Saturday, July 16, 2011

An American family and how it grew

No Biking in the House Without a Helmet, Melissa Fay Greene

Melissa Fay Greene is usually identified as the "Author of Praying for Sheetrock," which is a very, very good book about race relations.  But my favorite of her books is the 2006 There Is No Me Without You, a study of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa, and the story of one woman's struggle to care for children infected and/or orphaned by the disease.  Haregewoin Teferra, an Ethiopian living in the capital of Addis Ababa, lost her daughter to the disease. Overwhelmed with grief, she found herself taking in children who had no one to care for them, despite her own straitened circumstances.  Eventually she turned her home into an orphanage, named for her daughter.  In telling her story, within the larger context of AIDS in Africa, including the scarcity of antiviral medicines readily available in the West, Greene helped bring publicity and funds to the work.  In the course of her research, Greene and her husband Donald Samuel adopted first a daughter and then a son from Ethiopia.

No Biking in the House Without a Helmet is the story of how the Greene-Samuel family grew from four biological children, to include five more children, all adopted from outside the U.S.  When Greene's youngest child was two, she and her husband considered another child, but Greene wondered if they were too old, and if their family wasn't pretty good as it was.  Four years later, an unplanned but welcomed pregnancy ended in miscarriage; Samuel suggested adoption. Greene was initially hesitant, but once she began researching foreign adoptions, she became mesmerized.  A third son, Jesse, Bulgarian by birth, of Romani heritage, became part of their family in 1999.  Over the next eight years, as the older children went off to college and careers, a daughter and three sons would follow, all from Ethiopia.

This book is in part an exploration of foreign adoptions, of the process, and of the pitfalls. Greene is very honest about the difficulties and about her own doubts, even of her motives.  She was especially concerned about the effects on her original family, scared that she had "wrecked my dearest treasure, my family."  She knew nothing about "post-adoption depression syndrome," which many parents experience, and felt great guilt over her inability to bond instantly with Jesse. Greene also interviewed other families with multiple adoptions, looking at the question of how many, and when the balance tips between large family and group home.

The book is full of warmth and humor, much of it at Greene's expense (she is apparently a notoriously bad cook). In the Acknowledgements, there are the notes,
"Yes, my children know I'm doing this.
"Yes, my children have had veto power.
"Yes, there are incidents that never saw print, having been throttled in the infancy of their composition.
No, I'm not going to talk about those incidents in public; that would defeat the purpose of the children having had the last word."
Greene is careful to avoid any suggestion of sainthood in her family or in their reasons for expanding that family.  From this book, though, it seems like she and her husband are pretty cool people, and they raised some pretty amazing kids.  As when I finished Calvin Trillin's Family Man, I was really tempted to write and ask if they would consider adoption of an older (ok, much older) child.


  1. Great review! I read this last month (but still haven't reviewed it, whoops) and was entertained and charmed by Greene's tale of her ever-expanding family. I especially loved her research, when they were first considering adopting, into the whole process and her interviews with other families in particular.

  2. I found myself wondering if they really are done adopting. I can't remember that she ever flat-out said so.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!