This review of Mormon writer Kathryn Lynard Soper’s memoir, The Year My Son and I Were Born: A Story of Down Syndrome, Motherhood, and Self-Discovery, was originally published in the March 2010 issue of Sunstone under the title “Not Your Mother’s Book on Mothering.” The editor decided to run two of my reviews under one title and opted for one that, I felt, did not suit the review of this memoir as well as it did the other review. No complaints. Only an explanation. I revive my original title here because I prefer it. The book is available as a hardcover, paperback or Kindle edition on Amazon.com.
I INHALED KATHRYN LYNARD SOPER’S MEMOIR, The Year My Son and I Were Born. Then, in preparation for this assignment, I sought out previously published reviews and found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with the unanimous praise: The narrative is, indeed, beautifully
conceived and executed; its pulse is both vibrant and frightening; its message, raw and rejuvenating. It is a tale of redemption, of hope, and eventual peace after trial. It is the definition of honesty.
And yes, Soper’s memoir is, on its surface, the story of a picture perfect mother whose frame shatters when God places an “imperfect” infant in her arms. Born brutally premature and with Down Syndrome, her little Thomas quickly becomes our Thomas. We grow to understand and love him because his mother loves him first–and because she has a phenomenal mastery of the craft of writing.
But it unsettles me to think of this book as the tale of how one mother comes to accept and love her disabled son. Certainly it is that story . . . and yet it is also not that story. In fact, every page of Soper’s narrative is a march toward her ultimate declaration that Thomas is not a diagnosis but a human being who is as valuable and as awe-inspiring as any other. The Year My Son and I Were Born never makes a spectacle of disability. It never reduces Thomas to a metaphor, to some symbol of what ails the world; it never exploits his life situation to further staid homilies or platitudes which are, in truth, designed to make it easier for people to avoid the tough questions and the messy details, to keep a safe emotional distance, to tie a bow on the problem and give it away. In this respect, Soper’s text is iconoclastic. And pure. Breathtakingly real, it stands with no ulterior motive other than to rejoice in life.
The Year My Son and I Were Born is about overcoming ourselves, about facing that which in our nature is undesirable, even ugly–our pride and our fear–and about succumbing to the often slow and painful process of humility so that we can evolve from what we think is good into what is truly good. Soper’s circumstances–premature delivery, the NICU existence, the diagnosis of Trisomy 21 for her seventh child, post-partum depression–all these stand this stalwart Mormon mother in front of life’s mirror and demand she take a good, long look at her weakness, her failings, and her sin.
And as she looks, we look, but not at her and not at Thomas. We look into ourselves and experience the trembling that comes from knowing we are as imperfect as she. This is why we cry when we read The Year My Son and I Were Born–not because a sweet new life begins with difficult challenges, but because we feel intensely and personally the shock of Soper’s discovery that no matter how strong, how able, how mature a living force we think we have become, our knees can be cut out from behind by the quietest whisper from heaven.
Soper does not “overcome” or “rise above” her trial; instead she fills it up with a wider love and truer insight until the hollowness and loneliness of that trial fades as echo. This proxy reassurance is, likewise, reason to weep.
I loved this memoir as I have rarely loved a memoir: It will sit on my shelf beside Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and hold its own. All young writers who seek to write effective personal narrative should read and study The Year My Son and I Were Born. When writers can be this honest, when they know themselves this well, when they can stand this naked before the world, then maybe, if they work hard, they can achieve this ideal.