Fate lay heaviest on her after a mid-pregnancy test revealed her child's Down syndrome. At the Harvard bookstore she picked up a 1950s-vintage text about the mentally retarded. It had a section about Down syndrome children and "gave absolutely false information about the inability of such children to control their bodily functions, and their antisocial inclinations." Further, it listed their IQ as about 35, which it proceeded to compare with a chimpanzee (50) and an oak tree (3)! "It was impossible for me to keep from calculating that this meant my son's IQ would be about 130 points below the average of my oft-tested siblings, and only 32 points higher than the plants in Harvard Yard."
At the time, Beck could only believe all this. She didn't know, for example, that Adam's skills at socialization, like those of other Down syndrome children raised lovingly, would prove superior to most normal persons'. Amid her confusion and torment, she sat through a Sociology of Gender seminar where one class session was about "New Obstetrical Technologies." A young man leaned across the table and declared, "It is the duty of every woman to screen her pregnancies and eliminate fetuses that would be a detriment to society!"
There is no space here to chronicle all Beck's struggles at Harvard, except to say that her emotionally jolting portrayal of pretentious professors and students must have a lot of people squirming in anonymous discomfort. One all-too-typical example will have to suffice. John Beck was once called into the intimidating presence of "Goatstroke," an economics professor who spent much of his time with Nobel Prize winners and heads of state.
"Mr. Beck," he said, lapsing into the formal address he used on undergraduates and other lesser beings, "let me tell you something about myself. When I was an assistant professor, working on my first book and trying to get tenure, my wife my first wife, that is discovered she was pregnant."
"Oh," said John.
"I was quite moved, at the time I mean, it really is quite something to think that a child with your genes has been conceived. But you see, the timing was all wrong. If that baby had been born, it would have interfered with my writing, my research. I decided that she needed an abortion, and I've never regretted it."
"You decided," John croaked.
"What?" said Goatstroke.
John was having one of those epiphanies men sometimes get, where for a brief moment they can see what the world must look like through a woman's eyes. He was thinking about the way I pored over my pregnancy books and felt for the baby's hands against my sides and cried at the picture on the ultrasound screen. He wondered how many other decisions Goatstroke had made for his wives.
"You have got to understand," Goatstroke went on, "that this is not some game we're playing. This is your career, John. You must have your priorities in order."
Slowly and with much struggle the Becks did get their priorities in order. It required, among other things, some peculiar visionary experiences before they could see through to the hollowness of some of their most revered professors. The eventual result was an exhilarating openness to whatever life might bring, even if it meant the sacrifice of their cherished, Harvard-bred goals.
As Martha put it later, when Adam was three years old (actually, the words were given to her uninvited by a weird woman who, out of the blue, accosted her as if with a message from Adam): "He says that you shouldn't be so worried. He says you'll never be hurt as much by being open as you have been hurt by remaining closed."