Pros: Simple, sincere, compassionate, hopeful, moving
Cons: Has an overtly Christian viewpoint which some may not be able to appreciate
I first read Angel Unaware forty four years ago when I was only ten years old. It is Dale Evans Rogers' autobiographical book concerning the faith journey she underwent along with her family as a result of giving birth to her daughter, Robin Elizabeth, who came into this world with the medical condition known as Down syndrome. I loved it then and I love it now.
Robin was born in 1950 and I was born in 1952, the year she passed away from complications of a congenital heart defect. Down syndrome was named for the doctor who first described it in 1887 but it wasn't until 1959 that it was finally discovered that its cause was an extra chromosome. Consequently, in the 1950s there was not nearly so much understood about Down syndrome as there is today.
When Robin was born it took doctors several days to even be able to tell Dale Evans and her husband Roy Rogers about their daughter's condition. They didn't know what to say and they felt bad. When they finally did, they immediately tried to convince the couple to place their baby in a mental institution or foster home. In those days babies born with Down syndrome were not expected to live long fruitful lives and were viewed as being ineducable and utterly tragic. They did not receive the kind of medical attention that is now available and they were thought to be very difficult babies for which to care. Well-meaning doctors felt they were protecting the parents and the rest of the children in the Rogers family by suggesting this "flawed" child be taken off their hands. This was the common approach for every baby with Down syndrome in those days. To the credit of this devoutly Christian couple and because of their faith they would hear none of it and they took their precious baby girl home and loved, encouraged and cared for her. As a result, in her short 2 1/2 year lifetime, she was to become the catalyst for spiritual growth for her parents and many others who knew her and to cause huge strides in public awareness regarding Down syndrome.
In those days it was a stigma to have a child with Down syndrome. Misnomers such as "mongoloid" and "retarded" added to the sense of social shame. People stared at children with Down syndrome and whispered and didn't understand. This is actually how I came to read this book when I was ten years old. I grew up in small town Ohio and we used to buy sweet corn from a farm stand in the summer time. There was a little blond-haired boy there who used to smile at me but he never said hello. His mother would always shoo him behind her as she waited on the customers and he would peek out at me. I would shyly say hi and smile at him. One day when we got back in our car my mom said, "You should leave that little boy alone. He's a mongoloid." I felt dread and astonishment but I knew from the tone of her voice I was not going to get any answers out of Mom. "What in the world is a mongoloid?" I wondered. My mother was not an unkind woman at all. She was just ignorant about people who are different and even then I got the sense that she was scared and unnerved by the differences.
It wasn't until five years later that the subject ever came up again. One day out of the blue my mom unceremoniously presented me with a library copy of a very thin book called Angel Unaware and said it might be a good story and that I should read it. I sat down immediately and read it from cover to cover, the first time I had ever read a whole book in one sitting. It was such a moving, captivating and amazing story to my 10 year old heart and mind. It stuck with me all my life and I never forgot about little Robin.
I recently decided to read it again to try to discover if it still had the power to move me and to see what my mature viewpoint would be about it. I still found it moving, captivating and amazing.
Angel Unaware is an interesting book to me for several reasons. It is a very personal look at the 1940s and 50s phenomenon that was Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. They were among the most famous and loved celebrities of the early days of television. Roy was a singing cowboy with a long string of movies and TV shows to his credit. He was a rodeo performer and a musician who was once a part of the famous Sons of the Pioneers singing group. His wife Dale was his sidekick in the entertainment business and in life as well as an accomplished author and public speaker. Their shows were designed to be morally and spiritually uplifting and the pair were deeply loved by the public. In their real personal lives they were just like their TV and movie personas. They did an enormous amount of good on behalf of abused and battered children and their foundation still does. They had a large multi-racial family of adopted children. Little Robin was the only one of their children born to them. Angel Unaware lifted the cheery public mask, the brave face they always presented and showed the struggles and challenges, fears and sorrows they contended with privately. I found this interesting in a human to human way but also in a cultural way. We were a more reserved and dignified people then but we were also more repressed and isolated, I think. We were certainly more private.
This book was also interesting to me because of the picture it presents of the history of our understanding of mental health issues and medicine in general. It is like something out of the dark ages to read and yet it was in my own lifetime that the practices and attitudes described were commonplace and accepted. In fact, I learned that in Great Britain it wasn't until 1971 with the passing of the Education Act that it was officially recognized that children with learning disabilities like those stemming from Down syndrome had a legal right to go to school.* It made me think about what current suppositions and prejudices may be lurking about keeping us in the shadows of ignorance. How will we look in 40 year's time?
Those are the reasons I found this book interesting but the reason I love it is that it is such an open-hearted, searingly poignant tale of a mother's love and courage in the face of a deeply personal confrontation with tragedy. Nothing can break a parent's heart apart like a threat to their child. Yet, here in this little book we are shown the intimate workings of faith in the lives of two parents who faced the ultimate sorrow.
Dale Evans Rogers believed that her little daughter was an angel sent from heaven to break her heart open and give her and the whole world a greater awareness of God. She believed this about all people but it was Robin who helped her to realize it. The book is written in the first person as though Robin herself is speaking from her vantage point in Heaven. Having just returned "Home" she is telling God about her experiences "Down There" and reflecting on the work she had been sent there to do. She speaks as a little child, with innocence and simplicity but through her words we come to understand the strength, beauty and spiritual depth that the real-life baby Robin's life unfolded in the souls of her mother and father.
The tale is on one hand not even so remarkable. It talks about loving parents doing what loving parents usually do...they love unconditionally, they rise to the challenge and they do their best. Yet set in the context of its time when there were no answers, no support groups, no one to whom to turn, these very busy, very public people faced terrible fears, confusion, guilt and grief to draw their daughter into their hearts and make the most of the gifts they knew by their faith that she had come to offer.
They struggled to help Robin achieve all that she could in her life every day even though there was little known then about how to help her reach her potential. They rejoiced in every small milestone of smile and gesture and accomplishment. They were frightened and desperate nearly all the time, trying every avenue of medical assistance they could find. They were so alone in their journey in terms of human assistance but they steadfastly relied upon the support and wisdom of their God and their religious traditions...and it changed them...it really did make them better, more loving and compassionate people. They raised public awareness about Down syndrome and set in motion changes that we benefit from today as people with Down syndrome participate in mainstream education, employment and semi-independent living.
Robin's heart trouble was diagnosed early and her parents were told she would not live a long life and they prayed for strength to face the lessons and challenges that this heart-break would surely bring. As they turned to their religious foundation and to the love of their God they made their faith a public expression and this in turn lifted the hearts and inspired the minds of so many others.
This book is important to me because it shows what I believe to be the truth behind trials and tribulations, namely the blessings of spiritual and personal growth. It shows how precious each life truly is and how filled with the potential to change us all. I think this book would be very helpful to most people who find themselves in a situation of loss or grief, particularly the loss of a child or the experience of loving a child with serious health issues. It is so simple and so direct. It offers a look into one mother's honest feelings and shares the strength that arose from her submission to her God in that hour of darkness. I would be disingenuous if I said that my faith is the same as hers or that I think I would submit in the same way Dale Evans Rogers did but I do share her belief in a higher power and I can relate to the outpouring of sincerity found in this book. Even people who do not share Dale's particular faith should be able to come away from this book with a renewed understanding of the gift we each are, one to the other. I still love it after all these years because of what it reveals about the human heart. I respect the wholeheartedness with which it expresses its truth.
Websites of interest regarding Down syndrome:
In the United States
In Great Britain