staple of family reality and of social policy rhetoric. Childrearing “experts” feed the ambitions and the ambivalence. So does childrearing experience, with its unpredictable ups and downs. What is impossible, of course, are experiments that could possibly resolve, once and for all, the nature/nurture mystery. For the next best thing, it would be hard to improve on the evidence that accumulates in Ann Kimble Loux’s account of adopting two young children from foster care in 1974 and struggling to bring them up alongside her three biological children.

Loux’s quest to understand the grossly unfair fates that have unfolded in her family is an anomalous personal story and yet also an emblematic one—a confession, a cautionary tale, and, she hopes, a message of inspiration and consolation for parents. In it, the doubts and hopes that are part of childrearing in families everywhere are tested under extreme conditions. At the same time, Loux confronts, in microcosm, the dilemma of persistent social inequality in America. As Loux describes her experience, it has some of the mystery of a biblical parable and much of the appalling fascination of a dark fairy tale. It also has a psychological subtlety, thanks to Loux’s ruthless self-scrutiny, that is rare in the therapeutic literature about families “in crisis.”

Ann and Mark Kimble, both Catholics and both teachers—he a college professor, she a part-time instructor at the outset of the story and a tenured professor by its end—always assumed they would have a large family. (Loux has evidently remarried since the events she narrates took place. I’ll use “the Kimbles” to refer to the family.) But as young adults in the late 1960s, they decided after having three children of their own that the socially responsible step was to adopt a child in need of a home. If their parents had not balked at an interracial adoption, they would have taken in a black child. But the Kimbles were not engaged in a social cause. They treated their decision, once taken, as a matter of course and proceeded with the excited jitters that accompany every new addition to a family, shrugging off any unusual apprehensions. They had no doubt that they could give a child a “good home,” and implicit faith that a good home could make up for an unlucky start in life.

A veteran arranger of adoptions at Catholic Social Services in Saint Paul, Minnesota, recognized the warm Kimble household as the “children’s kingdom” it was. She promptly provided them with not one but two foster children. Three-year-old Dawn and four-year-old Margey were sisters who had recently been removed from their mother “because of abuse and neglect,” the Kimbles were told, though no details were supplied (nor did they ask for any). The more, the merrier: that was the mood in the household that awaited the girls, where seven-year-old Kate, five-and-a-half-year-old Sam, and four-year-old Jack were looking forward to a prolonged slumber party.

With stunning swiftness, it became clear that “something was wrong, I didn’t know what—things did not seem right. Margey and Dawn wouldn’t obey, wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t meet my eyes, couldn’t seem to understand when anyone asked them to do something.” Elfin-faced, round-bellied Dawn was voracious for food and love. She would eat anything in sight (and find every bit of food that was hidden) and climb into any lap and start cuddling. Margey (who looked more like Loux than any of her own children, Loux’s mother said) was shy and scrawny, with a vacant expression, and she rocked violently in her sleep. In the new children’s presence, the parents lost their bearings. “The ease and naturalness of parenting had disappeared.” They became “self-conscious and uncertain.”

The Kimbles had assumed that it was children’s very nature to be curious and responsive (about her own three, Loux had once asked the pediatrician “if it was normal for children to be so active”). Now they had to wonder. They could not handle Margey and Dawn, and could not seem to love them—or understand their own feelings. Two “analytic and verbal” adults, they were deeply disconcerted, and depressed, to find that they “could not figure out how to talk about our problems.” The woman at Catholic Social Services dismissed their worries. Love takes time. “You have a beautiful family. You’re making such a good home for these girls. God is going to reward you. He will give you strength.”

They certainly needed strength, for time only brought more and greater troubles. School was a struggle from the start. Every September the Kimbles were summoned to confer with teachers who were immediately at their wits’ end with Margey and Dawn. The girls looked adorable, everyone agreed; physically, they had flourished in their new home. But they were constantly disruptive and made little progress in basic skills. Their abysmal performance was blamed on behavioral problems—impulsiveness, lack of concentration, imperviousness to directions and rules—for which, the Kimbles were repeatedly told, no appropriate special education alternative existed. (These days, no doubt ADD would be promptly diagnosed, or misdiagnosed.) It did not help, of course, that Kate, Sam, and Jack were all doing well (though the boys’ schoolwork often did not live up to their test scores, and Kate pushed herself alarmingly hard). In this soccer-obsessed family, Margey had a rare chance to shine: she became a star, though she never mingled easily with her teammates.

Watch out for adolescence” had been one of the few warnings the Kimbles had gotten in the adoption process—and what parents are not alert to its hazards? But standard teenage turmoil turned into a nightmare. At twelve, Margey, suddenly inept at soccer, became adept at stealing clothes and makeup. Dawn had a bulimic phase. By junior high, school had gone from bad to worse for both girls, who could not be motivated or threatened, by either parents or teachers, to pay the slightest attention to academic work. Margey drank, raged, beat up classmates. She was miser-able at home and made life miserable there. Boarding school seemed the only answer. There she stole, cut classes, forged checks—and was kicked out. Meanwhile Dawn mooned about, stole from her mother, stirred up trouble at school.

The three “biological” children piled on school activities, eager for any opportunity to avoid the tumult at home. From early on, Loux remarks, “there seemed to have been more than the usual amount of resentment” among the five children. Now quarrels were constant in the cramped house, where the girls’ shared bedroom had become “a physical and emotional disaster area.” Kate, Sam, and Jack were busy causing some teenage mayhem of their own, too. But when they got into scrapes, and their parents intervened, they (resentfully) accepted the consequences, something their adopted sisters constantly failed to do.

Loux and her husband knew they were foundering, and felt more and more furious at the girls and at themselves—and more helpless, as the various professionals they consulted failed to offer much useful advice or perspective. Loux was scribbling notes to keep her sanity (and then also, she says, to preserve traces of Margey, who she feared might not live long). But it was only much later that she could even begin to stand back and see something like a pattern. It was at best a guess, based on reading and on only the most meager biographical information, for that was all Loux ever had to go on about the girls’ early years. Their “birth” parents, according to clinical accounts tucked in folders that Loux eventually sought out at the Department of Public Welfare, were alcoholics and the girls had spent half of every year in foster care. Dawn had been hospitalized for malnutrition, and Margey had been removed from her mother several times when social workers noted bruises around her head; once while Margey was in the care of relatives, her mother had kidnapped her.

After reading John Bowlby’s writings on the importance of an infant’s attachment to its mother, Loux felt she could perhaps glimpse an emotional story that linked these sparse, dismal facts about the girls’ beginnings with their later troubles. She did not jump to the conclusion, as many of Bowlby’s readers have, that there is one right way to ensure successful bonding between infant and mother—or that it is necessarily intricate or intensive, or that it is all that counts in life. Instead Loux found herself ruminating on the legacy of an early connection gone obviously and severely awry. It made sense to her that Margey, anxiously attached to a birth mother who clung to her and then abandoned her, angrily created conflict with Loux and distrusted intimacy everywhere. Loux suspected that Dawn had been completely ignored by a struggling mother who could hardly care for her first baby. For this child, the price was an insatiable yearning for an ideal mother. What such insight at the time, speculative as it was, might have led the Kimbles to do differently as adoptive parents, Loux does not know.

By mid-adolescence, Margey and Dawn had slipped, or rather leaped, into worlds most college professors and parents hope only to read about. Margey ran away from a Methodist group home for adolescents, resurfaced to rob her own house, and was sent to a juvenile detention center. From there she went on to spend time in mental hospitals, where drugs and various therapies temporarily helped her gain some control, but never for long. After several harrowing episodes (and a diagnosis: “borderline personality disorder”), Margey became a prostitute and a drug addict. Her mother, grateful that Margey was not dead, was ready to admit that her daughter was “probably happier now than in any of the scenarios I wanted for her,” certainly “much happier with her life than she was living with our family.”

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