Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915)—a masterwork of modernist fiction that gradually reveals the layers of deception, infidelity, betrayal and tragedy that lie beneath the surface of two seemingly happy marriages—begins with one of literature’s most poignant and heart-rending lines: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”
Told from the perspective of one of fiction’s most famously unreliable narrators, the novel explores the intricate and tangled interactions among a cast of characters who feel forced to suppress their true feelings and maintain a façade of respectability. Set against the backdrop of decaying upper-class Edwardian gentility, the novel’s fragmented narrative offers a penetrating, if morally ambiguous, meditation on the contrasting forms that love can take: passionate, obsessive, illicit and self-destructive, but also genuinely and sincerely heartfelt and even chaste.
The novel’s distinctly modernist themes include betrayal—of one’s friends, spouses, lovers and personal ideals; the gap between appearance and reality; the impact of emotional repression; and the malleability of memory. The novel is also about dissimulation and the difficulty of separating falsehood, dishonesty and duplicity from truth. Characters lie to deceive others but also to defend their self-image as decent and honorable.
I just read what is truly the saddest story I’ve ever encountered. It’s by The Atlantic’s Jennifer Senior, who won a 2022 Pulitzer Prize for an essay on how a family coped—or failed to cope—with a loved one’s violent death and the toll that sudden, premature death takes on those left behind, in this case, parents and a fiancé.
Senior’s award-winning essay, published on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is a meditation on love, loss, grief and memory that focuses on 26-year-old Bobby McIlvaine, one of 14 Princeton alumni who died in the World Trade Center towers and Senior’s brother’s closest friend and college and post-graduation roommate.
Among that essay’s themes are the very different ways that people grieve: Bottling up bitterness, blaming themselves or others, spinning events backward, moving on, letting go, and often through avoidance or its mirror image, obsession. It explores how those who grieve find meaning in loss, how, at various times, they “reinvent” those that they lost, and how, in many cases, mourning never ends. It’s not something that their survivors get over or get past or get through. Instead, “some people spend their whole lives inhabiting their sadness.”
If any theme runs through her essay, it’s that grief doesn’t occur sequentially according to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five-stage process, but idiosyncratically. A grief counselor got it right when she told the McIlvaines:
“Here’s how you have to think about this: You are all at the top of a mountain, and you all have a broken leg, and you all have to get down to the bottom of the mountain.”
Trauma also teaches life’s most ruthless lesson:
“You are not in charge. All you can control is your reaction to whatever grenades the demented universe rolls in your path. Beginning with whether you get out of bed.”
Senior, a chronicler of the inner lives of those who experience and endure trauma and heartbreak, has also written about friendships ending, the suicide of a happiness researcher, and why we feel younger than our actual age. She also wrote what I consider the best book on contemporary upper-middle-class parenting, with a title that couldn’t be more apt: All Joy and No Fun.
The piece that I find utterly unforgettable is entitled “The Ones We Sent Away,” and is subtitled “I thought my mother was an only child. I was wrong. It tells the story of Senior’s Aunt Adele, who was institutionalized as a baby because of an intellectual and developmental disability and spent her entire life in institutions (including the rightly reviled Willowbrook State School), foster homes and group homes.
Senior’s grandparents, “pressured by doctors, stamped by stigma, broken by exhaustion and confusion and pain—felt like they had no choice but to give their daughter away.”
The tragedy that Senior describes was not the tragedy of a single individual or indeed of a single family. Arthur Miller had a son who was institutionalized. Erik Erikson did too. For Pearl S. Buck, it was a daughter. Viewers of The Crown know that five of Queen Elizabeth’s cousins were secretly placed in a mental hospital in 1941 and publicly declared dead.
Jennifer Natalya Fink, a disabilities scholar, writes that the culture treated children with a developmental disability “as an individual trauma to a singular family, rather than a common, collective, and normal experience of all families.” Yet, of course, it was the children themselves who underwent the most extreme trauma: from family separation, institutionalization and all the mistreatment that accompanies that experience.
For much of the 20th century, but especially after World War II, tens of thousands of developmentally disabled children were institutionalized for life and often given powerful medications—sedatives and psychotropics, anti-depressants, mood stabilizers, psycho-stimulators, and anti-anxiety drugs—to manage their behavior, including the violent outbursts and episodes of self-harm and psychosis that often accompany institutionalization. Their parents were told that these children’s challenges were essentially untreatable, and that they needed to get on with their lives and not be weighed down. Here are the words that the Mayo Clinic told the novelist Pearl Buck:
“This child will be a burden on you all your life. Do not let her absorb you. Find a place where she can be happy and leave her there and live your own life.”
Even today, approximately 42,823 American children live in institutions and other group facilities, and as of 2021, 113,589 children were awaiting adoption.
But what is truly heartbreaking, Senior discovers, is that many, and perhaps most, children even with the most severe developmental disabilities can, with proper care, flourish. As Senior writes with words I won’t forget:
“The disabled were dramatically underestimated and therefore criminally undercultivated: hidden in institutions, treated interchangeably, decanted of all humanity—spectral figures at best, relegated to the margins of society and memory.”
What we’ve since learned about brain plasticity and neurodiversity and emotional self-regulation is that these children aren’t “incurable,” even if their lives will differ profoundly from their peers’. We can’t and shouldn’t expect parents, especially mothers, to be saints. But with proper funding, access to occupational, physical, vision, and speech therapy, and well-trained, profoundly dedicated support providers, this society can provide the care these individuals need as children and adults and help them thrive.
Linking together the stories of Bobby McIlvaine and Aunt Helen are the themes of grief, trauma and heartbreak. We encounter on a visceral level grief for a lost son and fiancé and grief for a daughter and sister who had been taken away. In an interview, Senior is asked to speak about one of life’s stumpers: What is grief’s evolutionary purpose? ;Or, put somewhat differently, why do people possess masochistic or destructive impulses toward depression, anger, anxiety and grieving?
For an answer, Senior turns to the research of Harvard’s George E. Vaillant, who, for 35 years, directed a longitudinal study of adult development. Dr. Valliant argued that humanity can’t survive without love, and grief is love turned inside out. Love is what encourages human beings to form the deep and enduring bonds that allow us to raise and nurture children and perform the duties and moral obligations that give life meaning, shape and weight. Grief, then, is love’s price. It’s the flip side of being needed and being able to give.
In her book on parenthood, Senior observed that rearing a child is only intermittently fun. It’s hard work filled with aggravation, annoyance, exasperation, frustration, irritation, and endless provocations. It disrupts a parent’s routine, marriage, job, habits, and friendships. But it is also joyful: It adds to a parent’s sense of purpose.
I’m not much one for preaching or proselytizing, but maybe our campuses should consider, when appropriate, reminding undergraduates what George E. Valliant discovered about what makes a life meaningful as well as the tasks that a person must master to mature as an adult. These tasks include self-discovery, fashioning an identity, being generative, maintaining integrity, and forging strong and meaningful relationships.
We live at a moment in time when 44 percent of nonparents ages 18 to 49 say it is not likely that they will have children, with most of those saying that they don’t want to have kids, and don’t believe that having children is important element in a fulfilling life. I can hardly think of a more telling indicator of this society’s hyper-individualism or its cynicism or its overwrought pessimism about the future or its overwhelming expectations about what successful parenting requires.
Stories like Jennifer Senior’s can, I think, help draw our students outside themselves, and ponder essential questions involving intimacy, connection, loss, coping and care. A college education shouldn’t simply be about academic skills building, knowledge acquisition and career preparation. Education should not just be confined to the learning of facts or mastering of various competencies. It should be about identity formation and social, intrapersonal and ethical development. Anything less is merely vocational training, not the kind of self-cultivation that is the foundation of moral and emotional maturity and the basis of personal autonomy.
Great works of fiction and nonfiction give us the opportunity to confront human existence’s biggest questions and life’s unavoidable challenges: loneliness and connection, loss and despair, freedom and determinism, meaning and purposelessness, mortality and senseless suffering. A higher education that doesn’t help students cope with the terrifying truths of existence is empty, hollow, shallow. Let’s not defraud our students by failing to grapple with the central problems that we, as human beings, face.
But let’s also do more to encourage our students to enter the helping professions. When I hear that nearly 40 percent of Harvard students go into finance or consulting, I say: What a waste. Our society faces a crisis of caregiving, a situation that will only worsen as the population ages and the birthrate falls or stagnates. This country relegates much of its caregiving to relatives, usually mothers, who receive no compensation, and to low-paid health care aides and day care workers and assistive care providers. A truly caring society will require many more well-trained caregivers, and one way that colleges and universities can better serve society is to educate the number that this country will need.