'Rachel in the World'



"If I can’t get a placement for my daughter by June 2005, I’ll leave her on your doorstep.” Jane Bernstein’s words, referring to her then-20-year-old mentally retarded daughter, Rachel, were dramatic, certainly. Did she really mean them, though? Could any mother?

At least one mother did. Around the same time Bernstein delivered her threat on the phone with an administrator at the Office of Developmental Disabilities and Mental Retardation in her county and then put it onto paper in a follow-up letter, another woman abandoned her 22-year-old daughter at a police station.

“I knew I never would,” Bernstein writes in her new book, Rachel in the World. “At the same time, I fully understand it”—“it” being the exhaustion and frustration that might drive even a loving, well-intentioned parent to such an extreme.
This ambivalence runs through Rachel in the World, a continuation of the story Bernstein, who teaches in the creative-writing program at Carnegie Mellon University, started in 1988 with Loving Rachel: A Family’s Journey from Grief. The first memoir chronicled the family’s efforts to come to terms with Rachel’s visual and intellectual impairment (caused by injury or trauma, perhaps viral, in the womb) and their effects on her family, which included Bernstein, her husband and Rachel’s older sister, Charlotte.

Rachel in the World picks up when Rachel is 5 but is mainly concerned with her passage into adulthood—a more complicated and difficult time, in many respects, than early childhood, when Rachel’s small size and cuteness helped to mitigate her weaknesses, and her general dependency was more or less age-appropriate. As Rachel grew older, Bernstein realizes, “I was confronted with something I had lacked the foresight to understand years before: cute is a dreadfully short-lived and risky condition.”

As Rachel grows older, meeting her demands becomes more exhausting for Bernstein, who captures the weariness of the day-in-day-out with surprisingly good humor. She paints early-morning scenes—“Ma! Can I have cereal? Ma, I’m up! Can I put on my robe? Can I have cereal? Ma, I’m hungry.”—that are frankly maddening just to read, let alone to contemplate living through every day.

The larger issue, however, is that as Rachel grows older, the services available to her and her family become fewer. Day-long programs are replaced by individual caretakers whom Bernstein often has to pay out-of-pocket; school must be replaced by work—and not all jobs for the mentally retarded are created equal. Then there’s the fact that Rachel wants desperately to live apart from her mother—and vice versa—but, they hear, the only spaces opening up are for people over 60. (Hence Bernstein’s dramatic threat to drop her daughter on someone else’s doorstep.)

Here, Bernstein deftly balances the personal and the political, using her and Rachel’s story to illustrate what’s at stake. Especially interesting is an interlude in Israel, where Rachel lives on a kibbutz for residents with developmental difficulties—no such program exists in this country.

Ultimately, in her quest to find the best life possible for Rachel, Bernstein leaves no doubt that, although she frequently
confesses herself “a bad mother,” she is exactly the opposite—even if she did once threaten to leave her daughter on someone else’s doorstep.


Rachel in the World by Jane Bernstein; University of Illinois Press, $26.95

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Pittsburgh's Top 10 Things to Do in May

Pittsburgh's Top 10 Things to Do in May

These are the things we guarantee are worth your time, from dog walks to barbecues.
Best Doctors in Pittsburgh

Best Doctors in Pittsburgh

Our exclusive list of the region's 584 leading physicians across 76 specialities.
Endless Challenges: 48 Remarkable Hours with 8 Pittsburgh Doctors

Endless Challenges: 48 Remarkable Hours with 8 Pittsburgh Doctors

Follow eight physicians over two days as they perform surgeries, consult on end-of-life care, treat accident victims, discuss hospital programs –– and then reset and do it all over again.
The Commoner — Too Much of a Good Thing?

The Commoner — Too Much of a Good Thing?

Chef Dennis Marron designs a menu of modern-American fare at The Commoner in the downstairs space of Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco Pittsburgh.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Well-Deserved honors for Pittsburgh's Ultimate TV Cook

Well-Deserved honors for Pittsburgh's Ultimate TV Cook

They're throwing a party to honor Chris Fennimore and you're invited.
Pittsburgh Gets Shout-Out from 249 Miles Up

Pittsburgh Gets Shout-Out from 249 Miles Up

It seems the crew of the International Space Station had something on their minds as they did a flyby over the three rivers.
Stargazing: 4 Downtown Hangouts Up On the Roof

Stargazing: 4 Downtown Hangouts Up On the Roof

Pittsburgh is adding to its list of rooftop establishments where you can find a food, drink, live music and more.
Popular Lawrenceville Restaurant Won't Stay Closed for Long

Popular Lawrenceville Restaurant Won't Stay Closed for Long

A new owner is making plans to transform Tamari.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Pittsburgh's Top 10 Things to Do in May

Pittsburgh's Top 10 Things to Do in May

These are the things we guarantee are worth your time, from dog walks to barbecues.
Best Doctors in Pittsburgh

Best Doctors in Pittsburgh

Our exclusive list of the region's 584 leading physicians across 76 specialities.
Endless Challenges: 48 Remarkable Hours with 8 Pittsburgh Doctors

Endless Challenges: 48 Remarkable Hours with 8 Pittsburgh Doctors

Follow eight physicians over two days as they perform surgeries, consult on end-of-life care, treat accident victims, discuss hospital programs –– and then reset and do it all over again.
The Commoner — Too Much of a Good Thing?

The Commoner — Too Much of a Good Thing?

Chef Dennis Marron designs a menu of modern-American fare at The Commoner in the downstairs space of Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco Pittsburgh.
What Inspires Ray Gastil's Careful Plan for Pittsburgh's Future

What Inspires Ray Gastil's Careful Plan for Pittsburgh's Future

How will the city’s new planning director stoke Pittsburgh’s next generation of developments?
Dare to be Different — PittGirl's Better Ways to Use Social Media

Dare to be Different — PittGirl's Better Ways to Use Social Media

You can use social media to change your life and the lives of those around you in a positive way.
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit Module