Parents Discussing Children Who Got Off the Beaten Path

Mother, I Have Something to Tell You by Jo Brans; research by Margaret Taylor Smith (Doubleday: $17.95).

Every mother dreams that her children, in that lovely phrase from the Psalms, will "follow in the path of righteousness." It's nice too if they become those proverbial doctors and lawyers.

Such dreams and expectations, however, were shattered when children described in "Mother, I Have Something To Tell You" announced they had become drug merchants or been in prison for committing major felonies, taken a homosexual lover, joined a cult or entered into an interracial marriage. Some became anorexic; one turned to suicide.

In this intelligent, always-absorbing work, Margaret Taylor Smith, whose rich anecdotal research is on file at the Murray Research Center at Radcliffe, and Jo Brans, a prize-winning writer, probe what went wrong within these families. They've chosen white middle-class women, who put all their emotional eggs into the basket of child-rearing, insisting on the firm tradition of disciplined homes, with rules, curfews, chores, and manners.

Additionally, the authors identify stages in the coping process, from a mother's initial shock at "aberrant behavior" to the final realization that her child would "always be part of her life, but never all of it."

Though Brans and Smith trace the main currents of unrest of the past two decades--Vietnam, drugs, radical politics, and the fact that many fathers were remote or absent during key times--they gloss over an important point. Some mothers disdained the ordinary lives and "materialism" of neighbors; many seemed to harbor a sense of elitism, feeling their child was special or unique.

Indeed, the most dramatic case details the transsexual crossover of a Jewish girl, whose mother, Elizabeth, experiencing a kind of strange annunciation, knew she would one day bear a "special child." Her daughter Judy, at 13 demanded a bar rather than a bat mitzvah and began to take measures to liberate the male within. Today, this mother, taking a chin-up stance, accepts her "son" Nathan by following the observation made by Simone de Beauvoir, quoted in this compassionate book: "Nothing is rarer than the mother who sincerely respects the human person in her child."

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