Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Replacement Child

Replacement Child: A Memoir by Judy L. Mandel
Seal Press; March 5, 2013
Trade Paperback; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1580054768

Judy L. Mandel was born into a family crippled by grief. But it would be years before she would discover the shocking circumstances of their loss.
Replacement Child tells the true story of a horrifying accident: A plane crashes into a family’s home, leaving one daughter severely burned and another dead. The death of the child leaves a hole in the family that threatens to tear it apart. In an attempt to fill the painful gap, the parents give birth to a “replacement child.”
In this powerful story of love and lies, family and hope, Judy L. Mandel tells the story of being the child brought into the world to provide “a salve for the burns.” As a child, she unwittingly rides the deep and hidden currents of her family’s grief—until her discovery of this family secret, years later, changes her life forever, forcing her to confront the complex layers of her relationships with her father, mother, and sister.

My Thoughts:

Replacement Child: A Memoir by Judy L. Mandel opens with a newspaper story:
"ELIZABETH, N.J. —Elizabeth’s second aviation holocaust in thirty-seven days today had claimed at least twenty-eight lives . . . The ship plunged into the two houses near the southeast corner of South and Williamson streets at approximately 3:45 pm. Before firemen could subdue the roaring, orange flames that leaped nearly 100 feet into the rainy sky, three dwellings and a garage had been destroyed and a fourth house was damaged severely. Nearly a score of persons were homeless. Killed on the plane were Captain (Thomas J.) Reid and all twenty-two others aboard. Police . . . announced the following list of Elizabeth persons missing and feared dead: DONNA MANDEL, 7 years old, 310 Williamson Street . . . "

Judy was a replacement child, a child who is conceived to replace a deceased child. In her family's case, Donna, her deceased older sister, died in a horrific accident. A plane crashed into her family's apartment building. The building caught fire and her mother was able to save one of her daughters, 2 year old Linda, but had to leave the oldest daughter, 7 year old Donna, to die in the fire. Linda, the daughter who was saved from the fire, was seriously injured from major burns over her whole body. She was so scarred and disfigured from the fire that she had to suffer though many reconstructive surgeries throughout her life.

Judy was born into this family that was very much focused on Linda's care and ongoing surgeries while the memory of Donna, the deceased daughter, perpetually hangs over the whole family. Judy longed to be loved and accepted, but both of her parents seemed to keep her at a distance, especially her father, as if loving her or displaying any affection would tarnish the memory of her sister or take care away from Linda. This occurred even to the point that her parents stop introducing her or referring to her as their "beautiful daughter, Judy," something any proud parent might say, because they thought it might be insulting to Linda. 

As an adult, Judy decided to research the accident, the plane crash that no one in her family ever discussed openly and honestly with her, to try to understand the dysfunctional dynamics in her family. It always seemed to her that there were untold secrets, parts of the story that no one told her. Judy writes:

"I tell her I want to go back and see the scene of the crime—the crash site.
'Why would you want to do that?' she is incredulous.
I try to explain that since our parents died I’ve had a nagging feeling that there is something left undone in my own life. It may have something to do with the accident, I say, and going there in the flesh feels suddenly important to me. There have always been missing pieces, for me, in the story. Up until now, I’ve dismissed the gaps as irrelevant to my life—but now I suspect it is those missing pieces that may hold the seeds of my own truth about my ambivalence toward my father, my troubles with men, and my schizophrenic attitude toward risk and safety. I’m hoping the trip back will help me understand more about their lives, and my own." (pg.15)

Judy tells her story in chapters that follow several timelines, her childhood, her family before she was born leading up to the accident, and her current life. In this way she composes complete pictures of her family and how they were dealing with their lives and the aftermath of the tragic accident. Although Judy didn't learn the term "replacement child" until later in her life, it seems she always understood that she was there to replace Donna and yet she could never live up to the memory of her deceased sister.

Her parents inability to openly show Judy love and affection clearly resulted in damage to her self esteem and made her become a risk taker. She says, "By the time I was an adolescent, I saw it as my sacred duty to prove the world was a safer place than my parents believed, that I could take risks and survive." But her parent's solicitous manner toward Linda and her health also changed Linda. Judy writes: "My sister Linda couldn’t break away from thinking of my father as her knight, the one who made her feel like she could do anything she set her mind to. I had experienced a different side of my father growing up. His code with me was that I was the daughter who was blessed, who didn’t need his praise."

This is a re-written re-release of this memoir that was apparently first published in 2009. It is a powerful story about how unspoken family dynamics and secrets can influence people their whole lives. Certainly there are still examples of people losing a child and having a replacement child, whether they admit to that concept or not. It would be extremely hard for any child to be born into a family under that moniker and then not receive the love, acceptance and affection any child needs. Judy's struggles with relationships as an adult prove this.

Highly Recommended

Excerpted from Replacement Child: A Memoir by Judy L. Mandel. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013.
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Netgalley for review purposes.


Jeanne said...

Reading this does not lessen my conviction that no child should know anything about the circumstances of his or her conception. Although I don't believe in destiny, I do believe that once a child is born, the parents should try to believe the child was planned, in some sense, even if it's only like my answer about whether my unusually-named child has a "family name." (When people said "oh. Family name?" I would say "Yes, it is now" but the last three words were silent.)

Lori L said...

I totally agree with you, Jeannne. The idea that a child was conceived to replace a lost child is too great a burden to saddle any child with.

Judy Mandel said...

Jeanne and Lori,
I just wanted to comment briefly that I am sure my parents would have agreed with you, not wanting to burden me with the idea of replacing my sister. This was, in fact, their intention I believe. But, more open communication might have given me a better understanding of my place in the family as a child. And, more discussion of my sister as a real person, not idealized, would have also relieved my feeling that I could never live up to the "angel" child.

I hope that more discussion of the topic leads to a better understanding of how a subsequent child, after the death of a sibling, doesn't necessarily have to be a replacement child.

Thanks for the conversation!
All the best,
Judy L. Mandel