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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Book Review: Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir by Dawn Davies

I do love a memoir, so even though this is a memoir in a series of essays instead of a straight narrative, I was excited. Even though it was about motherhood, I was still really looking forward to it. And I liked the first few essays a lot. Ms. Davies is not a typical soccer mom and she doesn't make any excuses for that. The story about all the household pets that kept dying was hilarious (yes, also sad. But also funny.) And the story about when she was 20-ish and an accident happened right in front of her, and she helped a man as he lay dying, was riveting. But then there were a couple of lightweight essays, including one about being a soccer mom. From a woman who supposedly wasn't a soccer mom at all! I started to get annoyed, and then the essay "Mothers of Sparta" followed, and it is harrowing.

It turns out that Dawn's son, who isn't mentioned but in passing in the book up to this point (mostly her daughters are talked about), has severe problems. He was born with a cleft palate, he has health issues, and also mental health issues. As he grows up, they only get to be bigger problems. In the media, we only ever see little kids with problems, or old people who have been institutionalized. There is an enormous population of people dealing with people who are physically bigger than them, who can't be locked down, who their families don't want to institutionalize (if there even were institutions that would keep them safe and well cared for which is dubious). What do you do when you have a very large 20-something who does not understand that kiddie porn is a problem? Who is very good with computers and can get around any parental controls and even the removal of electronic devices? Not only could he be arrested, but so could you. And what if he were to try to act on these feelings he doesn't understand, and doesn't understand are wrong?

Personally, I wish that essay had been the entire book. I wish it had been expanded and extrapolated on, and not relegated to being similar in weight to a story about pets or soccer. I do get that having it right after the fluffy soccer essay made the impact greater, but that just wasn't necessary—it has a huge impact by itself. I can see the author's point that she is so much more than her biggest problem, and her family is more than their biggest problem, and her life has both been centered around trying to keep her son safe (and keep the world safe from her son) but also it's been centered around not being centered around that. She doesn't want her son's problems to be the sole focus of her life and her daughters' lives, understandably. And yet. And yet.

In Sparta, when a baby is born, the local priests would come and inspect it. If the baby wasn't perfect, it would be cast into a pit to die. Was that the cruelest thing in the world, or perhaps a brutal kindness? Dawn knows her son would have been relegated to the pit. And she would have fought viciously for him to survive. And yet, to what end? The ethical and moral questions she brings up are almost never discussed, certainly not this honestly by someone in the midst of them, and they really do need to be discussed. As more health issues are diagnosed and more mental health issues come into the open, we need to look them in the face and really deal with them, not sweep them under the rug so long as they are someone else's problem. This essay is a vital and oh so necessary one that everyone should read. It's raw and inspiring and honest to the core. The book overall is quite good, but just wait until you get to this essay that makes everything worthwhile.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

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