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Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Expecting Adam - a book review

Expecting Adam is the "true story" of a mother coming to terms with the fact that her son has Down's Syndrome.  I first read this book about ten years ago, shortly after my own son Jamie was born with Down's Syndrome.  It was bought for me by a well-meaning relative who was hoping that the book would make me feel better about Jamie's condition, and it almost did.

Martha explains in the first half of the book how she came from a family of academics, who prize intellectual achievement more than anything else, and how she had to reconcile her belief in the importance of intelligence with the reality that her child was never going to impress them.  She also talks about the difficulties during pregnancy and the early years that we all faced.  She has a self-deprecating tone that is really quite endearing, and she writes about her son with such warmth and affection, that I enjoyed Expecting Adam at first, and I thought it was going to be good for my own peace of mind. 

However, Martha rather spoiled the book by claiming, in chapter 28, that her son Adam is actually an Angel. Apparently a psychic told her.

"Angels are different from other metaphysical beings.  Occasionally they decide to incarnate - to become human for a while. Not that they have to, you understand. Sometimes that's just the best way to do what they want to do."

It was at this point that I realized that Expecting Adam one of those books aimed at the sort of people who believe the Bible has a coded message in it like a wordsearch, or that little boys can visit heaven then come back and tell us about it and it's just like Narnia.  I suppose, with Expecting Adam, the clues were there - the back of the book includes the words "spiritual discovery", "heaven" and "faith in miracles".  Martha also briefly mentions some supernatural goings on in chapter one, but I had not realized at that point quite how nuts it was going to become, like the part where she tells us all about the "miracle" she experienced; apparently the unborn angel baby saved her life by giving her telepathic directions on how to escape from a burning building. I am not kidding.

To be honest, I have always been a little surprised as to how popular these sort of books are.  Athiests laugh them off, of course, but it seems that a lot of Christians lap them up, despite the fact that what they preach is something not supported by the Bible and might even be considered blasphemous. Jesus never made any mention of wordsearches, angels amongst us, or return trips to Narnia.

Martha is quite cunning in the way she tells her tales - she makes out as though she does not believe the incredible events herself, she is just reporting the facts and allowing the reader to make his/her mind up.  This way she manages to have her cake and eat it - she distances herself from the crazy ideas, while appealing to the millions of potential readers who like nothing better than to gorge themselves on plausible-sounding pseudo-spirituality.

He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy.
While reading this book, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking, "surely, nobody would make stuff like this up?"  Well, let me counter that argument by telling you that, if offered enough money, I certainly would do it.  Oh yes.  In fact, if there are any publishers reading this blog, I would like it to be known that, for a big enough cash advance, I am quite prepared to write a "non-fiction" book claiming that angels told me that my Down's Syndrome son is actually the Messiah.  I will assure the reader in the opening pages that I am really not the sort of person to make stuff like this up (tee hee, I am really!) before going to describe how the Good Lord wanted the second coming to be a bit different to the first coming, and that by giving his son a learning difficulty, an extra chromosome, and ginger hair, it would prove that God loves us all equally, or something.

I will even throw in a few miracles - the sort that sound quite spectacular, but are impossible to check.  I could also do some prophecies if you like?  It would be important to keep them vague though, with no fixed dates, otherwise we would limit the shelf-life of the book.  If I claim that the walking dead will stalk the Earth in 2017 and that doesn't happen, nobody in 2018 is going to believe I word I say, no matter how much I try to claim that the zombies I referred to were really just a metaphor for corporate greed.

So, as I said, it was about ten years ago that I read this book, and I was curious to know what Martha Beck has been up to since then.  Well, I was interested to see that she now has her own website, and she has reinvented herself as a self-help guru, churning out dozens of books and regularly turning up on (surprise surprise) The Oprah Winfrey Show.  She and her husband are divorced, and apparently are both now gay.  I have searched her website for news on Adam - how he is coping as a teenage angel with Downs Syndrome - but I could not find a mention at all.  I actually sent her an email asking about Adam, but I did not receive a reply. I am quite glad about this actually, because if she had sent a nice reply I would have felt guilty about implying that she is a cynical charlatan earlier in the review.

It appears from Martha's website though, that she has innovated a new "non-fiction" pseudo-scientific and spiritual furrow to plough.  In 2005 she released a book that claimed she had suddenly remembered that her late father had abused her as a child.  "Recovered memory" is a controvertial idea to say the least.  Therapists spend months or years with patients, gently teasing out a repressed memory, until it all comes flooding back.  Critics of the practice claim that expectation of finding bad memories could be self-fulfilling, and they call it "false memory".  Richard McNally, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, says in his book Remembering Trauma  "most people remember horrific experiences all too well. Victims of abuse are seldom incapable of remembering their trauma, in fact they're far less likely to forget traumatic than everyday events and if anything, would prefer to remember them less well." He also pointed out other flaws in the theory, such as the way it takes those in therapy such a long time to remember something, and he demonstrates how easy it is plant false memories in vulnerable people.  It is worth noting that, according to Wikipedia, all of Martha's family have taken the father's side.

Oh, and by the way, Martha's father was an important figure in the early days of the Mormon Church and according to Martha he made some stuff up back then that gullible followers fell for.  That last part I am prepared to believe at least - clearly the apple does not fall far from the tree.

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