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Special Needs

There is another passage in Sarah Palin’s Alaska that stands out from the rest—this time not for weirdness, but for its emotional truth. It takes place in a native village called Eluk, where Todd Palin’s Eskimo cousin Ina has set up a summer “fish camp” to which Palin, Willow, Piper, and Todd’s sister Christina have flown. In Ina’s kitchen, Sarah and Ina cut up fish and have an intimate women’s talk. Both gave birth to Down syndrome children—Ina’s child, Matthew, is twelve and Trig Palin is two—and they compare their experiences. Palin asks Ina, a small, sympathetic woman who speaks with an accent, if she “knew” before the birth, and Ina says that she didn’t. Palin says she herself did know and “had months to prepare—but still it was hard,” though “a blessing.” Ina says that her son “teaches our whole family about patience and love that is so deep.”

In the next scene we see Matthew, a severely impaired child, who has climbed into the small plane that the Palins arrived in and is being approached with kindly curiosity by ten-year-old Piper. Then comes the unexpected moment. Palin sits on a hillside and burbles, “Well, getting to meet our little cousin there, Matthew, Ina’s son, you know, kind of gives me maybe a look at ten years from now, Trig, and he’s a beautiful child—“ But what we see on her face belies her bright words. She is devastated by the look into the future that the impaired little cousin gives her. We see her breaking down and beginning to cry, and we cry with her. At this moment, she is not Sarah Palin the wicked witch of the right. She is a woman one pities and sympathizes with and, yes, even admires.

In her book Going Rogue, Palin writes of her initial refusal to believe that the baby she had conceived at the age of forty-three might have Down syndrome. When an early sonogram reveals a possible fetal abnormality, “a whisper of fear tugged at my heart, but I brushed it away with a thought: God would never give me anything I can’t handle. And I don’t think I could handle that.” She adds, “Unless He knows me better than I know myself…. God won’t give me a special needs child.” (The term “special needs” came into currency a few years ago—at about the time when everyone became “challenged” by something—and surely is an improvement over the callous “Mongolian Idiot” and “retarded” and “feebleminded” labels that used to be applied to children with Down syndrome, autism, and other genetic abnormalities, though it takes a little getting used to.)

After amniocentesis gives Palin proof of God’s pesky unpredictability, she declines the option of abortion that 90 percent of women in her shoes take, but interestingly does not lord it over them with right-to-life rhetoric. Instead, she recalls the “fleeting thought” (of abortion) that came to her in 2007 in a New Orleans hotel room when she learned of her unplanned and seriously inconvenient pregnancy: “I’m out of town. No one knows I’m pregnant. No one would ever have to know.” Now, in far greater distress (“How could God have done this? Obviously He knew Heather [Palin’s sister] had a special needs child. Didn’t He think that was enough challenge for one family?”), Palin feels “that fleeting thought descend[ing] on me again, not a consideration so much as a sudden understanding of why people would grasp at a quick ‘solution,’ a way to make the ‘problem’ just go away.”

Palin cannot be faulted for choosing to bring the child to term—pro-choice means just that, after all—and, indeed, when he appears two years later in Sarah Palin’s Alaska, we can only agree with Lee Siegel that “the entire staff of The New York Review of Books could not but melt when Todd picks up their son Trig, who has Down’s syndrome, and the child laughs that self-devouring, self- delighted laugh of little boys as his father carries him into the house.”3 In Going Rogue, Palin quotes an arresting passage from a speech she gave during the 2008 presidential campaign whose purpose was “to present our policy on special needs issues”:

Every child is beautiful before God and dear to Him for their own sake. And the truest measure of any society is how it treats those who are most vulnerable.

The reader is arrested by the echo of left-wing rhetoric. How many times have we heard liberal politicians speak of the vulnerability—the special needs, you could say—of people living in poverty, and society’s obligation to help them? Conservative politicians rarely even mention poor people—and then only to tell them to pull up their socks. The right seems to be sinking deeper into its fantasy of poverty as the result of character flaws and of the governmental safety net as an agent of spoiling. Palin writes of the “dependent lifestyle” that “state and federal intrusion” brought to Alaska’s Native communities as the coddled young “abandoned the strong work ethic of their elders.” Was the filming of Kate Gosselin’s meltdown some sort of screwball homage to the right’s vision of the whining and complaining underclass that refuses to warm itself at the fire of capitalism and perversely clings to its place on the margins? In which case: Kate, all hail you, world-class kvetch and rising comic star.

  1. 3

    Dancing with the Scars,” The New York Observer, November 30, 2010. 

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