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…

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