Friday, October 9, 2009

My Sister's Keeper: A plot that could only happen in America?

This week I started reading My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult.  I had previously heard of Jodi Picoult's novels because many of my students are fans of her books, but this is the first book I've read of hers.  I chose this particular one to start reading because the movie (also called My Sister's Keeper) based on the book came out during the summer (I'm waiting until it hits Netflix to see it), and I have a compulsion to read books before seeing the movies based on them.  Luckily for me, my sister had given me the book for Christmas last year, so I didn't have to go far to get the book.

For anyone unfamiliar with the plot, a couple's young daughter is diagnosed with leukemia, and no one in their family is a perfect match for the daughter to be able to give her blood, platelets, marrow, organs, or anything else she might need to fight the leukemia.  The doctor working on the case tells the parents that using any non-related donor increases the risk of something going wrong with transfusions or transplants.  So what does the couple do?  They go to other doctors to genetically engineer an embryo that will be a perfect match for their sick daughter.  Once the other daughter is born, her predetermined job is to play the role as her sister's lifelong donor.  That's the backdrop to the story, which has its own twists and turns once you get into the plot; however, for my purposes in this blog, if what I've written here is all you know about the book, it will be enough.

As I am reading the book, one question keeps running through my head: "Could this only happen in America?"  Our culture has such a hard time saying goodbye to someone when it's necessary that we have become a culture that mourns the death of household pets (Hallmark even makes sympathy cards now for the loss of a pet) and that is afraid to use the word die in most polite situations, preferring instead the euphemistic pass on (as in He passed on last year).  It is not difficult to imagine, then, American parents who are so afraid to let go of one daughter that they genetically engineer another daughter to save her, without wondering if their next daughter would ever have a chance at life.  In the book, almost every time the daughter with leukemia gets sick and is hospitalized, the donor daughter has to be hospitalized, too, so that she can provide whatever it is her sister's body requires to go back into remission.  Would this be a plausible plot in other cultures?  Or is it just America that tries its hardest to not deal with death?

Not only do we, as Americans, have a hard time dealing with death, we also have a hard time dealing with disease in general.  The following passage was taken from page 131 of My Sister's Keeper:

There was this kid in my school, Jimmy Stredboe, who used to be a total loser.  He got zits on top of his zits; he had a pet rat named Orphan Annie; and once in science class he puked into the fish tank.  No one ever talked to him, in case dorkhood was contagious.  But then one summer he was diagnosed with MS.  After that, no one was mean to Jimmy anymore.  If you passed him in the hall, you smiled.  If he sat next to you at the lunch table, you nodded hello.  It was as if being a walking tragedy canceled out ever having been a geek.

From the moment I was born, I have been the girl with the sick sister.  All my life bank tellers have given me extra lollipops; principals have known me by name.  No one is ever outright mean to me.

It makes me wonder how I'd be treated if I were like everyone else.

The community doesn't know how to react to the family because one of their five members was diagnosed with a fatal disease.  In fact, the family members often don't know how to act around each other (not knowing what they can say or what they should do).  The parents especially have a hard time relating to their non-sick kids with most of their energy focused on keeping their daughter with leukemia in remission.  The "emotionally absent parents" syndrome is reminiscent of a recent post on Angieville that focused on prevalent bad parenting in young adult novels (though Jodi Picoult's book is not classified as YA, it focuses on telling the story of the 13-year-old donor daughter).  Is the inability to deal with disease unique to the American culture?  Or do people from other cultures also completely shut down and forget how to be an interactive human once someone who has a disease crosses their path?

In the mid-1990s, a movie called The Cure explored the relationship between a young boy who has AIDS and his best friend (who is also his neighbor).  When the young boy with AIDS and his mother move into a new community, the community responds by avoiding both of them.  The only one who treats them as normal humans is their neighbor's son.  Everyone else avoids them not because they get to know them and don't like them, but because they don't know how to act around them and they don't know what to say.  Instead of trying, they run in a different direction.  Are we afraid of facing the disease or of facing our own inadequacies in difficult situations?  Or maybe it is simply because they are different, and Americans tend to prefer the status quo.

My question remains: Are all cultures like ours?  It is an unwritten rule that we can't speak ill of the dead or the dying, so some exalt them while others avoid them altogether, whether it's motivated by pity or fear.  Is it an American curse or humanity's curse?

"Happy reading" seems like an inappropriate sign-off after this post, and yet I still wish you all happy reading, even if what you're reading is anything but "happy."

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