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Richard Eder

Orphans: REAL AND IMAGINARY by Eileen Simpson (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $16.95; 259 pp.)

July 05, 1987|Richard Eder

Eileen Simpson lost her mother when she was 1, and her father when she was 7. When she grew up, she knew that she had been an orphan. But only well into middle age did she realize that she was an orphan still. Until then, she thought that orphanhood was something that only lasted until you were an adult.

"It had ended, I thought, when the law said it did: when I was of age," she writes. It was not until her husband of 20 years died of cancer, and after her active mourning had subsided over another two years, that she realized something else.

Orphanhood is permanent. You get over it, but it lives inside you like a latency, for decades or even a half-century; until the next cycle of loss.

"Orphans: Real and Imaginary" is the effort of Simpson, a writer and psychotherapist, to describe, explore and perhaps cope with this discovery. It is not an easy book to classify. It is personal history; it is also social and literary reflection. It is deeply moving in parts, it is rather tentatively theoretical in others. Both as experience and as thought, it has an air of convalescence.

It is written with its puzzlement still on it. More than anything, it is a book of rough travel in a rough country where not everything is mastered or understood. Its testimony is absolutely authentic.

The first part of "Orphans" is the story of Simpson's growing-up; first, in a Catholic convent that managed to avoid calling itself an orphanage, while being just that; then, in a rural sanitarium--both she and her older sister were suspected of having tuberculosis--and finally, with various relatives in their contentious and litigious families.

Eileen and her sister were taken to the convent by their recently widowed father. We see it as a photograph in sepia; a penitential place out of a 19th-Century novel. The food and atmosphere were severe, though not quite cruel. The girls were required to bathe with shifts on--the nun would rub damp soap over the fabric and the child would climb into the tub and lather up. Bed-wetters had to stand at breakfast with sheets (unsoiled) draped over their heads.

As long as their father was alive, there were holidays and outings. After his death, because of disputes between the two sides of the family, there were virtually no visitors. Simpson's account of these endless years is the more affecting for its restraint.

Their stay in what was then called a "preventorium" was like going from a French devotional novel to Louisa May Alcott's "Little Men." It was freedom, fresh air, coeducation, strenuous exercise and cinnamon toast in the evenings.

From there, pronounced cured, the sisters were taken in by a succession of paternal aunts and uncles in New York. They were a cramped, cautious lot, the author tells us, and resentful of th1696621416succeeded in preventing their grandmother from visiting them in the convent.

The story of two lonely children and a lonely old woman kept apart by litigation is heart-rending. Some relief was provided by a maternal great-uncle who lived in fair luxury in nearby Westchester County, and who, with his wife and son, believed in having a good time. They gave the two orphans a notion of celebration and their first real picture of the mother they hardly knew.

In the book's second part, the author gives a brief survey of the treatment of orphans. There were the medieval church institutions, the British alms-houses, the 19th-Century orphan-trains in which homeless children in our Eastern cities were sent West to find work and shelter, and the cottage homes that were used--with some success, Si1836086127impersonality of the big orphanages.

She looks at present-day arrangements--foster homes, welfare hotels for broken or one-parent families--and finds them no improvement. She writes:

"In place of dormitories with long rows of beds covered with white sheets, what one sees in welfare hotels is overcrowded rooms with unmade beds. Instead of a subsistance diet and clockwork discipline, there is junk food on demand, little supervision, and close proximity to adults who are alcoholics, drug addicts and prematurely discharged psychotics. Were conditions so much more shocking in the workhouse where Oliver Twist was born?"

But it is the condition of orphanhood that interests her more than its social remedies or social neglect. She looks at writers who were orphans, or who wrote about them, or both. There was Tolstoy, who lost his mother at 2, but whose book "Childhood" presents an intriguing reversal. The child's mother lives until he is 12; the book is full of maternal intimacies and companionship; it is a dream kingdom.

She cites Dickens' abandoned heroes--Oliver Twist and David Copperfield--and mentions his own separation from his parents when he was sent to work in a blacking factory. She considers Kipling's Kim, alone in British India, the orphaned Hans Castorp in "The Magic Mountain," and many others.

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