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.”
The distance Loux felt was disorienting, but it was also liberating: now she discovered a sympathy with Margey that had eluded her as long as the two of them fought to define Margey’s future and, Loux saw, her sense of herself as a mother. For Margey, too, her near self-destruction freed her to welcome her mother’s interest—though only on her own erratic terms. Both women saw the irony that the greater the distances between them grew, the stronger their bond became.
Dawn followed a more classic delinquent path into teenage parenthood. (The three biological children, background presences until now, all but disappear from the story at this point—off to college, girlfriends and boyfriends, jobs.) Mentally slow and self-absorbed compared to her sister, Dawn “lived a romance novel. Dreaming of sex and love and babies provided the escape from reality that Margey found in drugs.” School and family alike were unable to provide her with any other “sources of pleasure and self-confidence,” and the real feat was that she made it to her eighteenth year before she managed to realize her dream of getting pregnant—thus fulfilling the worst fears of her parents.
The Kimbles had deeply ambivalent battles with her, and with Margey, over birth control and abortion. Sexuality combined with glaring immaturity and a wild irregularity of habits was enough to confound not just their principles, but any practical approach to pursuing them. Both generations were overwhelmed—and, predictably, a third was created. Dawn married and became the mother of two babies in quick succession, the first of whom showed every sign of “failure to thrive” and was soon diagnosed as suffering from a rare genetic anomaly called Williams syndrome—the result of a deletion in a particular chromosome—which can run in families, or simply crop up. Loux consulted geneticists with a mounting sense that she might be filling in Dawn’s past as well: the symptoms of Williams syndrome include an elfin look, feeding difficulties, delayed growth, an average IQ in the 50s, overfriendliness, concentration trouble, and clichéd speech patterns (Loux had called Dawn “my Hallmark card child”). As Loux and her daughter both did their best to face new difficulties in a life come “too nearly full circle,” they also managed to find more solid ground on which to stand together than they ever had before. “Dawn keeps asking me, ‘How come you understand when I talk with you about Billie Ray, Mom?’ ‘Because I’m your mother, Dawn.”‘
Loux’s account, in its grim outlines, belongs to a now-popular genre that barely existed when the Kimbles embarked on adoptive parenthood: heart-wrenching, often horrifying, stories about high-risk adoption. It was only in the course of the late 1970s that adoption ceased to be a subject muffled in half-secrecy and became a “public issue that occupies an increasingly central place in the national debate over family policy, foster care and welfare,” as The New York Times recently put it. An increasingly well-publicized adoption rights movement challenged the postwar ethos of shame, demanding that adoption records be unsealed. By the 1980s, E. Wayne Carp writes in Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption, “state legislatures began to liberalize their adoption records laws.” Fraught quests to locate birth parents and legal battles over adopted babies’ rightful parentage became, as Carp puts it, “a new media genre: therapeutic entertainment.”
The appalling state of the American foster care system also emerged as front-page news, which it continues to be. (President Clinton recently signed new legislation designed to make permanent adoption of foster care children easier and speedier.) Foreign adoptions were becoming more common, and the pictures that accompanied articles about Russian, Romanian, and other orphanages were unforgettable: barren rooms crammed with cribs, dull-eyed babies and toddlers lying listlessly behind bars. Stories soon followed about behavior problems among the adopted orphans.
The almost unreflective confidence and lack of information with which the Kimbles had quietly taken the step of adopting two non-infants from a neglectful home a decade earlier would by the mid-Eighties have been next to impossible. And by now, Loux’s repeated lament that they had scant warning of potential trouble ahead has an anachronistic ring. Optimism about the remedial power of a stable adoptive home persists (fed in no small part by pessimism about improving “natural” homes beset by troubles). But it is matched by alarmism of a kind that would not merely have served to alert the Kimbles, but might well have completely scared them off. Over the last decade or so, the diagnosis of “attachment disorders” has been applied by a growing number of therapists to severe personality problems which they associate especially (as did Loux, reading Bowlby) with the kind of early traumas many foster children, like Margey and Dawn, experience.
In 1987, a popular psychology manifesto for this diagnostic fashion appeared, a book called High Risk: Children Without a Conscience, which proclaimed the disorder to be a mainstream malady. This nearly hysterical how-to book for the “parenting” shelves announced a new plague of “unattached” children—and included an enthusiastic foreword by former congresswoman Pat Schroeder. According to the authors, these “trust bandits” (child marauders and murderers who make Margey and Dawn look like Pippi Longstocking) are growing up everywhere. The cause, Shroeder explains, is “severe breaks in the bonding process,” which can be associated with “Day Care, Parental Leave, Adoption, Foster Care, Teenage Pregnancy, Child Abuse and Divorce.” “There are few families that haven’t been touched by one or more of these,” she warns (as if failure to take parental leave is a peril comparable to teen pregnancy and child abuse). “If you have not already it is just a matter of time before you are.” These children are victims of a “bonding crisis” in America, and the authors of High Risk promise parents there will be, almost literally, hell to pay. For these small demons are destined to become psychopathic victimizers themselves.
In the context of apocalyptic pronouncements like these, Loux’s case against naive optimism about high-risk adoption sounds usefully sober, if familiar. (In an afterword, she offers a recommendation that seems especially pertinent in light of the new adoption laws: in the hurry to rescue children from their abusive biological families, the adoptive families they end up in must not be idealized, she urges. They’re likely to bear extraordinary burdens, and deserve special help.) But Loux’s more distinctive contribution is unfamiliar: she makes a case for a thoughtful fatalism about the unfairness of so much in family life.
Although Loux has some regrets about the adoption, she is grateful for the experience that she stumbled into unaware. Margey and Dawn “brought the gift of a complicated life,” which demanded of her a kind of unblinkered scrutiny that busy social workers have no time for and therapists have little patience (and few patients) for. Loux’s story calls attention to the unscriptable dramas that scare tracts like High Risk and the best-intentioned boosterism, like Adoption Awareness Month (November), both have a stake in ignoring: the inevitable conflicts, the unresolvable tensions, the mistakes and misgivings, the surprises and misunderstandings, the precarious balances that make relations between parents and children a source of often unfathomable mystery—and, inescapably, of more and less misery.
Childrearing problems “familiar to all parents, to a greater or lesser degree” were magnified and multiplied for Loux. While she recognized the common underlying mystery at work, she was also forced to recognize the drastically different consequences of family misery when it takes extreme form. Margey and Dawn’s ordeal brought the bigger psychological and social dilemmas home to the rest of the family. For the “biological” Kimbles, the universal questions about the inequities in individuals’ fates took unnervingly intimate shape:
Watching Margey and Dawn slip and fall instilled a dark terror in each of us: Why did we always feel more fortunate than they? Were we in truth more fortunate? Was there then a difference between we and they? Was it blood? Luck? Love? Intelligence? What was the cause and the meaning of all our differences?
Loux’s book confounds any schematic answers to such questions with evidence that complicates both sides in the debate over nature and nurture. You could easily conclude from the outlines of her story that nurture counts for surprisingly little, and nature will out in the end. Intelligent and energetic, Ann and Mark Kimble produced three high-achieving offspring—and given all the time, trouble, and money they were spending on their adopted daughters, they could hardly have been hovering presences in the lives of Kate, Sam, and Jack. In fact, I kept expecting one of the Kimbles’ biological children to become a casualty of the chaos at home, neglected by parents too distraught to tend to him or her. That did not happen, though they did not have an easy time of it. Meanwhile, Margey and Dawn, born in desperate social, economic, and emotional straits, ended up with bleak lives themselves, despite being raised in privileged surroundings.
But these five lives, if you look more closely, suggest nurture hard at work in surprising ways. Loux plants the thought that it may have been precisely the absence of pampering that decisively marked her “birth” children, giving them a heightened sense of agency in their own lives. Happy and secure by the time Dawn and Margey arrived, they were then jostled out of a conventional cocoon. The experience of adopting troubled sisters tested a family ethos that they might well have taken for granted, or else facilely resented or rejected. Margey and Dawn spurred the other children to question, for example, the virtues of dogged work, while at the same time making the dangers of irresponsibility vividly clear. In the end, perhaps it was the presence of siblings so different from themselves that encouraged the members of the “original family” to become more alike and more driven than they might otherwise have been.
As for Dawn and Margey, Loux acknowledges that their very early years surely were crucial in shaping, and limiting, their later experience. Loux does her best to imagine the unknowable past, not to demonize it—and the facts, insofar as they are known, bear her out. When the girls’ birth mother is found, she is far from monstrous. (Loux defends “open” adoption in the name of realism: it dispels the seductive illusion that villains, or saviors, who could explain everything are out there somewhere.) She is depressed, drinks too much, and remembers being completely overwhelmed with two babies—as a much stronger mother might well have been, too. If Dawn was indeed a carrier of Williams syndrome (which Loux thinks is likely), the signs that suggested abuse to welfare officials—a malnourished baby, an indiscriminately affectionate toddler—were probably genetic. A less promising mix of nature and nurture it would be hard to imagine. Poor mother, Loux thinks, considering all the problems she faced without any preparation, and how many of them were probably blamed unfairly on her. Poor girls, who may well have needed extraordinary care in those early years and got turmoil instead.
Loux does not spare herself in her account. She wonders whether adoption by the Kimble family was perhaps not a privilege at all but a source of further problems. The Kimbles, with herself in the lead, were judgmental, demanding, intolerant of the two girls. They were frustrated by their lack of effect on Margey and Dawn yet constantly expected more of them because they saw no reason not to. After all, their physical development—their speech, their growth—had so immediately and dramatically improved. Both she and her husband, used to managing whatever they set their minds to, were guilty and angry about what felt to them like their failure. Resignation and acceptance did not figure in these ambitious parents’ psychology.
It was a large burden to put on fragile egos. Margey knew how to play on her mother’s guilt. “If I’m a bad daughter, you’re a bad mother,” she would taunt Loux. And “I don’t know how come me and Dawn always gotta be not worth nothing. You made me what I am.” Loux was indeed a force in Margey’s self-creation. She was a model of control, which served for Margey as one of many goads to wild self- destruction. Who knows what direction her erratic path might have taken with a more passive parent. Watching Dawn amid her husband’s “completely tolerant and nonjudgmental” family, Loux reflects that “perhaps Dawn had found a world where she could grow and mature, or where, if she didn’t, it would never matter.”
It is impossible, of course, to know how their lives might have turned out differently, or what exactly in their lives could, or could not, have been controlled. Anna Freud appreciated the peculiar “scientific” status of the revelations provided by an extreme situation like that of the Kimbles. Writing of her own experiences with six young concentration camp survivors after the war, she observed that “‘experiments’ of this kind, which are provided by fate, lack the satisfying neatness and circumspection of an artificial setup.” Freud went on:
It is difficult, or impossible, to distinguish the action of the variables from each other…. It is, of course, impossible to vary the experiment. In our case, further, it proved impossible to obtain knowledge of all the factors which have influenced development. There remained dark periods in the life of each child, and guesswork, conclusions and inferences had to be used to fill the gaps.
Ann Kimble Loux, a realistic woman, never expected neatness when she added two small girls to her family. But it took her a while to acknowledge the dark gaps in her understanding. Would it have been better if Margey and Dawn had ended up with someone less analytical, more given to acceptance? It is easy to see why Loux is tempted to think so in retrospect. But moral imagination, the same power that encouraged her to assume at first that the future was theirs as a family to shape, is also behind the humbler guesswork and inferences she draws after the girls are gone. To understand is to forgive: that is the maxim that inspired a guilty, angry Loux to undertake this book. She wanted to stop blaming herself, and to stop blaming her daughters. Yet her odyssey reveals the importance of a different, related truth, which might be put this way: that to forgive—or rather, to see that forgiveness is beside the point—is often to understand. In trying to acknowledge what the girls couldn’t help and what she herself couldn’t change, Loux became the best kind of observer. She made room at the center of the story for Margey and Dawn, and for the shifting circumstances all of them faced together and each faced completely alone.
“When you have read fifty or a hundred pages you think with a desperate laugh, or none, that they are wonderfully implausible—implausible as mothers and fathers and children, in isolation, are implausible,” Randall Jarrell wrote of the Pollits in Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, and the Kimbles’ saga has a kindred power. “There in that warm, dark, second womb, the bosom of the family,” Jarrell went on, “everything is carried far past plausibility.” Finding herself caught up in an extraordinary family ordeal, Loux recognizes the often galling but singularly absorbing struggles at the heart of ordinary family life. She was spared, in a sense, the alarmist fears that distract the typically anxious parents we all know intimately, who panic at the possibility that perfectly normal behavior in themselves or in their children might be incipiently abnormal. Instead, fate dealt Loux a chance (which, if she had known more, she might well not have chosen) to share Stead’s wider, bolder understanding that, as Jarrell put it, “we never understand the normal better than when it has been allowed to reach its full growth and become the abnormal.”
June 11, 1998