George Estreich’s new book, The Shape of the Eye: Down Syndrome, Family, and the Stories We Inherit (Southern Methodist University Press, 2011), is both a memoir of family life with his youngest daughter, Laura, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome as a newborn, and a reflection on stories passed down from one generation to the next.
Estreich has previously published two books of poetry, Textbook Illustrations of the Human Body and the chapbook Elegy for Dan Rabinowitz. He lives in Corvallis, Oregon, with his wife, Theresa, a teacher and researcher in the College of Pharmacy at Oregon State University, and their daughters Ellie, now 16, and Laura, 11.
The Shape of the Eye won the 2012 Oregon Book Award for creative nonfiction.
Author Lewis Buzbee spoke with George Estreich about Down syndrome, being a stay-at-home dad, and finding a space to write.
Lewis Buzbee: What do you most hope readers will take away from The Shape of the Eye?
George Estreich: I wanted to get across what my daughter, Laura, is like, and what life is like in our family. At the same time, I wanted to address some common misconceptions about Down syndrome, and to find out where they come from. My hope was that by setting a single child’s story against a generic story of misconception, I might, in a tiny way, contribute to an evolving common sense about Down syndrome.
The problem isn’t just that there are negative or stereotyped views of people with Down syndrome, though those exist. The problem is that people with Down syndrome are believed to be basically alike. In fact, they vary enormously, both in temperament and ability, and their families vary too.
My hope was that the book’s narrative would embody this belief, and that readers might perceive the ways in which raising Laura is similar to raising a typically developing child.
LB: It occurred to me while reading the book that although Laura has Down syndrome her birth into your family was, in many ways, simply adding another child.
GE: I’m really glad to hear that you felt that way. In fact, adding Laura was simply adding another child. We had to alter our ideas about what that meant, learn the expectations we held without realizing, and alter our expectations to fit the child we actually had. But that’s pretty much what one does anyway.
Our goals for Ellie and Laura are the same. We want them to be happy. We want them to learn, given their particular talents and abilities, and to find a way to belong in the world.
LB: How has being a stay-at-home dad helped or hindered your understanding of your new family?
GE: Not to quarrel with the question, but being an at-home dad (or whatever we call it) is the journey for me, and is part of the structure of my family, so it’s hard to separate my role from my family’s story.
The decision to stay at home was both simple and complex. In one way, it was just an economic decision about who had the earning power. In another, it was complex and personal, and included, among other things, the realization that if I taught freshman comp until retirement age, I would probably go insane. At the moment, though, I’m teaching a literature course at Oregon State University, so things are a little busier.
Staying home with my daughters has been a gift. Now that college is in sight for my older daughter, Ellie, it’s even more obvious to me just how great that gift has been.
LB: Are there downsides to being a stay-at-home dad?
GE: Nothing beyond the ordinary difficulties of raising kids, which were more than balanced out by the time I’ve had. If I were the kind of person to have a long series of goals and milestones (as in, “I want to have tenure by the age of 30”), then I suppose it would be different because then I’d feel like I was missing out or falling behind. But I’ve been able to find ways to write, particularly since both girls have been in school, so it’s been okay.
In The Shape of the Eye, I take time to describe the process of writing the book. I do this, in part, because writing is about finding and focusing on something that is only yours within the larger context of a family. Writing may be a public act, but it’s a purely solitary process and it does involve standing apart.
LB: What’s the best thing — not necessarily related to your kids — about being a stay-at-home parent?
GE: The best thing is the worst thing: It’s all you, your time and your day. So you have the freedom to do something worthwhile, at least in your free time, but you have to find ways to make the time count.
LB: What was the most difficult aspect of writing this book?
GE: On a formal level, the greatest challenge was integrating narrative and non-narrative elements in a seamless and natural way. How, for example, do you combine the history of a Victorian asylum with a personal story? The answer is complicated, but involved discarding finished material that, while interesting (at least to me), interrupted the narrative. Whatever else the book may be, it is primarily a story of family.
But there were other challenges too, mainly to do with the personal nature of the book. Even close friends have expressed surprise at what they learned about me from my book, but I suppose that is the odd situation of the memoirist: you don’t tell anyone until you tell everyone.
What I wrote about, particularly with regard to my conflicted feelings around Laura’s birth, is deeply personal, and as odd as it may seem, I’m a fairly private person. So there was some conflict there.
There were also the ethical challenges of writing nonfiction. Since many of the non-narrative parts of my book are about the damage stories can do, I was keenly aware of the potential to do damage with my own story. I tried to be as tactful as I could without compromising the story.
LB: In the book you don’t fall into the “woe is me,” or “admire my strength” that pervades many memoirs. Is this simply a matter of your own character?
GE: The book’s voice begins with who I am — by definition, it has to — but it’s also something deliberately shaped. It’s not that I haven’t felt self-pity, or a wish to be admired; most of us have. But it’s one thing to feel that way, and another thing to have those feelings dominate the form of a book.
The thing is, our situation isn’t bad, not even a little bit. At the beginning it all felt like calamity, but it wasn’t. Realizing that it wasn’t, and communicating that realization in a non-sentimental way, is a big part of the book.
LB: Laura’s arrival took you away from your poetry. Have you gone back to it? What are you working on now?
GE: I haven’t gone back to poetry, though I do think that poetry was less abandoned than dissolved into the way I write prose. Whether I’ll stick with prose exclusively or not, I don’t know.
Right now, I’m writing about a year I spent with my family in Australia. They’re short essays. I’m interested in the moments that seemed to define the odd, in-between position we were in: neither travelers nor citizens, but temporary residents.
LB: What surprised you most about that trip?
GE: The intense consciousness of being an American. You realize that your country’s borders and airspace are somehow part of your daily vision. To be outside that, and yet still able to understand the spoken language, is more than a little disorienting.
More specifically, it was odd to leave the Northwest. It sometimes seems hard to travel in Oregon without running into someone we know. In contrast, in Melbourne — a city of nearly four million people — there were no familiar faces. That changed slightly over the year, but not much. Given that “home” means familiar people, it was a challenge, at first, to think of Australia as home.
It got easier as time went on. Both of our daughters were troopers. It’s not easy to leave your friends, school, and hometown for a year, but they did really well with it.
LB: You include much about your larger family in The Shape of the Eye, especially material about your mother and your father. How do you see it as adding to the book?
GE: If there’s a governing idea for the book, it’s inheritance: not only the literal inheritance of genes, but also the stories and ideas we inherit, whether or not we realize it. I wrote about this in my poems, but Laura’s arrival complicated the equation — not only because for many, genetic anomalies are seen as complicating or even breaking the link of inheritance, but also because of the historical connection between Asian identity and Down syndrome, as in the term “Mongolian idiocy.” Since my mom is Japanese, that Victorian misnaming was significant for me.
Delving into the history of Down syndrome, and writing about my own family history, seemed deeply connected. I’m interested in the ways in which we, as parents, revise our inheritance: the way we take our parents’ lessons and either discard or embrace or alter them.
LB: You and your mother had a difficult relationship. Did writing the book change any of this?
GE: My publisher sent a copy of the manuscript to my mom, and I got a wonderful letter from her about it. She is really happy about the book, as she was about my book of poems, and tells people to buy it. So my fears (written about in the book) that The Shape of the Eye would make things worse have not come to pass. A good lesson in itself.
LB: What are Ellie and Laura up to these days?
GE: Laura is in fifth grade, looking ahead to middle school, taking a dance class, and spending time with friends. Ellie’s a sophomore in high school. Her time not in school, or doing homework, is filled with soccer, piano, and friends. She’ll have her driver’s license soon.
LB: What do Ellie and Laura think about the book?
GE: Ellie and Laura are okay with the book, which is what I hoped for. Laura likes having her picture on the cover, and refers to The Shape of the Eye as “her book” which, in many ways, it is.
LB: All through the book you seem to write when and where you can. Do you now have a writing space?
GE: I’ve always had a desk of some kind, but have never used it very much. More recently, I’ve been working at home, in a room whose other elements (toys, Laura’s desk, Theresa’s desk, and miscellaneous storage) are midway through their fourth and fifth rearrangement. We’ll get it right one day.