I recently dined in Boston with a group of about 10 people, including some Harvard students. One of the major topics was social justice, including the vital roles of the global church regarding immediate and long-term responses to specific crises throughout the world. One of the Harvard students shared how he was exploring Christianity because knowledge and reason were coming up short in and of themselves when considering social justice in this world. He was desperately seeking the missing link between knowledge and action, the mind and the heart.
Later that evening I was challenged by another of the students to read Expecting Adam by Martha Beck. I admit I didn’t have high expectations for a book about a child born with Down’s syndrome into a Harvard family, but I was intrigued by the broader scope regarding a family that has its world turned upside-down, about the way real life events shape our view of the world more than the highest acclaimed education. I did not know a lot about Harvard, but I definitely had perceptions and ideas of what it may be like. I was anxious to see how so many different perspectives and events would interact, as well as the outcome of this ideological and experiential collision.
My eyes opened wide as I entered a landscape so different than my own life experiences. I found it difficult to put the book down, to remove myself from the beautiful and mysterious story of this family. John and Martha Beck had intensely pursued the Harvard dream, starting with undergraduate studies and then continuing into graduate work. Martha recalls, “Back then I had known exactly how the world worked. Back then I had been sure of my own intellect, sure of the primacy of Reason, sure that, given enough time and training, I could control my destiny.” (pp. 4-5)
They were able to sustain this path through the pregnancy and birth of their first child. Though it was not easy—in fact it was miserable most of the time—they had not succumbed to the pressures of life and surrendered their career pursuits. “John and I had married young, by Harvard standards, and my first year as a Ph.D. candidate had been dominated by the struggle to finish enormous amounts of academic work while getting Katie through early infancy. This had led to many humiliating experiences, like the time I absentmindedly covered a statistics assignment with Muppet Babies stickers, or the day one of my famous professors uttered the key word baby during a lecture and my milk let down, soaking the front of my shirt.” (p. 29)
But suddenly their Harvard journey took an unexpected turn as they found out Martha was pregnant again. Faculty and peers already looked down upon them for having the distraction of one child at home, not to mention a marriage to sustain and nurture. The pregnancy also brought with it horrible effects on her body that she had experienced the first time around, greatly hindering her studies and ability to function in all parts of life. In Martha’s words, “It never took me four months to figure out I was expecting. Oh, no indeed. From the moment Mr. Sperm and Ms. Egg first encountered each other in my fallopian tubes—before they even had time to make any informed decision about going steady, let alone forming a biological unit—I could sense them conspiring to make my life a hell on earth.” (p. 20)
Her constant spells of abrupt fainting and nausea deserving “to be chronicled in song and legend for centuries to come” (p. 29) left her dehydrated. “This ushered in an era of my life I call the Pincushion Period. I would require rehydration every few days for the rest of my pregnancy, and every beginning nurse at Harvard University Health Services would get a shot at me (so to speak). “ (p. 64) Everyone around her, especially the medical staff at the UHS, had an opinion about her health and her choices. The doctors even accused her of trying to end her pregnancy early naturally—by starving the baby, and encouraged her to do it by faster, safer means instead. With John in Asia, she had to carry the weight of parenting while enduring the extreme mental and physical strain of her pregnancy.
At times she had no control over her body’s actions, forcing her to depend on anyone around her—even strangers—for help. Then the still point arrived: Her mid-pregnancy tests revealed that the baby had a high probability of having Down’s syndrome. When the nurse explained the test results, Martha remembered, “I took a long breath. Everything I had ever striven for, every hope I’d ever hoped and dream I’d ever dreamt, seemed to be poised like a delicate Faberge egg between the tips of my fingers. ‘No,’ I whispered. The egg fell, smashing into a million shards on the floor.” (p. 183)
For any mother and father this must be conflicting and confusing news. Why? How? What does it mean? The questions are endless and without much resolve. In the Beck’s situation, considering all of their knowledge and education, they dealt with an extreme amount of pressure from all sides. Without a moment’s pause they should have an abortion, said the assumptions of faculty, mentors, and colleagues…even their parents and extended family. There should be no feeling involved because it is a matter of principle. Emotions only cause illegitimate confusion and headaches.
But the story is broader than simple facts and basic decisions. The subtitle is A Story of Birth, Rebirth, and Magic. From the first chapter Beck expresses the mystery and all-encompassing span of this life-altering crisis. We learn about the love shown forth, often without provocation, by some new friends; friends who are in the right place at the right time and willing to sacrifice their own desires for the sake of truly loving their neighbor. In her own words, even as she resisted recognizing her needs, “The thing that got to me was the kindness, the thoughtfulness, the quiet and unassuming heroism of people like Sibyl and Deirdre and the neighbors who lived in my building.” (p. 101) At the right place and right time she was assisted by friends and strangers, often with the provision of her specific desires and needs.
After one of her medical emergencies during her pregnancy, Martha writes, “I am amazed at how flat-out stupid I was not to acknowledge, or even recognize, my body’s desperate attempts to communicate to me that something was seriously wrong. The only self-defense I have is that our entire society celebrates people who push themselves to extremes, who force themselves onward through pain, fatigue, and injury to achieve all kinds of improbable objectives…if you just try a little harder, bear a little more agony, ignore a little more of your desire to quit, you would be fabulously rich and successful and get away from the bad guys every time.” (pp. 150-151) She kept reminding herself of the story about a Harvard student who was told by his professor (and future Harvard president), “My boy, you will find that most of the great deeds in human history were accomplished by people who weren’t feeling well.” (p. 149) By her account, Harvard joins society in celebrating the Stoic, the unmoved in the midst of struggle and pain. Weakness is not an option, and failure is unacceptable. However, their story broadened beyond the cozy, perfect ideological paradise in Harvard. Questions lingered without concrete answers. Their world view was too small to handle their situation…too small to carry out in real life.
Here are some glimpses into her journey from reason alone to newfound faith: “In the face of such uncertainty, the only things that seem to us worth doing are the ones that allow us to experience the strange and eventful journey of life in its full richness.” (p. 109) Further, “This is the part of us that makes our brief, improbable little lives worth living: the ability to reach through our own isolation and find strength, and comfort, and warmth for and in each other. This is what human beings do. This is what we live for, the way horses live to run.” (p. 136) She has come to a conclusion that collides directly with everything she has treasured in her education and worldview thus far: “The meaning of life is not what happens to people…The meaning of life is what happens between people.” (p. 186)
So perhaps it was cut and dry, just not the answer they expected. From the moment the news about the Down’s syndrome possibility came from the doctor, Martha had a gut feeling about what to do. There was definitely a struggle through this rebirth of the mind and heart, though. John and Martha reached their boiling point regarding their decision one evening, and he said, “Don’t be silly, Marth. You know that isn’t true [deciding what kind of baby we’re willing to accept]. We’re talking about the difference between a healthy, normal baby and a defective one.” (p. 132) After the conversation calmed down, Martha explained, “My point is…that if a baby is conceived with a birth defect, that’s a tragedy. Not if it’s born with a birth defect, but if it has a birth defect, period. It doesn’t matter whether you abort it or let it live. It’s a tragedy either way.” (p. 134) Both of them endured a transformation that personally changed their views of the situation and of the world.
Even though some of the story may seem far-fetched and crazy, it is hard to picture the story without all of its contents. Every small piece of the puzzle contributes to the end result and complete picture, and the reader embarks on the journey hand-in-hand with the Becks. Martha shares an early moment with Adam: “He looked back at me with steady eyes, and I knew what I had known—what I should have remembered—all that time: that his flesh of my flesh had a soul I could barely comprehend, that he was sorry for the pain I felt as I tried to turn him into a ‘normal’ child, and that he loved me despite my many disabilities.” (p. 71) Only the story as it is told in its fullness can explain such a world view shift. Imagine the look on her professor’s face as she shares how this “defect” (a common term at Harvard) has brought her new life, not to mention other people as well.
A story of birth and rebirth may be familiar in scope and effect to the experience of some, but the magic may leave any reader uneasy, since the supernatural can be an uncomfortable territory. One day Martha woke to the sound of the fire alarm in her apartment building and had to somehow carry her daughter down the flights of stairs through dense smoke and darkness. She collapsed at one point on the steps and again before getting to the stairway exit. She could go no further, and assumed death was around the corner. “And then, just as I had in the smoke, I felt the touch of a hand. This time, it rested gently on my back, and from it emanated a comforting warmth that stopped my shaking and let me drift almost immediately into an exhausted sleep. I didn’t look to see where it had come from, whose hand it was. I didn’t even wonder. I seemed to know that touch already, at some level far below my consciousness. The next day, stunned as I was when I looked through that copy of the Boston Herald and saw that my rescuer had not registered at all on film, some deep part of me wasn’t surprised.” (p. 104)
We are also introduced to visions and unexplained experiences that connect both parents to this baby before he is born. Martha’s name for this is “the Seeing Thing.” Throughout the story, John spends blocks of time in Asia and traveling back and forth from the States for his dissertation research. Martha has multiple experiences when the Seeing Thing allows her to see what John sees on the other side of the world, in real time and with real emotions. “John and I came to believe that the Seeing Thing worked best when not only I was thinking of John but he was thinking of me as well.” (p. 107) Eventually they discover that they both have this unique ability to experience the Seeing Thing, not only with each other, but with the child that is inside her womb, too. They sense the baby communicating and moving angels or some sort of beings around them in order to guide, assist and protect them. ”I told him [John] about the invisible hands that rescued me when I was caught in the smoke and later, when I was bleeding…We just went over all the strange coincidences that kept occurring, like the way Sibyl just happened I to show up with exactly the groceries I craved exactly when I needed them, and later just happened to know every little, tiny detail one could ever hope to know about infants with birth defects.” (p. 263)
Martha doesn’t know how to describe these events except to attribute it to something outside of her, whether God, angels, presences, or some other being. When pondering these experiences, she says, “One thing I don’t believe, though, is that there are no spiritual beings around us…I don’t know what to call them, I don’t know how they work. But I know they’re there.” (p. 263) Further, “I have been blessed with love both human and divine, and I believe that there is no essential difference between them. Any person who acts out of love is acting for God. There is no way to repay such acts, except perhaps to pass them on to others.” (p. 296) She penetrates the gray area between the spiritual world and the flesh and blood world with ease at times, which may appeal to some of her audience but leave others unsettled.
Rightly so, perhaps, as Martha herself claims to fear the exclusivity of Christianity and sees her decision to have the baby apart from the opinions of anyone else, possibly even God. “What mattered was that I had made a choice that felt as though, in the end, it would bring me to the place I needed to go.” (p. 242) During a surgery 3 years after Adam’s birth, Martha had an experience with what she calls a Being of Light—something reminiscent of the Seeing Thing: “There was a concrete message that remained even after the drugs had left my system, and this is—sort of—what it said. It said that the way back to my real environment, the place where my soul was meant to exist, doesn’t lie through any set of codes I will ever find outside of myself. I have to look inward. I have to jettison every sorrow, every terror, every misconception, every lie that stands between my conscious mind and what I know in my heart to be true…I can’t get home by cloaking myself in the armor of any system, social, political, or religious. I have to strip off all that comforting armor and go on naked.” (p. 289) In light of her Harvard education and family background (which is explained in depth), turning inward is contrary to all that she has known her entire life.
But I felt the enchantment added tremendous validity and vulnerability to the story. What one person may attribute to coincidence, another may simply say, “That must have been the hand of God.” There is a sense that even Martha doesn’t always understand the who, the why, the how. She confesses, “Over the course of two or three days, I gradually revised my own conception of reality. I did not come to any firm conclusions. Instead, I decided on a major change in the way I would position my investigation. Until that point, I had followed the good old Baconian logic of refusing to believe anything until it was proven true. Now I decided that I was willing to believe anything, absolutely anything I heard, saw, or felt until it was proven false…With this single decision, I expanded my reality from a string of solid facts, as narrow, strong, and cold as a razor’s edge, to a wild chaos of possibility.” (pp. 169-170)
Martha counts the mystery and magic as valuable elements of the story, the “real” aspects of the story. There is a unique and beautiful relationship between mother and fetus that no one except for the mother understands. Expecting Adam enhances that relationship while truthfully retaining the unknown and mysterious—and she goes further to reveal how rampant and uncontrollable mystery is in every aspect of every human life. In retrospect, Martha sees that “Adam brought with him a sweetness that surpasses anything I ever felt before he was conceived. It comes from looking at the heart of things, from stopping to smell not only the roses but the bushes as well. It is a quality of attention to ordinary life that is so loving and intimate it is almost worship.” (pp. 75-76) Her unity with her son, was well as John’s, show forth a sort of anticipatory relationship, where the parents and infant know each other before they even meet. They named him Adam because both of them had heard that name during their mysterious encounters with the Seeing Thing.
The Becks do pray for a miracle, especially towards the final days of pregnancy. Without losing joy and excitement even if the child has Down syndrome, they plead with God to “fix” their baby in the womb, recognizing that anything is possible and believing that God hears and answers prayers. After the child is born, John and Martha realize a miracle has taken place: “Maybe he didn’t need fixing. Maybe he’s the only one of us who was never broken.” (p. 310) Their lives have been changed forever. The lives of family and friends surrounding them will never be the same. The power of love has been experienced and held fast. “Whoever said that love is blind was dead wrong. Love is the only thing on this earth that lets us see each other with the remotest accuracy.” (p. 220)
Aaron Sands lives in Nashville, Tenn., with his family. He plays bass with Jars of Clay, touring extensively as well as recording in the studio. He also works with the Blood:Water Mission, an organization founded by the band in 2003 in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic ravaging Africa.
Questions1. What initial images were brought to mind by the title Expecting Adam? How did your interpretation of the title change while reading the story? How could this story be a reflection of the first Adam in the Garden of Eden? In what ways is Expecting Adam similar to the story of Jesus Christ, the second Adam of the Bible? What are the major differences in either case?
2. What audience did Beck have in mind when writing this account? How would a male reader respond similarly to a female reader? How would they differ? What responses would her Harvard professors and fellow students give to the book? Why do you think Beck chose to write her story?
3. How did Beck’s use of humor influence her portrayal of the story? In what ways did it strengthen or weaken her account? In this story, how does honesty factor into the connection between author and reader?
4. How did you react to the “magical” elements of the story? Was it a source of discomfort? Why or why not? How does enchantment strengthen or weaken her account of the story? How does the “magic” relate to reality and explanations of the unknown?
5. What would affect your decision to recommend this book to someone facing a similar situation? How would the nature of the relationship make a difference? How would it differ between a relative, friend, and a neighbor (familiar or not)?
6. What words best characterize the relationships between the Becks and their newfound friends throughout the story? What is the significance of friendship in the story? What words would you use to describe the love revealed through the friends and their actions?
7. Toward the end of the story, Martha revealed her frustrations with pro-life groups, specifically the ownership desired of her story to support their movement. How was this ridiculous and over-reacting? How was it a true revelation of the deeper issues regarding the pro-life movement? In what way would a different approach by the pro-life supporters cause a different response?
8. How has your view of the world changed after reading this book? What reactions were purposefully instigated by the author? In what ways are your responses beyond the intent of the author?
9. Is Martha’s response of turning inward a sustaining response? In what ways are turning inward and looking outward the same? How are they different?
10. Do you think Martha’s supernatural experiences were encounters with the God of the Bible? Do you think God works in such magical ways nowadays? If not, why not? How has your opinion about the way God works in our lives changed since reading the book?