Sally Rosenthal frequently reviews books related to disability.
By Sally Rosenthal
The Question Of David: A Disabled Mother's Journey Through Adoption, Family, and Life by Denise Sherer Jacobson. Berkeley: Creative Arts Book Company, 1999. Softcover, 213 pages, $14.95.
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I am, by nature, a cautious person. I save my pennies for a rainy day, and, before I became blind, I always looked both ways before crossing even quiet country lanes. Hyperbole (except when discussing my four cats) is not my style. So, what I am about to say about The Question Of David: A Disabled Mother's Journey Through Adoption, Family, and Life takes me by surprise: If you buy only one book about disability this year, make it this one, because it's hard to imagine how any other book could top Denise Sherer Jacobson's account of how she and her husband Neil (both of whom have cerebral palsy) became adoptive parents twelve years ago.
You think a book about adoption and parenthood isn't exactly the book you've been waiting for? Think again. It would be very tempting to compare The Question Of David to a previous bestselling account of first-time motherhood, Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott. Lamott, a gifted nondisabled writer, draws readers into her work so thoroughly that even nonparents like myself raced through that book. But it would be a mistake to pigeonhole The Question Of David.
Sherer Jacobson has written a book that should make the disability community proud, but her personal account of motherhood should not be limited to disabled readers. This is a book that should be universally read for two reasons: The Question Of David can help change the nondisabled world's perceptions of those of us with disabilities. And it's simply a wonderfully written memoir.
Although it focuses on the adoption and early childhood of David, Sherer Jacobson's book is really rooted in the couple's own past. Interwoven with the adoption and parenting story are strands of the couple's lives as what society calls "severely disabled" people. Sherer Jacobson recounts struggles she and Neil had and still have with their families and the nondisabled world. But her examination is more than just a first-person retelling. She is able, with hindsight and clarity, to name the various pieces correctly and place them, whether they be family issues, discrimination, or the frustrations of everyday life, into their correct context within the story. This ability is what makes The Question Of David such a good and vital book: disability is at its core, but it manages to frame the theme into one that will reach both disabled and nondisabled readers.
Yet it's important to keep in mind that, without the emphasis on disability and its impact on the author and her husband, this book would not have been written. There would have been no such story in a nondisabled couple's adoption saga. Even an adoption in which one parent were disabled might not be so novel as to justify a book.
As Sherer Jacobson points out, she and Neil were an "unlikely" couple to be considered as adoptive parents of an infant -- especially when that infant showed signs of cerebral palsy himself (which, as it turns out, he did not have).
The possibility of David's being disabled adds another dimension to this multilayered story. Given up for adoption by a young single mother and then rejected because of the disability issue by a set of prospective nondisabled parents, David came to the Jacobsons through a network of disabled and ablebodied people who believed he was meant for the author and her husband. Although they had already considered adopting a child, Sherer Jacobson was unsure about adopting David. She doesn't gloss over the mixed emotions she had about adopting a disabled child, their own doubts about their ability to care for him, or her worries about his reactions to disabled parents as he grew up. Most of those fears melted, however, just as her heart did, the first time she saw David.
Those concerns that remained form the grist for this book as the author and her husband embark on uncharted waters as first-time parents. Sherer Jacobson's fears of inadequacies mingle with her triumphs in finding ways to cope with the demands any new mother faces as well as devising ways to parent with as much independence as possible. While her ongoing struggles with finding adequate home help and childrearing support are insightfully presented, it is her face-to-face encounters with the medical profession and social agencies on behalf of David that are especially riveting. As she learns to deal effectively with systems that still haunt her from her childhood and still attempt to diminish her individuality and self-worth as an adult, Sherer Jacobson, for David's sake, faces down those ghosts and gains more ground than she loses in the battle.
Like the best of other disabled women memoirists, Sherer Jacobson mixes personal issues with political ones to give credence and substance to her work. Her delvings into her own experiences as a disabled child and woman and her relationship with Neil as husband and co-parent only serve to make an already human book more human. Reminiscent of the works of Nancy Mairs and of Ragged Edge fiction editor Anne Finger's account of disabled motherhood Past Due, The Question Of David offers readers a glimpse of another's life.
I find myself wanting to sit down with Sherer Jacobson over a cup of coffee and share our disabled women's experiences. Now that David is twelve, I want to know more than the first six years that are covered in this book. I want to know what it's like for the couple now as they raise a nondisabled preteen; I want to learn what kind of impact going public will have on all of their lives. I want a sequel to this remarkable book. Nondisabled readers, too, I suspect, would want to have the chance to know more about Sherer Jacobson , her family, and their experiences. That bridging of two worlds and experiences is, ultimately, the real worth and value of The Question Of David.
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