|June 6, 2006|
When Is the Right Time to Knock a Halo Off a Saint?
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Back in the day before people said "back in the day," I used to have an office in a funky Beverly Hills office building. (It was arguably Beverly Hills' only funky office building.) One of my neighbors down the hall was the legendary movie writer-director Billy Wilder.
There was talk one morning in the hallway about a movie coming out based on a piece of material that had been kicking around for many years. Wilder's response went something like this:
"Just because a screenplay has been turned down all over town doesn't necessarily mean it's good."
Bear that in mind as you read the following column. It has been rejected by the L.A. Times by three different editors over a period of a year and a half. It has also been passed on by The New York Daily News and The Wall Street Journal. Ditto from USA TODAY where word got back to me that I was "mean." (I'll let you be the judge of that accusation.)
The underlying question I found myself unintentionally asking is the headline to this column:
When is the right time to knock a halo off a saint?
From the response I've gotten from the mainstream media, pretty much never.
* * * *
Arthur Miller died last year at the age of 89. His halo had been piously suspended above his head since the early 1950s. Like most lifelong Liberals, I believed without question in his supreme moral character. But I changed my mind after I read in some of Miller's obituaries that he has a son named Daniel. You probably didn't know that and that's the way Miller wanted it.
Daniel Miller (born in 1962) has Down syndrome.
According to biographer Martin Gottfried, Miller and wife Inge Morath placed Daniel in a Connecticut institution shortly after his birth. Miller failed to discuss his son in his 1987 autobiography. Ironically, his writing often focused on the immense gaps between fathers and sons. In a 1988 interview, Miller noted that "nowadays the family is broken up, and people don't live in the same place for very long."
If I ran a college drama department, I might not want to stage one of his plays ever again, let alone name a theater after him. But that's what his alma mater, The University Of Michigan, is planning to do with the multi-million dollar Arthur Miller Theater. It's hard to resist so honoring such a famous alumni but it serves to highlight the curious intersection of raising funds and raising consciousness.
There's one significant aspect in this matter I've deliberately omitted. It's the type of surprise that great playwrights like Miller would hold back until the third act. Until her death in 2002, Morath (to her considerable credit) visited her son regularly.
But Miller never went to see Daniel once.
In other words, anyone reading this column has spent basically the same amount of time with Daniel Miller as his famous father did.
Short of actual abuse, I can't think of anything worse that any parent could do to any child. This complete neglect challenges the fundamental perception collectively held about a revered icon. Like J. Edgar Hoover's cross-dressing or Strom Thurmond's black baby, it's an earthshaking posthumous revelation. But no one ever said Hoover or Thurmond was a saint.
Virtually no one on the Left mentioned Miller's secret during his lifetime. But some on the Right, who've long loathed his progressive politics, did after Miller's death. Partisan? Yes. Wrong? No. A cherished Liberal mantra is that Elia Kazan was unethical because he cooperated with the Blacklist and Miller was ethical because he didn't. Naming names doesn't look good on anyone's resume but it pales in comparison to shunning your own child, let alone one with a disability.
I'm way ahead of you: "What the hell makes this Peyser guy qualified to attack Arthur Miller?" Well, those of us who've chosen to raise our special needs children at home can only imagine what good Miller could have done by openly discussing -- or writing about -- his son at a time when people with disabilities were only referred to in hushed whispers.
"Attention must be paid" to Miller's monumental artistic achievements but also to his staggering moral shortcomings.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Tony Peyser provides daily poems and weekly cartoons for BuzzFlash and also writes the BuzzFlash column, "Blue State Jukebox." He was a daily cartoonist for the L.A. Times from 1994 to 1997. You can contact Tony via email at email@example.com.
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