Of Early Exits and Exclamation Points

Tombstones All In A Row

Mary Virginia Terhune (“Marion Harland”) was a prolific author of domestic advice books in the late 1800s. Her warmth and humor made her one of the most popular writers of her day, but at times her thinking offers a disquieting glimpse into the early growth of the American eugenics movement.

Terhune was convinced that some people had a moral obligation to remain unmarried. By way of illustration, she recalled a wedding she had attended as a child. As she gazed in admiration at the bride, she overheard one guest murmur to her neighbor, “I am afraid she is very delicate. Her father and mother both died of consumption, you know.” Decades later, while walking through the city cemetery, Terhune came across the bride’s tombstone. She had died at forty-six. Of her nine children, seven had also died between the ages of twenty and twenty-five of consumption. The row of eight tombstones emphasized the wedding guest’s prophecy like “glaring exclamation points.”

Terhune concluded that, though innocent of personal fault, the offspring of “consumptive,” “scrofulous,” “insane,” or “cancerous” parents had no right to pass such misery along to the next generation. “Let the curse die out in their unwedded persons,” she declared. They were called to “cheerful obedience through the lonely years to the Divine beckonings to duty and toil unsolaced by the dearest of human loves.” She ended on a gentler note – the heavenly Judge would surely reward such heroism. In their sacrifice those unwedded persons were true followers of Jesus Christ who “pleased not Himself.”

Terhune is almost convincing, because almost right. Yes, the Christian life is one of self-denial, and we have an obligation not to inflict needless suffering. But at what point on the spectrum of pain is procreation prohibited? If the imperfect should not marry, all of us ought to remain unwed. Terhune herself was apparently a carrier of diabetes. One of her children probably died of the disease and it certainly killed her granddaughter.

There is a deeper problem with Terhune’s argument: it holds that suffering and brevity render life meaningless. From that position it is only a short stroll to the conclusion that the “defective” life is not worth living, and the Nazi corollary that it ought therefore to be discontinued.

Christ’s own example teaches that love, rather than the avoidance of suffering, is the goal of life. From this perspective the glaring exclamation points take on a new meaning. There is no need to fear either pain or an early exit from this “vale of tears.” A twenty-five-year lifespan offers abundant opportunity to love and be loved. For that matter, so does a five-year life span.

My paternal grandmother modeled a very different approach to marriage. As a feisty young woman in the 1920s, she fell in love with my gentle, charming grandfather. Grandfather, however, had a weakened heart and was expected to die young. My great-grandmother strongly opposed the marriage. “He’ll die before age thirty and leave you a widow with small children!” she warned her daughter. Grandmother retorted, “Well, so what?” And with a kind of holy recklessness she married him anyway.

The young couple settled down and started a family. Grandfather munched his vegetables and lecithin, watched his weight, and watched his children grow. He did indeed die of heart failure, but when he did, he was eighty-four. His survivors included two children, five grandchildren, and later nine great-grandchildren, all still alive, all owing their existence to Grandmother’s “So what?”

Add all the glowing exclamation points you like!


6 responses to “Of Early Exits and Exclamation Points”

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