Sunday, August 19, 2007

Arthur and Daniel Miller

"An extraordinary man," "very beloved by a lot of people," Daniel Miller, they say, is a "guy who's made a difference in a lot of lives." They also say he is someone who, considering the challenges of his life, has in his own way achieved as much as his father did. The way Arthur Miller treated him baffles some people and angers others. But the question asked by friends of the father and of the son is the same: How could a man who, in the words of one close friend of Miller's, "had such a great world reputation for morality and pursuing justice do something like this"?

After my wife miscarried sometime back, we more or less decided that we would not have a baby. We concluded that we were too old and too poor for it. Actually, it is probably more accurate to say that I decided this and that my wife, albeit reluctantly, went along.

I have many fears about bringing a child into this world. But one of my biggest is that it might have severe mental or physical defects and that I would not be up to the challenge of providing what it needed to flourish.

I did not know this until today, but it seems that the late, great American playwright Arthur Miller faced such a challenge when his wife gave birth to a son in 1966 who was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Miller promptly institutionalized his son, Daniel, and spent most of the rest of his life acting, at least in public, as though his son did not exist. In private, he seems to have helped Daniel by providing money for his care. But he never spoke of him or visited him until many years had passed and his son, despite the many years he spent in Southbury Training School--which by the early 1970's had become what one former worker there described as "not a place you would want your dog to live" and a leading disability rights lawyer simply called "awful"--demonstrated remarkable resilience and character by becoming largely self-sufficient and is much loved and admired by all who know him.

Here is the fascinating Vanity Fair story of Arthur Miller and his son Daniel, and here is a telling segment from that story:

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.

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." It was a loss that Arthur Miller may have understood better than he let on. "A character," he wrote in Timebends, "is defined by the kinds of challenges he cannot walk away from. And by those he has walked away from that cause him remorse."


Finding Fair Hope said...

Arthur Miller was a complex and probably a very difficult man. It is sad to realize that he couldn't find a place in his heart for this child who has thrived in spite of that fact. I'm sorry to read this about him -- I have always been an admirer and really respected his work and somehow wished him a better life.

As far as his inability to relate to Daniel, his reasons will probably never be understood. He was in my parents' generation, and I would have to say that there was much prejudice in the way they were raised and he probably felt some shame that the syndrome may have been his "fault." The Vanity Fair article suggests that he may have feared competition for his wife's love, or anticipated that having such a brother would compromise the happiness of his beloved Rebecca, when the opposite would probably have been true. In both cases.

That he did not use his fortune to provide better for Daniel is the most difficult part to understand, and his seeming rejection of the "mongoloid" is painful to think about. However, Daniel's goodness transcends his father's mistake. That is what we must take from this tale. And I must not lose all the regard I once had for Arthur Miller the writer and thinker...his mind was always better developed than his heart.

Mark said...

Sorry, Arthur Miller's behavior was unconscionable. His son must have suffered greatly in the substandard place to which his father consigned him. The fact that he has 'transcended' his father's failures does not change the facts. I am so happy for Daniel's eventual happiness. I personally cannot laud someone's worldly accomplishments when placed alongside such prideful lack of humanity.