Americans, it seems, are fascinated with the large family. This is reflected by the several reality TV shows featuring big families, such as 18 Kids and Counting and Jon & Kate plus 8 (subsequently Kate Plus 8). Melissa Fay Greene’s memoirs, No Biking in the House without a Helmet, will certainly satisfy the curiosity of those who are intrigued by the large family, with an added twist. She and her husband have nine children, yes, but five are adopted from thousands of miles away. Their story is not only highly entertaining, it also startles, uplifts, and inspires. It is the story of the courageous, generous way she and her husband grew a rollicking international family through trials and hardships with tenacious love and oodles of humor.
In her book, Greene focuses each chapter on a particular member of the family, describing fond and humorous memories as well as the challenges they faced. At the same time, she craftily weaves in the compelling story of how she and her husband Donny adopted five and raised nine children. She describes her trips to Bulgaria and Ethiopia with great vividness. She shows the poverty-stricken orphanages and the destitute children there with heartbreaking detail. She shares the pain of post-adoption syndrome depression, as well as each child’s struggle to overcome past trauma and adjust to the new family. For example, Jesse from Bulgaria is a four year old who barely knows his name. Afflicted with severe separation anxiety, he must learn to trust. Helen, a sweet little girl from Ethiopia who watched her mother die from AIDS is overcome by waves of homesickness. There are, as Greene aptly puts it, “battles for supremacy among the four (adopted) boys”. And then there is the problem of the boys getting into pornography. The challenges are many, and at times seemingly insurmountable.
Yet, the book resounds with joy and laughter. Greene not only finds happiness in transforming the lives of the children she adopts, but also in helping the extended family members of her adopted children. At times, her children travel with her to Ethiopia, experiencing the great privilege of bringing smiles to the faces of poverty stricken orphans. There are happy memories of taking all the children at an Ethiopian orphanage to a shoe store to buy new shoes and bringing them all to a pool party at the Hilton. Domestically, there is the joy of watching the children develop fraternal bonds, excel in sports, and gain a sense of identity and belonging within their new family as well as in their cultural heritage. And, as can be expected from a family made up of wealthy American Jews, a Romani boy, four Ethiopians (three of whom used to be goatherds) and a menagerie of pets, there are countless comical incidents. Green’s gritty determination to love each child, her relishing of the times of joy, and her keen sense of humor hold the family together through the rollercoaster ride of family life.
There are only a few areas in which I find Greene’s book a little disappointing:
First, I would have appreciated more insight into Greene’s underlying philosophies, which she skims over rather briefly and vaguely. For example, towards the beginning of the book, she writes,
In retrospect, I see that Donny and I have steered by the light of what brings us joy, what makes us laugh, and what feels right and true. Those instincts have served us well.
Primarily following our feelings and instincts is a precarious way to make life-changing decisions. From reading the book, it appears to me that she must have had a stronger moral code to steer by than simply feelings. Yet, with such an over-simplified statement, she encourages her readers to tread in the dangerous waters of emotion-based decision making.
Also, there is the episode of dealing with her oldest daughter’s infatuation with punk. When 13- year-old Molly begins listening to Nine Inch Nails and wearing spikes, Greene takes her out of public school and sends her to an Orthrodox Jewish high school. There, at least in appearances, Mollie’s inclination for punk fades away. But in college, Molly becomes lead singer in a punk band. Molly tells her mother, “It’s worth noting that punk really isn’t about sex and drugs…. It’s about an antiauthoritarian attitude, subversive creativity, and independence.” Thus ‘enlightened’, Greene goes on to write,
Instead of crying the afternoon Molly asked to quit horseback riding lessons (because she was no longer interested in horses, but rather in punk rock), I might, if only I’d known… have celebrated the dawn of her finding another powerful inner drive, full of life and streaming with freedom.
Nice sounding words, but vague and relativisitic. How does an antiauthoritarian attitude and subversive creativity lead to freedom? Whose authority was Molly against? And how did that gain her freedom? Freedom from what, and freedom to do what? Greene’s praise of her daughter’s new “powerful inner drive”, albeit punk, smacks of the moral relativism so prevalent in today’s culture.
Third, I was not impressed with the way Greene and her husband handled the adopted boy’s consumption of hard-core porn. In a way, Greene did what she could: she installed Net Nanny and Safe Eyes, she removed internet access from their cell phones, and put parental controls on the T.V. She gave boys the lecture about relationships, intimacy and respecting women. This should have come from Donny, but, as she writes, he was “incapable of allowing such delicate subjects to cross his pure lips”. I suppose what was really disappointing was the way she described the story – as if it was a battle of the wits between her and the boys, and how she tried outsmart them from viewing porn. Removing their access to porn should have only been a start. She needed to try to convince them repeatedly about the evils of pornography, the value and importance of chastity, and to lay down much harsher consequences than merely making them pay for the exorbitant bills. Moreover, what seemed to irk her the most was the cost of the porn bills, not the fact that the boys were becoming addicted to something that could permanently damage their brains and corrupt their hearts. Greene’s lighthearted way retelling of this most serious and disturbing aspect of their lives is inappropriate. What a shame, to be freed from poverty and hunger in Ethiopia only to be enslaved by an addiction to hard-core porn in America. But, their story is not over; hopefully Greene and her husband will educate themselves more about the adverse affects of pornography and be much, much more vigilant and pro-active.
Finally, for those on the sensitive side, there is some limited use of foul language. And, some Christians may take offense at her son Lee’s comical account of a group of Evangelical Norwegian Missionaries’ mangled attempt to proselytize at an Ethiopian orphanage.
But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Given the purpose of the book, these points are quite minor. After all, her book is simply an honest savoring of memories of her unique and remarkable family. While one might not agree with all that is in the book, there is still so much to admire. Her loving determination to make her mixed brood a family, the joy she finds in raising her children, and her sense of humor make it a worthy and entertaining read. This book will resonate particularly with parents of adopted children, and will enlighten those who may want to adopt. Fast-paced and witty, it is a gift to be treasured by her children and enjoyed by her readers.
Mary Cooney writes from Baltimore, Maryland.