The child who never grew was Pearl Buck’s daughter, Carol.
The author wrote a poignant memoir of her relationship with her oldest daughter, which hasn’t been translated into Italian yet.
The piece was first published in book format in September 1950, after being published in “The Lady’s Home Journal” in the previous May, at a time when having a mentally retarded family member was often kept as a secret.
Caroline Grace Buck, born in 1920, was the first born and only child of Lossing and Pearl Buck, when they were living in North China
She suffered from phenylketonuria (PKU) a disorder which made her unable to metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine and would later cause her mental retardation. Pearl says that she never knew the cause of her daughter’s deficiency (or at least she didn’t know it at the time of writing): Carol was diagnosed with PKU only in her 30s, after PKU had been discovered by a Norwegian physician and biochemist in the 1950s.
A radical change in diet would have been helpful, but it was too late: Carol was already too old for this to be useful.
The book doesn’t mention the exact age of the girl at the time of writing, only that “in years she is old enough now to have been married and to have children of her own – my grandchildren who will never be”. It doesn’t even mention her name, or the child’s father.
That disease is a rare but potentially serious inherited disorder, which increases the levels of a substance called phenylalanine in the blood. This is an amino acid, toxic to the nervous system, obtained through the diet: it is found in all proteins and in some artificial sweeteners. Therefore, people with PKU need a special diet which must start from birth, in order to limit phenylalanine.
It must be a diet that completely avoids high-protein foods (such as meat, eggs, nuts and dairy products) and controls the intake of many other foods, such as potatoes and cereals, and grains such as bread and pasta, and also aspartame, an artificial sweetener.
Untreated PKU can damage the brain and nervous system, which can lead to learning disabilities, behavioural problems, and neurological problems such as seizures and tremors.
In the book the author says that her child was born healthy and beautiful and she had no idea that anything was wrong. But, when she was three and still unable to talk, it was clear that she was not developing at the normal rate.
Pearl consulted several doctors in China and eventually took her to the United States for further testing and evaluation. The specialists discovered that her mind had stopped growing: she was “severely retarded” but there was nothing that could be done.
Pearl then took her back to China and began to teach Carol to read and write, to distinguish colours and notes, and to sing. Carol eventually learned how to write her own name, sing simple songs, and read very simple sentences.
During this time, Carol was kept concealed from the world. For more than two decades Pearl was evasive about her existence in interviews: the most she would reveal was that she had ‘‘two little daughters. One is away at school and one … is at home with us’’
At the age of nine, Carol was placed in one of the best schools for disabled children in the United States, chosen because of the kindness shown to its residents. And, to be able to pay for it Pearl began to write her masterpiece: The Good Earth.
The Child Who Never Grew, translated into thirteen languages, is the moving account of
her efforts to find a good life for her mentally retarded daughter and how this helped her become a more compassionate person.
“So by this most sorrowful way I was compelled to tread, I learned respect and reverence for every human mind. It was my child who taught me to understand so clearly that all people are equal in their humanity and that all have the same human rights. None is to be considered less, as a human being, than any other, and each must be given his place and his safety in the world…
My child taught me to know, too, that mind is not all of the human creature. Though she cannot speak to me clearly, there are other ways in which she communicates. She has an extraordinary integrity of character. She seems to sense deception and she will not tolerate it. She is a child of great purity. She will not tolerate habits that are filthy and her sense of dignity is complete. No one may take liberties with her person. Neither will she endure cruelty. If a child in her cottage screams, she hurries to see why, and if the child is being struck by another child or if an attendant is too harsh, she cries aloud and goes in search of the housemother. She has known to push away the offending one. She will not endure injustice. An attendant, laughing, said to me on day, ‘We have to treat her fairly or she makes more trouble for us.
What I am trying to say is that there is a whole personality not concerned with the mind, and children mentally deficient often compensate for their lack by other qualities of goodness…”
“Così, in questo modo doloroso, sono stata costretta ad andare avanti, ho imparato il rispetto e la considerazione per ogni mente umana. È stata mia figlia a insegnarmi a capire chiaramente che tutte le persone sono uguali nella loro umanità e hanno gli stessi diritti umani. Nessuno deve essere considerato inferiore, come essere umano, agli altri e ognuno deve avere il suo posto e la sua salvaguardia nel mondo …
Mia figlia mi ha anche insegnato che la mente non è tutto nelle creature umane. Sebbene lei non riesca a parlarmi chiaramente, ci sono altri modi in cui comunica. Ha una straordinaria integrità di carattere. Sembra avvertire l’inganno e non lo tollera. È una bambina di grande purezza. Non tollera le brutte abitudini e il suo senso di dignità è totale. Nessuno può prendersi delle libertà con lei. E non sopporta la crudeltà. Se un bambino nella sua residenza urla, si affretta a capirne il motivo, e se un bambino viene colpito da un altro o se un assistente è troppo duro, piange e va alla ricerca della direttrice. Sa respingere chi provoca. Non tollera l’ingiustizia. Un responsabile mi ha detto ridendo un giorno: “Dobbiamo trattarla in modo giusto altrimenti ci crea problemi”.
Quello che sto cercando di dire è che esiste un’intera personalità che non riguarda il cervello e che i bambini mentalmente carenti spesso compensano questa mancanza con altre buone qualità …”