Friday, August 17, 2007

When shame hides something glorious

Arthur Miller's Missing Act

For all the public drama of Arthur Miller's career—his celebrated plays (including Death of a Salesman and The Crucible), his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, his social activism—one character was absent: the Down-syndrome child he deleted from his life.


Miller's friends say they never understood exactly what happened with Daniel, but the few details they heard were disturbing. Miller had not only erased his son from the public record; he had also cut him out of his private life, institutionalizing him at birth, refusing to see him or speak about him, virtually abandoning him.

Daniel Miller was institutionalized shortly after his birth, and though his mother regularly visited him, his father continued to deny his existence.

And what became of this child whose father was so afraid and ashamed?

By the mid-90s, Daniel was doing so well that he was enrolled in a state-financed "supported-living program" that enabled him to stay in an apartment with a roommate. He still had someone looking in on him once a day, helping him to pay bills and sometimes to cook, but otherwise he was on his own. He had a bank account and a job, first at a local gym and then at a supermarket. He went to parties and concerts, and he loved to go out dancing. He was also a "natural athlete," says one social worker. He learned to ski, and competed in the Special Olympics, in that sport as well as in cycling, track, and bowling. "Everyone loved Danny," says Rich Godbout, who ran the supported living program. "His greatest joy was helping people. He would insist. If someone needed help moving, Danny was always the first guy to volunteer to help." Daniel also joined Starlight and People First, two "self-advocacy" groups that promote the rights of disabled people to govern their own lives. "He wouldn't miss a meeting," says Godbout. In 1993, Daniel attended a ceremony to celebrate the closing of the Mansfield Training School, Southbury's sister institution. Three years later, Southbury came under a federal contempt order, and the question of whether it should be closed became the subject of a fiery political debate that continues today. Jean Bowen, an adviser to People First, remembers hearing Daniel speak out at meetings about his desire to see the institution shut down.

Shortly before his death, Arthur Miller established a trust fund for Daniel and drafted a will that entitled the child he'd long denied to his full share of the playwright's estate.

Today, Daniel Miller lives with the elderly couple who have long taken care of him, in a sprawling addition to their home that was built especially for him. He continues to receive daily visits from a state social worker, whom he's known for years. Although his father left him enough money to provide for everything he needs, Daniel has kept his job, which he loves and "is very proud of," according to Rebecca, who visits him with her family on holidays and during the summers. "Danny is very much part of our family," she said, and "leads a very active, happy life, surrounded by people who love him."
Some wonder why Arthur Miller, with all his wealth, waited until death to share it with his son. Had he done so sooner, Daniel could have afforded private care and a good education. But those who know Daniel say that this is not how he would feel. "He doesn't have a bitter bone in his body," says Bowen. The important part of the story, she says, is that Danny transcended his father's failures: "He's made a life for himself; he is deeply valued and very, very loved. What a loss for Arthur Miller that he couldn't see how extraordinary his son is."

I'm reversing the order of the original article here, because I think that this, in closing, is what needs to be stressed:

It would be easy to judge Arthur Miller harshly, and some do. For them, he was a hypocrite, a weak and narcissistic man who used the press and the power of his celebrity to perpetuate a cruel lie. But Miller's behavior also raises more complicated questions about the relationship between his life and his art. A writer, used to being in control of narratives, Miller excised a central character who didn't fit the plot of his life as he wanted it to be. Whether he was motivated by shame, selfishness, or fear—or, more likely, all three—Miller's failure to tackle the truth created a hole in the heart of his story. What that cost him as a writer is hard to say now, but he never wrote anything approaching greatness after Daniel's birth. One wonders if, in his relationship with Daniel, Miller was sitting on his greatest unwritten play.

HT: Catholic Fire

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