There are dozens of memoirs about raising children with Down syndrome, hundreds of blogs, a galaxy of status updates. But in the beginning was Angel Unaware.
Angel Unaware was written by Dale Evans and published in 1953. Evans, an actor, celebrity, and writer, was married to Roy Rogers, with whom she starred in movies and TV shows. Robin, their daughter, was born in 1950 and died at the age of two, with an unrepaired heart defect, from mumps encephalitis.
Angel Unaware is a vision of care in another time. Written before the advent of prenatal diagnosis and the disability rights movement, Evans faces enduring questions in a lost context: How is this person to be imagined? What is her place in the world? What does it mean to care for her? And why tell her story?
To a secular reader in 2015, Angel Unaware is a spectacularly weird book. It is written in the first person, with Robin as narrator. As Evans explains in the Foreword, “This is Robin’s story. This is what I, her mother, believe she told our Heavenly Father shortly after eight p.m. on August 24, 1952.” The book asserts that Robin was “a tiny messenger,” sent by God “on a two-year mission to our household.” Evans, then, becomes a New Journalist of heaven, offering an imaginative reconstruction of a divine interaction. Angel Unaware was intended (and received) as an inspirational memoir, but from a genre point of view, the book is a hybrid of science fiction, Westerns, sermon, and reporting from the Beyond.
Angel Unaware tries to depict a stable world: one in which God has a plan, suffering has a purpose, Heaven is for real, and the meaning of experience is clear. But reality keeps breaking through, and so, in practice, the narrative projects ambivalence, uncertainty, and unresolved contradiction. The book’s central conceit, for example, treats heaven as fact, time- and date-stamping Robin’s words from the eternal. And yet when Evans writes, “This is what I, her mother, believe she told our Heavenly Father,” the word “believe” wavers between reportage and invention. It implies knowledge of a literal heaven, while highlighting the mother’s inability to know for sure.
Evans’ device also offers an early example of a parent resisting a purely medical narrative. By giving the exact time and date of Robin’s words, the sentence transforms the monotone of medical record (“the patient died shortly after eight p.m….”) into a transcendent rebirth. Death is a new beginning, a deeply Christian idea that is mirrored by the book’s form: Robin’s death occurs in the Foreword, prefiguring her rebirth as text, as a message and a voice.
The book’s approach also implies a deep ambivalence about Robin herself: Evans can only assert her daughter’s value by erasing her, can only write her by overwriting her. Angel Robin, in Dale’s telling, is idealized: sweet, thoughtful, childlike, intelligent, wise. She is naïve about history: “I wondered what Mongoloid meant. They seemed to think it was something awful.” She is Christlike, a child that redeems, a divine human on an earthly mission. And yet Actual Robin and Angel Robin coexist side by side, unreconciled. They are juxtaposed in the title—“angel” describes the heavenly Robin, “unaware” the earthly one—and the juxtaposition is even clearer in Angel Robin’s memories of language and development: “I had eight big teeth and I could chew crackers, which I called ‘cack-cack.’” A nurse is named only by Robin-as-Human-Baby: “Cau-Cau.” Her inability to speak is couched in fluent sentences; disability is nested in ability.
Though Dale was clearly devoted to her child, the book manifests a curious lack of connection between mother and daughter. Evans portrays her daughter as distant: the narrative suggests care, more than love. Robin is an agent of good, and her truest bond is with her handler, her Heavenly Father, the unseen Charlie to her angel. Robin addresses Him with a conspiratorial “we,” referring to the desolation below either with serene distance or a chirpy optimism. And yet the book bridges the very distance it creates: the narrative voice constructs a deep togetherness, a communion where mother and child exist, throughout, in a single line. That communion reads as both wishful and elegiac.
In this way, too, the tidiness of the book’s universe is betrayed by the narrative. The book portrays a loving, traditional family (if a celebrity one, with performing commitments), its existence overseen by an omniscient deity. But throughout the book, identities multiply and blur, and lives are filtered through personae. Robin is speaking, but so is Dale, who is always present (as the author), and also present, in flashes, as a character. The voice of Robin often sounds like a folksy, optimistic character from a stock Western, as if Dale’s movie personae had been absorbed into her autobiographical voice. (Referring to “her” difficulties with speech, Robin says, in her Blessed Infant Cowboy Talk, “My balky old tongue wouldn’t behave.”) Robin, an angelic fiction, is composed of other fictions.
It may be that the fiction of an invented daughter allowed Evans to reveal herself more fully. Through Robin’s voice, we see confessional glimpses of the author, who is by turns desperate, possessive, guilty. Because of modesty, Western stoicism, or the absence of a tell-all tradition of memoir, we don’t see much, but what we do see is moving. For Evans, “care” means not only the work of raising a child through medical crises and developmental delays, but also “worry.” Robin is on Earth to teach lessons, but also to test her parents; despite the optimistic worldview, it is clear that the test was severe. (In the Foreword, Evans refers to Down syndrome as “an appalling handicap.”) Angel Unaware is an introspective book by someone who does not especially believe in introspection, and as a result it feels more exposed than most. The writing has the chatty tone of a precocious toddler, but it pours out with the force of a sob.
At the same time, Evans’ strategy of fictionalizing her life, of filtering it through characters, is itself revealing. If Angel Unaware treats identity as blurry, manipulable, if it invents Robin in order to represent her—and Dale herself—that strategy is perfectly consonant with Dale’s life, which had been a series of reinventions. “Dale Evans” was a chosen stage name—her third, after “Frances Fox” and “Marian Lee.” Roy Rogers (also a stage name) was Dale’s fourth husband. She had eloped at 14 and given birth to a son at 15, who was raised, in part, by her parents, while she pursued a movie career. (For a time, she was represented by 20th Century Fox as her teenage son’s older sister.) With Roy, her main business was the manufacture and display of personae. As her biographer notes, she and Roy starred in movies and TV shows, all of which featured tidy narratives of good and evil set in a mythical West. (Dale also wrote the song “Happy Trails,” which has sounded more melancholy to me ever since I read Angel Unaware.)
These strands—family, religion, performance, disability, identity—are woven together in a pivotal scene near the book’s end, one which distills the book’s contradictions. In it, Roy Rogers is singing “Peace in the Valley” to an audience in Houston. It is shortly after Robin’s christening. Robin was not present for the performance, but she gives voice to Evans’ memory: that is, Dale imagines Robin-in-Heaven imagining Roy’s performance and commenting on the lyrics, addressing her Heavenly Father about her earthly Daddy:
There’ll be peace in the Valley for me,
. . . peace in the Valley for me.
I wonder if Daddy is thinking of his peace, or mine, when he sings that?
There’s no sadness, no sorrow, no trouble I see!
There’ll be peace in the Valley for me!
No sadness, no sorrow! No crippled children, Father!
There the bear will be gentle and the wolf will be tame
And the lion will lie down with the lamb;
There the host from the wild will be led by a child . . .
A child like me, Father?
And I’ll be changed from this creature that I am.
Given Robin’s story, the long history of comparing people with intellectual disabilities to animals, and the lyrics about bears, wolves, lions, and lambs, the phrase this creature that I am has a complex resonance. In the case of Robin, who is limited to syllables (“cack-cack,” “Cau-Cau,” and so on), the divide between the earthly and heavenly selves is widened. Robin’s human sounds are the syllables of a “creature”; her narrative voice belongs to an angel. In the terms of an older framework, she has ascended the Great Chain of Being. In contemporary terms, she has been enhanced. She has wings; her intellect has been upgraded; she has the power of speech.
Here, too, the view of Robin is deeply conflicted. She is, on the one hand, a symbol of ultimate peace: “a child like me” is associated with an Edenic state. At the same time, she is made to voice the sentiment that children like her would be better off not existing: “No more crippled children, Father!” Further, she is valued only by being transformed: “I’ll be changed from this creature that I am.” In other words, Robin is only valuable if she is either improved or erased. Both alternatives suggest that the child is unacceptable as she is.
To say so is not to indict Dale Evans or Angel Unaware, which also speaks strongly and disapprovingly of a doctor who suggests that children like Robin should be “machine-gunned.” Angel Unaware, in its flawed way, attempts to speak for Robin’s value, but it is also a book of its time.
Sixty years later, we are still contending with narratives of improvement and erasure, but changes in technology and culture have complicated the questions Dale Evans faced. The availability and routinization of prenatal screening, and the cultural and legal gains associated with the disability rights movement, have not so much erased the ambivalence in Angel Unaware as amplified it.
Now, in the Information Age, we are in the midst of another sea change. In part because of an exponential increase in computing power, genetic facts can be represented, analyzed, and stored in digital form. This capability has given rise to a host of developments, notably the new prenatal screening tests based on proprietary algorithms; new gene-editing techniques, combined with the ability to “read” the entirety of a human genome, raise the possibility of “editing” that genome in fine-grained and inheritable ways. The ethics of enhancement have been hotly debated for years, but new tools make the prospect possible. There are, in other words, more routes to improvement and erasure than there used to be.
The same explosion in computing power enables, and embodies, our conversations about these developments. Online ads for prenatal tests, agonized discussions on BabyCenter, blogs, tweets, status updates: our words, like our genes, are embedded in the cloud. 1s and 0s have become a common language, bridging our genes, our tests, and the way we talk about it all. At the same time, those most (literally) invested in the new technologies’ possibilities have often demonstrated indifference, even contempt, for disability, seeing it as a solvable problem—and, in some cases, seeing “normal” humans as something to improve upon.
So the questions Dale faced—about Robin’s value, her place in the world—are still with us, but new technologies make those questions more urgent and complex. Ironically, Dale’s way of seeing her child may be helpful here. Absent a genetic explanation, Dale joins Robin to other children who are “handicapped,” no matter the cause. If her work is, as literature, accidentally experimental, her politics are accidentally radical. By taking a child usually considered subhuman, and reframing her as superhuman, she made her more valuable than other children. She inverted the system of value by which “Mongoloids” were despised.
Like today’s parents, Evans faced a disruptive event that set her at odds with the dominant perception of disability; like today’s parents, Evans felt compelled to respond with imagination, to craft a moral narrative. That narrative is deeply flawed: by erasing and upgrading its subject, by transforming the real child into an angel, it embodies the very ideas it tries to resist. And yet, in an age of increasing prediction and control, it is worth remembering that Evans, above all, spoke up.
The contemporary accounts I value most are unambivalent about a child’s value: they are stories about citizens, not angels. But a story with an angel in it is better than no story at all.
George Estreich’s memoir about raising a daughter with Down syndrome, The Shape of the Eye: A Memoir, won the 2012 Oregon Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. His prose has been published in The Oregonian, Salon, and The New York Times. He lives in Oregon with his family.