Adoption, Developmental Disabilities, Parenthood, and Writing: An Interview with Scott Eubanks

Scott Eubanks’s short story, “Brood Parasite,” was published on The Fertile Source on January 31.  Here, he talks with editor Jessica Powers about what it was like growing up in a foster home for children with developmental disabilities and how that shaped his writing, in particular, this short story.

Scott Eubanks's brother

Scott Eubanks's brother

You mentioned that you grew up in a foster home for children with developmental disabilities and that your parents ended up adopting five kids with Down’s Syndrome. Can you tell me what that was like for you as a child? When did you figure out that your family was different than others? 

 I think children in general don’t have the skills to question the why of their circumstances. It isn’t until much later, maybe six years old, that I understood my family was not only bigger than everyone else’s, but different too. It was mostly through the reactions of my friends that I figured out something was amiss—their vaguely insulting questions or frightened looks. One friend in particular thought that Down’s syndrome somehow meant that all the kids were deaf, so all of his interaction with them involved shouting pleasantries. I didn’t correct him.         

 Most of what I remember is crowded with g-tubes, colostomy bags and humor. My parents in particular made a joke out of everything, preferring to remember the best kinds of stories from our family. We still tell them sometimes: the time my eldest brother with Down’s ate a half gallon jar of grape jelly in the middle of the night.  The next morning, he emphatically denied everything, unaware that the lower half of his face was covered with jam.  

 The negatives of having such a big, strange family were that my parents really didn’t have time for the details of parenthood, and it sometimes felt like growing up in a Ford assembly line. I got away with a lot more than I should have, but I also learned personal responsibility. When I was old enough, I accused my folks of not putting in the effort. After a long pause, my dad said, “We had one kid with a hole in his heart, another with leukemia, and you had a D in English. What do you think our priorities were?” 

 Why do you think so many parents of Down’s Syndrome placed (and, perhaps, place) their children in adoption?

 I’m just as much of an outsider to this as most people. Having just had a daughter of my own, my spouse and I talked a lot (too much, really, not for it to be an obsession) about what we’d do if she had anything wrong with her. We decided that no matter what, we’d keep her, but since she’s normal (whatever that means), I’ll never really know.

 I think that people who give up their developmentally disabled children think that they’ll be unmanageable—you know, monsters. The kinds of things I used to hear licensed medical professionals say to parents was grotesque. The parents would tell us “facts” about how their son/daughter with a 55 IQ would never be potty trained, and most likely be violent. Utter crap. The birth parents were so hung up on what their child is losing that they forget about what they’ll most likely get to keep—their childhood. The birth parents were completely devastated that their child would never be able to attend UCLA, practice medicine or have a family of their own.  Some people can’t handle change as well as others, and speaking from experience, nine months of hopes and possibility are hard to flush away. 

 I used to want to tell the birth parents the truth. That their kid would watch the Disney channel their whole life, that they would never understand something as abstract as a calorie, that the highlight of their week would be a trip to McDonalds. My oldest brother with Down’s is nearly thirty, and a couple of months ago he couldn’t hardly sleep because Santa Claus was coming. That isn’t a bad way to live.

Do you often write about topics so clearly close to your personal experiences?

 I thought nearly all the fiction I’d written didn’t have anything to do with me on the surface. Later, usually, I recognize some associative chain of ideas that somehow connects to me, but the truth is, I’m boring. I studied nonfiction at Eastern Washington University and wrote a stack of personal essays.

What was it like writing a scene you must have observed in your home more than once, but in this case, imagining it from the perspective of the birth parent planning to place his/her Down’s baby for adoption?

Writing the adoptive family was difficult. The Falkensteins were originally caricatures of my parents—three details—but they didn’t accrete into real characters until the third draft, when I realized I was being inordinately unfair to my parents. The living room was, however, that ugly. When I was a kid, it wasn’t difficult to understand what the birth parents thought of us. Most couples didn’t realize they were being scrutinized, and others said things like, “You’re such angels to be doing this, even when your living room set doesn’t match.”  In a way, they were defending themselves against what they thought to be my parent’s saintliness, which is totally false.

 What experiences have you had that allowed you to get into Helen’s head and understand the dilemma facing her?

It wasn’t difficult to understand what Helen was thinking. One of my brother’s parents has been part of our family for 26 years, despite cultural, economic and geographic differences. They’ve been around since I was five, so they’re like godparents. Both of them have been very open with their conflicting emotions about the adoption, and they’ve told my parents that if anything ever happened to them, they’d like to take my brother back. They visit once or twice a year and everyone ends up in tears. My brother gets into a funk for a month afterwards. All of us know how much it hurts him, but there’s something really complicated going on that I still can’t figure out. 

 It sounds like you’ve seen the really painful side of adoption.

 I’ve only seen one aspect of adoption, disappointed parents who felt that they weren’t qualified to raise their developmentally disabled kids. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen plenty of birth parents who, twenty years after the fact, are in complete denial about their child’s limitations. I knew one family who insisted that their son with Down’s had every right to be enrolled in an algebra class. He sat in the back, sang, played with the zipper on his sweatshirt, and drew pictures. He probably got a better grade than I did, though.

 My family is great for my adopted brothers and sisters. My parents have realistic expectations and are dedicated to keeping them as happy as possible. The kids also have each other, dancing in front of the television, and whispering secrets to one another long after bed time.

 For my oldest brother, his family has stayed involved for the last 26 years. They visit annually, bringing him presents and we all end up crying. My brother ends up depressed for a month, and his parents promise to visit again for either Christmas or the summer. My brother is very high functioning, so he’s smart enough to understand what happened, but not why.

 The families for the rest of my adopted brothers and sisters disappeared shortly after the paperwork was finalized. I can’t figure out who’s luckier. For them, they only have one set of parents and they aren’t forced to puzzle over why their “real” parents gave them away.

 What are you working on now?

 I’m working on an essay about my brother, a small fragment of a much larger story. My former advisor from grad school really wants me to consider putting together a memoir, but that’s a year or more away.

 

Scott Eubanks

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