How much of this have we put to bed?

By Amanda Marcotte
Saturday, August 9, 2008 16:23 EDT
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I have to recommend this recent episode of “This American Life” about two women who were switched in the hospital when they were born in 1951, and didn’t find out until 1994. I tuned in, figuring it would be interesting to hear about the fallout from such a revelation, but what I wasn’t expecting was how this story would shift over from a “Whoda thunk it?”-type story to a fable about the lunacy of sexism and male domination. Because one of the mothers knew what had happened from the day she got home from the hospital, but didn’t tell. Knowing that all this heartache (and really, it’s distressing how much this upended the switched babies lives as adult women) could have been avoided if she’d just spoken up in 1951, the central mystery of the tale is why Mary Miller, the mother who knew, didn’t speak up.

The truth is uncomfortable, and really I think if it wasn’t so bald and if Mary Miller hadn’t been so insistent on it, the producers maybe would have downplayed it more, because the truth really has the potential to unnerve not only the participants in the program, but pretty much everyone who has female family members, especially older ones, that have to tip-toe their way through life, employing passive aggression and subterfuge, all to avoid the anger of men who don’t like women speaking up about pretty much anything. The two families in this story are very different. The family that had no knowledge, the McDonalds, come across as a mainstream Midwestern 50s family—church-going, but not religious, interested in athletics and school spirit, mildly indulgent to children without spoiling them. The Millers come across much worse—evangelical Christians with a whole passel of children they make sleep in one bed and who they discipline with the strap. It’s unfortunate that the mother who figured it out belonged to the Miller family, because when she said something about it, her husband immediately dismissed her (probably in no small part out of habit), and she didn’t have any recourse because she couldn’t confront him on it. So, she hid it until he mellowed on the subject and admitted she was right, 43 years later.

You really get to see all the female coping mechanisms in their fully glory in this story, in no small part because the situation is so bizarre. Unable to stand up for what she knows is true because her husband dismissed it, Mary Miller goes commando with the passive aggressive tactics, and it’s hard to blame her because she’s seeing her daughter raised by neighbors (the town this happened in is tiny) and she can’t do anything about it. She drops hints and makes jokes to the McDonalds. She sends her biological daughter cards with weird language about how she and the daughter she’s raising are “sisters”. She apparently drops so many hints that everyone in her church knows about it, but of course, they don’t think it’s their place to do anything about it, and end up joining a semi-conspiracy of silence against the McDonald family.

Mary Miller’s explanation for her passivity on this is heart-breaking. She was sick, and thought she was going to die after the childbirth, but I don’t think that did much but delay the opportunity to reveal the mix-up for a few weeks, maybe months. More to the point, when she brought it up to her husband, he immediately decided that it had to stay a secret because revealing it would embarrass the doctor. As Mary puts it, that was that, because she simply couldn’t afford to resist her husband or cross him in any way. She had 6 children at that point, and was dependent on him. She doesn’t try to pretty up the circumstances—she was stuck with him, and therefore for her own sanity and joy in life, she had to keep it friendly between them. Which meant, apparently, total capitulation to anything he said, even on a subject as important as this.

I started the show thinking it would be an examination of how we know who we are, but at the end it raised an entirely different set of questions. All I could wonder was the extent that our society has eradicated this problem. Are there still a lot of women out there languishing in marriages so male dominated that they can’t even trouble their husbands with major problems like babies being switched at the hospital? Even the fundies who preach about wifely submission try to make exceptions for when it’s really important, but of course, the person who determines if it’s important would probably be the husband, leaving a woman in such a marriage without much recourse.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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