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A Viper in Their Bosom
, May 20, 2008
Margaret Mustard and I were close friends, and for a time, next door neighbors, though we somewhat lost touch with each other a few years before her death. One of the interests Margaret and I had in common, in addition to classes we attended together at the local college, was religion. She was a strong advocate of the Church of Christ, while I was a member of the Congregational Church. We fairly often discussed the differences in the traditions, beliefs and practices of our respective denominations, so I had first hand knowledge of her strong convictions and her devotion to her church.
Reading the book written by the Vietnamese child Sam and Margaret adopted is a painful experience for me. I cannot imagine Margaret using the language ascribed to her by the author, nor can I see her as insincere in her religious convictions. Of course, it is human to fail to live up to our ideals, and we are most likely to do so in the heart of our family. The situation Hien describes of Sam's having been perhaps infatuated with Thanh, and then pressuring Margaret to adopt the child would not bring out the best in any woman, especially when she is approaching sixty. She may have imagined Sam giving to Thanh all the generosity and affection he withheld from her because of his passive personality. If Margaret became a virago under the circumstances, it hardly becomes Hien to advertise it to the world.
Knowing Sam and Margaret as well as my husband and I did, I feel certain that neither of them had ever had any plans to adopt a daughter. I believe they were motivated by their wish to give the child the advantages they were able to provide, and having been put in the position of caring for her for ten months, were loath to return her to the haphazard, deprived existence she had endured living with her mother.
Thanh's daughter, Jenna, in the chapter she contributed to the book, provides a glimpse of the reality that Hien is still denying at the age of fifty. On page 263, she writes, "Although it was in THAN'S best interest to send her daughter to America with the Mustards to live a better life, she did not know just how abandoned her little Hien would feel in a strange new world." When Hien writes her first letter to her mother at Sam's suggestion, her mother takes a month to get around to writing back.
It sometimes happens that a child will fantasize that he has somehow been taken away from his "real" parents, who he believes are much more prestigious than the people who are raising him. Thus he imagines himself to be of royal blood or the secret heir to a fortune. I see this as akin to having an imaginary playmate, which serves the purpose of giving the child a more interesting, more significant and perhaps less lonely, existence..
In Hien's case, she has a ready-made real parent, who truly seems to have been quite beautiful, and who she can fantasize to be an always loving, generous, and affectionate mother. It is certainly understandable that she might use this device to tide her over the adjustment to the many changes that took place in her young life, not only from the time of her near-fatal illness to her arrival in the Mustard home in America, but even before that.
For her to maintain such unrealistic thinking as an adult, and to add the defamation of the Mustards, especially Margaret, is not justifiable. It is axiomatic that parents who expect gratitude from their children are bound to be disappointed, but most children come to realize as adults the debt they owe their parents or those who raised them. As Hien describes Sam taking her to the Embassy hospital, thereby saving her life, it is incredible that now, as an adult, she fails to mention or express any gratitude for the immensity of his service to her.
When she describes her return to Vietnam, and the squalor she would have endured had she not been rescued by the Mustards, there is not one sentence contrasting the comfort, advantages and security of the life she was given by them, nor even a few words giving them credit, let alone appreciation.
Hien criticizes Sam for not fulfilling his promise to give her a college education, as if her lack of appreciation for her advantages would have no bearing on what he should be expected to do for her.
Teaching all day is tiring, and Margaret did not enjoy teaching as much as she had hoped she would. It is not surprising that she did not feel like cooking a meal when she came home at night as she neared retirement age. It is meanspirited of Hien to pile that complaint on to all the rest.
The reader has to wonder why Hien wrote the book, and why she presented such a narrow, cruel picture of Margaret. Was she attempting to write a book that would get the publicity of Mommy Dearest? Does she believe the book will sell better if it tells of a scandalous situation? Is she hoping to ingratiate herself with her mother by her overblown descriptions of Thanh and by her denigration of the Mustards? Does she hope the family of children who were not given away will take her more unreservedly into their heart?
I thought of sending this to the publisher, but I suspect Hien published the book herself, and JKD Enterprises reflects the initials of her children; Jenna, Kevin and Denny. It is encouraging that no publisher accepted the manuscript for publication, if that is the case.
One of the last times we saw Sam and Margaret may have been about 1970, when I asked about "Mary". I was interested, and curious about the adoption, which I saw as a dramatic development in their lives. Margaret said only that Mary had turned against them. She obviously didn't want to talk about it.