Friday, October 17, 2008

Book Review: Expecting Adam, by Martha Beck

Apart from classic works like Les Miserables, Crime and Punishment, and Jane Eyre, I rarely recommend books as "must-reads" to my friends. In fact, I find that many "must-reads" and "bestsellers" today are not all they're cracked up to be. Still, every once in a while, a book that is popular, is popular for a good reason. And, I think that is clearly the case with Martha Beck's Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth, and Everyday Magic.

Martha Beck begins her memoir by acknowledging that the story she's about to tell is fantastic and, at times, unbelievable. In fact, she relates that many times she tried to pass the book off to editors and agents as a novel, an amazing story that happened to someone else in a fictitious world. She says, "You see, by calling it a novel, I could tell the story without putting myself in danger from skeptics, scientists, and intellectuals...Then they would all go away and leave me alone..." But, in the end, Beck cannot deny what happened to her and her husband John, after they found out they were expecting Adam.

Martha and John were a young married couple, working their tails off at a Harvard, both seeking graduate degrees, while raising a three year-old little girl. Martha was pursuing her Master's and Ph.D. in sociology (with an emphasis on women's issues), while John pursued a Ph.D. in business. She describes the cutthroat, cold, dog-eat-dog world of Harvard with ironic and laugh-out-loud humor. In the end, it becomes the unlikely stage upon which the Becks' life gets turned inside-out, when Martha becomes unexpectedly pregnant and eventually discovers she's carrying a baby with Down syndrome.

The entire book is filled with Martha's detailed re-telling of the transformation she undergoes (with John) over the nine months of her pregnancy. She is taxed to the physical extreme by non-stop nausea and dehydration, through her entire pregnancy (on average, making a trip to the ER about once a week). She's challenged spiritually by the sudden awareness of a world beyond herself--powers beyond her comprehension, which are working for her good and the good of her unborn child. And, she's forced to grapple with the values that the Harvard environment has pumped into her since she began there as a college freshman. By the time Adam is born, in Martha's words, "I had to unlearn virtually everything Harvard taught me about what is precious and what is garbage."

There are several elements of this volume that were particularly touching to me. First, there is the startling honest depiction of John and Martha's struggle to maintain the image of success and respectability on the Harvard campus. You can truly feel Martha's loneliness and sense of alienation, especially once it becomes known to the Harvard community that she's choosing to keep her Down syndrome child (something, you can imagine, that is not considered the "smart" thing to do). And, you rejoice with her when she finds true friends, who love her through her ordeal and provide support for her fragile physical condition.

Second, there is the bizarre way in which the spiritual realm invades Martha's life during her pregnancy. Although I am a skeptic by nature, Martha's descriptions of visions, out-of-body experiences, and miraculous rescues by unknown powers, were things I found I couldn't scoff at. In her drastic self-transformation, why wouldn't these stories also be true? As a professed evangelical Christian, I found myself both puzzled and encouraged at the descriptions of an admitted agnostic being forced to come to grips with spiritual realities she doesn't understand.

Third, there is the fact that Martha, a dedicated pro-choice feminist, chooses to keep her Down syndrome child, even though she and her husband had agreed long ago that they would abort in such a case. It is fascinating to observe as Martha struggles with her inability to answer the "why" question in a reasonable, Harvard-style fashion. In the end, she has no legitimate, scholarly, or moral reason why she wanted to bring Adam into the world, only that she was driven by an irrepressible compulsion to love and protect him.

I should note that Martha does not present herself as a converted "pro-lifer" after her decision to continue her pregnancy. And, from what I can tell, today she defends the right of women to do with their bodies as they see fit. But, it is clear from her writing that something within Martha compelled her to fight for the value and beauty of the child she was carrying, and that is an amazing and praiseworthy thing. And, I would imagine her experience--being forced to re-evaluate what is lovely, useful, and worthy of life--has impacted her counsel to women ever since.

It seems that I am a little late in discovering Expecting Adam. According to the title page, it was published first in 1999, with many re-printings since then, and has since become a national bestseller. Beck has gone on to launch a successful career as a "life coach," an O Magazine columnist, and an author of several more books. I haven't looked into Beck's current work, or read any of her other books, so I cannot speak to those things. But, I was deeply moved by Expecting Adam and I highly recommend it to you, my readers. Enjoy.


UnderMidnight said...

it's ok to be a little late in discovering great books. It was only a couple of years ago that I discovered Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials.
On a more serious note, Marilee Robinson's Gilead is fantastic.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Gilead is the next book on my list after I finish Leap of Faith by Queen Noor of Jordan. Thanks!

UnderMidnight said...

Man. Since having my daughter...I don't think I could read this book,
although its counter-culture element attracts me.
Not even my flat affect is sufficient when it comes to bad things happening to babies.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Oh, don't worry. Bad things don't happen to the baby. The mother is challenged BIG TIME. But, the baby is born perfectly healthy and beautiful. Just with Down syndrome. Does that help?