Inspiration Information — Daniel & Arthur Miller

by aaron on August 15, 2010

“He wants to live on through something-and in his case, his masterpiece is his son.  All of us want that, and it gets more poignant as we get more anonymous in this world.”  –Arthur Miller

To say Arthur Miller is an American literary legend is to underscore the obvious.  His numerous plays rank high in the canon of cultural achievement — Death of a Salesman and The Crucible often discussed in the same reverent breath as Mark Twain’s “Huck Finn” or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Great Gatsby”.  He has been called the Shakespeare of his time and place; a lofty statement perhaps, though it is difficult to refute that for the America of the 40 and 50’s, Miller was the voice of the populist psyche.

He was also more than just a playwright, but an outspoken social activist who stood up against the House of Un-American Activities Committee (The Crucible — a play about the Salem witch hunts of 1692 is widely regarded as an allegory for the communist “witch-hunts” imposed by the HUAC).  Who wrote eloquently in opposition to the Vietnam War.  Who had a brief and torrid marriage with Marilyn Monroe.  Who championed the rights of the mentally disabled, the meek and the downtrodden.  He was a celebrity, an icon.  On his death in 2005, at the age of 89, the Denver post called him “the moralist of the past American century”.  The The New York Times condensed the thematic sweep of Miller’s work into this: “the fierce belief in man’s responsibility to his fellow man—and [in] the self-destruction that followed on his betrayal of that responsibility.”

Much has been said, written, studied, debated and loved about Arthur Miller, both as writer and man.  But this is not the story of Arthur Miller.  This is the story of Daniel — Arthur’s secret down-syndrome born son.

“Let you look sometimes for the goodness in me, and judge me not.” –Arthur Miller

In september 2007, Vanity Fair published an incredible article by Suzanna Andrews titled “Arthur Miller’s Missing Act” (I highly recommend the read).  It was the first eye-opening expose into the much guarded existence of Arthur’s mentally disabled son, who he never mentioned in public, never recognized in his memoirs and who in many ways Miller entirely deleted and denied from his life.  In fact, within days of his birth, Arthur placed his son in an institution (an unfortunately more common practice back in the 60’s) where Daniel was raised from infancy to adulthood.  Miller never visited.

For a man called the “moralist of the century”, it is hard to equate the righteous fire of Miller’s words with the sublimated actions of his personal life.  To abandon your child as an infant, and then to systematically erase all traces of him from your life seems cruel and unusually heartless for any man, let alone a man of such virtuous stature.  And yet, this is a story of inspiration.  I like to think of it as the prodigal son, in reverse.  Only in this case, the father is the prodigal betrayer of his responsibility, and the son is the one who embraces him with love and forgiveness after so many self-destructive years.

So it was that Daniel Miller grew up a happy boy, despite his handicapped condition and the increasingly appalling state of the institution in which he was raised.   Everyone loved him.  He was eager, outgoing, the kind of person who goes out of his way to help others.  At the age of 17 he was released from the state institution and allowed to live independently in an apartment with five other roommates.  He got a job as a clerk at a supermarket, had a bank account, learned basic reading skills, went to parties and concerts, loved to dance, and competed in the Special Olympics in Skiing, cycling, track and bowling.  He also became a public advocacy speaker for two disabled rights organizations.  In short, Daniel is an extraordinary man.

One day in 1995, almost 33 years after his son’s birth, Arthur Miller gave a conference in defense of a mentally disabled man who had been condemned to death for a murder many believed had been falsely coerced through forced confession.  Unbeknown to Miller, Daniel was sitting in the audience with his organization who also supported this cause.  When Miller finished his speech, Daniel ran up to him and hugged him.  He said, “I am your son Daniel, and I am very proud of you, Father!”

The two had never met prior to this moment.  They never met again after.

People with Down Syndrome have a complex and often misunderstood emotional inner tapestry.  Because of their lower cognitive development, people generally assume that they don’t feel the same shifting spectrum of anger, joy, fear, frustration, sadness and love as us full functioning adults.  But this isn’t the case.  In fact, most children with Down Syndrome have a strong awareness of their limitations and feel extreme frustration by their constant battle against inadequacy.  They are prone to tantrums, violent behavior, bouts of depression.  But not Daniel.  Everyone who has ever known Daniel describes him as a peace-maker.  An unbelievably joyful man.  This is no accident.

Daniel made a conscious choice to spread light.  He could have easily revolted against the abandonment of his famous father, against the inhumane treatment of his adolescence.  He could have rejected Arthur Miller, ran up to him that day 33 years later and spit in his face, or knocked him to the ground.  But instead, Daniel hugged his father.  He was just so happy to be finally sharing something, anything, with his dad.  To me this is the full measure of forgiveness, and ultimately, the full measure of a man.

“The theater is so endlessly fascinating because it’s so accidental. It’s so much like life.” –Arthur Miller

Days before he died, Arthur Miller drew up his will.  Against his lawyers better advice, he divided his estate in equal parts to his four remaining children… Daniel included, who Miller wrote “whose share is no different from mine or my other siblings.”  It was the first time he had ever publicly acknowledged his disabled son.  And perhaps it was the dramatic final gesture of a guilty conscious hoping to absolve itself.  Perhaps it was Miller’s attempt to right the wrong’s a a lifetime of neglect.  Or perhaps it was something much deeper and more profound, like the charged spaces in between the lines of one of Arthur Miller’s plays.  Perhaps in the end, it was Miller at last recognizing the masterpiece of his son’s accomplishments and hoping, in some small way, to live on and encourage Daniel’s growth even as Miller himself slipped into the slow ether of anonymity.

This then was the last parting gift, a wave of acknowledgment from a dad who would never know the full character arc of his son, to a child who would never read or understand the profound plays of his father.  And as ironic and theatrical as all these pieces weave, I can’t think of a better ending to a tale as dramatic and tragic, real and redemptive as this.  Life doesn’t always imitate art, more often it inspires it.

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