Review of An Ordinary Future: Margaret Mead, the Problem of Disability, and a Child Born Different By Thomas W. Pearson, Oakland: University of California Press. 2023. 221 pp.

Reviewed Book

An Ordinary Future: Margaret Mead, the Problem of Disability, and a Child Born Different By Thomas W. Pearson, Oakland: University of California Press. 2023. 221 pp.

A painting of a girl dancing on grass
Cover of An Ordinary Future (2023)

Aron S. Marie

National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Rochester Institute of Technology

In 1944, Margaret Mead received a phone call from a close friend, Erik Erikson, whose newborn baby had just been diagnosed with “Mongolian Idiocy,” better known today as Down Syndrome. Erikson turned to Mead, already a well-respected anthropologist, known for her antiracist stance and tendency to question authority, to grapple with the moral question of how to respond to his son’s birth. Mead counseled Erikson to follow the doctor’s advice and place his son in an institution where the family would have little to no contact with him. This decision would come to haunt Erickson and his family, who grappled with the grief and guilt of having a family member in an institution. Mead would later become a staunch advocate for disability rights—a trajectory which appears to sit in direct contrast with her earlier advice to Erickson.

Seventy years later, Thomas W. Pearson, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Stout would find himself in similar shoes to Erik Erikson, because his infant daughter Michaela was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Yet, Erikson’s child grows up and eventually passes away while living in an institution, whereas Pearson and his wife never consider removing their daughter from their family, and Michaela is free to grow up in her family home and attend public school alongside non-disabled children. In An Ordinary Future, Pearson uses these two stories to examine changing societal norms around disability, while also critically reflecting on the discipline of anthropology and its complicated relationship with disability.

The premise of the book is reflected in an interesting mixture of genre and style conventions. At times, the book is an unflinching autobiography, where Pearson reflects on his own personal evolution with regards to his daughter’s disability. He examines how he goes from initially being devastated by her diagnosis, to becoming an advocate for disability, and in relation to that, during the COVID-19 pandemic he became an advocate for masking policies that can help protect individuals with weakened immune systems from contracting the virus. Other parts of the book are a biography of Margaret Mead and the forces that shaped her approach to human diversity more broadly and disability in particular. And still other sections of the book use historical ethnography and extensive archival research to explore the broader societal trends that shape the life course trajectories of children with Down Syndrome.

Thematically, the book is broken into chapters centered on analytics like “becoming,” “institutions” and “vulnerability”; terms which bridge medical anthropology and disability studies. Pearson uses these analytics to help weave together his own story and Mead’s. For example, Pearson uses “institutions” as an analytic that allows him to explore the changing historical contexts between when Erikson’s son was institutionalized, and the dismantling of institutions for the so called “feebleminded” in the 1980’s. He then looks at how deinstitutionalization shapes and was shaped by anthropology and related fields. He explores the impact Erving Goffman’s seminal work on institutions had on Mead’s approach to anthropology, and her eventually becoming a public proponent of educating disabled children in mainstream schools. Finally, he uses the analytic of institutions to move into the present day, detailing how his own daughter Michaela can grow up with her siblings and attend a mainstream public school rather than live in an institution like Erikson’s son.

Perhaps one of the biggest strengths of the book is the critical examination of anthropology as a field. For example, the chapter on “Potential” explores how anthropologists in the Boasian school readily challenged the logic of social Darwinism and eugenics that fueled racist classifications of peoples, while simultaneously ignoring how the same logics were behind the classification of individuals with Down Syndrome as “Mongoloid.” Pearson points out the continuing impact of this history by reflecting on his own teaching;

“Underneath we are all the same, Boas had emphasized, his physic unity knitting humanity into one fabric. We all have the same cognitive architecture to acquire language, I had told my students… except, except I suddenly realized, some of us just don’t. Where does my own daughter fit into this?” (71)

Pearson’s critique of Boasian psychic unity of mankind is not new. Like many of the critiques and analytics presented in this book, it draws directly from existing work in disability studies, which Pearson acknowledges and cites profusely. Moreover, Pearson never fully answers his own questions about why anthropology has failed to theorize disability satisfactorily. Nevertheless, his account of the history of anthropology is compelling and useful to think with. What lends this book narrative weight is the mixture of personal and theoretical; the tension of an anthropologist reckoning with his own disciplines’ prejudices and blindsides to his daughter’s lived experience. By situating anthropological theorists in the historical context of the time, and tracing the impact of anthropological theory on personal decision making, Pearson demonstrates the complex looping effects between theory and practice.

An Ordinary Future is part of a growing trend of academics with disabled children writing about their disabled children, and their relationship with their children, as objects of study. Other notable examples include Raising Henry: A Memoir of Motherhood, Disability, and Discovery by Rachel Adams (2013), and Life as We Know It: A Father, a Family, and an Exceptional Child by Michael Berube (1998). This genre is part of a larger trend of parents writing memoirs about their disabled children; a genre which Pearson points out has played into stereotypes of disabled people such as presenting disabled children as simplistic angels (79). Pearson grapples with the genre of the parental memoir through the book; what insights does such positionality provide us as readers? What are the limitations? In the epilogue he concludes;

“My story is by no means universal. In some ways, telling it also indulges in the tendency to examine the nondisabled person’s response to disability, a father grappling with his reaction to Downs syndrome, as if it were the only thing worthy of anthropological attention when it comes to disability. As such it is only a starting point” (162)

As a disabled individual myself, I find aspects of this genre triggering and painful to read, even while recognizing its value. For example, in the chapter on “Becoming,” Pearson candidly wrestles with “impulse to reject my own child, to deny her basic humanity” (4). This is reflected most vividly in his confession that after receiving his daughter’s diagnosis he “secretly hoped she would die” (9). This vignette and others like it, are shared to explore the normative discourses from medical practitioners, family members, colleagues that set parents up to view disability diagnosis through the lens of grief. Although Pearson ultimately winds up rejecting grief as an appropriate framework, it is important to keep in mind that this book may be an emotionally difficult read for disabled students, faculty and community members, who have had to deal with those around them “grieving” their disability.

Overall, this book does not shy away from difficult content and debates, providing ample opportunity to grapple with questions of positionality, the past, present, and future of anthropology, and the way society treats disabled citizens. With its rich combination of personal narrative, history of anthropology, and historical ethnography, this book is likely to be of interest to a wide variety of students, both undergraduate and graduate, and scholars at various levels in both anthropology and disability studies. It has application for courses in methodology and auto/biography, science and technology studies, history of anthropology, history of medicine and disability, as well as for academics interested in studying its many analytics like vulnerability, institutions, and becoming.