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Arthur Miller

In Vanity Fair Suzanna Andrews recounts the history of Arthur Miller’s son, whom he abandoned to an institution as an infant because he had down syndrome. It appears that Miller’s institutionalization of his son was out of selfishness for his time and his love, something most evident in this passage about his cousin, who also had Down syndrome:

In After the Fall, the character based on Inge has a recurring dream. “I dreamed,” she says, “I had a child and even in the dream I saw it was my life, and it was an idiot, and I ran away. But it always crept onto my lap again, clutched at my clothes.” Miller wrote those lines several years before Daniel’s birth, and Joan Copeland says, “That’s the first thing I thought of when I found out about Daniel.” She believes the dream speech may have been a reference to their cousin Carl Barnett, who also had Down syndrome. Barnett, who was a few years older than Arthur, was the son of his maternal uncle, Harry. At a time when babies with Down syndrome were almost always institutionalized, Barnett was raised at home, and the Miller children saw him often. In Timebends, Miller referred to Barnett as “a helpless mongoloid” whose mother was given to “mocking his fluffy speech to his face” and “flying at him in a rage.”

Miller’s memories of Carl Barnett may have influenced his decision to institutionalize his son, but he also would have had the support of doctors, who in 1966 were still advising parents to put their children away. “Babies with Down syndrome are absolutely the most adorable children,” says Rich Godbout, a social worker who knew Daniel for 10 years. “I can’t imagine giving up a child like that, but it happened.” Still, by 1966, large numbers of parents of Down-syndrome children were ignoring their doctors’ advice and keeping their children at home. It wasn’t easy. Even the most intellectually able Down-syndrome child requires a tremendous amount of care and reinforcement.

But there are huge rewards, too, which Arthur Miller seemed not to see. As Joan Copeland remembers it, her cousin Carl was anything but a burden to his family. They “adored him and they spoiled him,” especially his two younger sisters, who took care of him throughout his life. “Never, for a minute, did anyone in that family ever think they could live without Carl,” says Copeland. There were many things Carl couldn’t do, she recalls, but “he wasn’t helpless.” Although doctors told his parents he probably wouldn’t live past the age of 7, he lived to be 66.

“I think Arthur saw, in the Barnett family, how it just played into everything,” his sister says, “how the presence of this brother” affected everyone. He also saw the sacrifices that Copeland made in caring for her own son, who was born with cerebral palsy. “I think when he saw the adjustments that had to be made in [our] lives because of [our child], he didn’t want to have anything to do with that,” she says. Miller, says one friend, may have been afraid—“ashamed” is the word another uses—of the genetic problems in his family. Some believe Miller may have feared losing Inge’s attention to a needy child; others suggest that he simply didn’t want anything to interfere with his work. All agree that the issue of Daniel was extremely painful for him, and that he did not deal well with emotions. His plays were often acutely psychological—tackling the complicated relationships between fathers and sons, the corrosive effects of guilt and fear, and the price of self-deception—but in his personal life he could be shockingly devoid of emotional understanding. He was not cold, however. Although few people knew it, Miller did visit Daniel at Southbury on rare occasions. That he never acknowledged him as a son, though, is something friends find almost impossible to comprehend or accept. The author Donald Connery, who worked with Miller on the Peter Reilly wrongful-conviction case in the 1970s, says, “I speak with great affection for Arthur, and with admiration for all the good things he did in his life,” but whatever led him to institutionalize Daniel “doesn’t excuse painting his child out of his life.”

Apparently, not until very late in his life did Miller even acknowledge his son’s existence. That after his son’s birth Miller never had the acclaim he’d earned in the 1950s is an indication—small, to be sure, but an indication nonetheless—that justice exists in this world. I’m not much for respecting men who abandon their children, no matter how socially acceptable that abandonment may be; still, Miller’s action was for a long time the thing a relatively wealthy man should do for a child with disabilities—there were whole social networks devoted to claiming it was best for the child—and I find it difficult to condemn him without qualification (as do a number of his friends and family who are quoted in the article). Perhaps it’s enough to recognize, first, that men and women, who, like Miller, emphasize dignity and combat persecution and pursue righteousness, are nevertheless also sufferers of failures to imagine, to have sympathy, to be moral, and to act justly; and second, (especially juxtaposed to this comment at Crooked Timber) just how much public acknowledgment and acceptance of persons with disabilities has changed for the better in the past 50 years.