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Having Children in the Shadow Of Psychopathy

Making the decision to have children when you don’t know who they’ll turn out to be.

Charles Deluvio/Unsplash
Charles Deluvio/Unsplash

I want to have a baby with you,” my husband whispers, nuzzling my arm.

“With me?” I feel my years of careful contraception and child-free decision-making beginning to unravel. The blue light of the movie we are watching flickers across his face. After raising my younger siblings, I am instinctively aware of the challenges of having children. I most worry about passing on my parents’ genes.

I fear that I could pass on my mother’s addiction and my father’s violence. My therapist confidently agrees, based on my experiences, that my mother is likely a narcissist and my father is likely a sociopath.

My mom grew up a preacher’s kid, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor who illegally ordained ministers in an underground web of Protestant seminaries across East Berlin and the Soviet Union. My dad’s father was a cruel man from Boston. All the stories I heard as a child about him frightened me. Less than a year after my parents’ wedding, Mom gave birth to me while working on the set of the Coen Brothers’ movie Raising Arizona. It would take several years for her to learn that she had married a meaner version of Nicolas Cage’s character, H.I., though by that time, she already knew how violent he was. When I was growing up, Mom bragged to me about having dated gangsters before my dad. Working in film, she romanticized crime and violence, so it’s no surprise that she married a self-proclaimed mafioso.

My dad was a criminal who worked in construction, stole my identity, and periodically kidnapped and trafficked me until I was 10. He spent my childhood in and out of jail and prison, mostly for white-collar crime. Each time, incarceration only made him more erratic and violent.

Now, staring at my living room wall, I realize how terrified I am that in spite of my genetic history, I really want children.

“OK,” I say. “But we need to make an informed decision that isn’t based on my fear. We need to find a genetic counselor who can tell us that I won’t pass on my dad’s mafia genes.”

“We’re a family, no matter what,” he says, smiling. “I love you.”

I try to fall asleep, turning over the details of a future in which I have biological children. I think of my little sister. She was the first baby I ever cared for, fed, and protected. But she eventually wound up in prison, where I couldn’t protect her, for 38 months. Every year on her birthday I drown in a wave of survivor’s guilt.

I think about what I’ve read about genetics and how afraid I am to give birth to children who have any part of my parents’ legacy woven into their DNA. I map out hereditary Punnett squares in my mind as though the question of whether or not to get pregnant should be answered by a high-school classroom full of AP Bio students. Finally, I give up on trying to sleep. I wish there was some way to be reassured that I would be a good parent and that my children wouldn’t be predisposed to my parents’ violent tendencies. I want to find an answer. I wish science could give me a decisive yes or no. I decide to schedule an appointment with a genetic counselor.

Thinking about getting pregnant reminds me of the college boyfriend who dumped me a decade ago. I had been a sophomore when my therapist-in-training at the YMCA urged me to be honest and tell my boyfriend about my childhood. About how my father had trafficked me.

But based on the guy’s reaction, I had been too honest.

“I just can’t have kids with someone like you,” he said.

“Someone like me?” I was stunned. This exercise in honesty was not off to a great start. We had never talked about having children. We had never discussed anything further in the future than our spring break plans. I immediately regretted listening to my shrink.

My childlessness seeps into my professional life as well. Female coworkers insist that I should have children, imploring, “But you’d be such a good mother!” I thank them because what do you say when you are trying to finish an email as other women stare determinedly, yearning to offer up a rainstorm of tears for your barrenness? “Having a baby is such a miracle,” one coworker intimates, standing beside my desk. I don’t know how to tell her that the miracle I am most grateful for was starting my period the summer of 1996 and narrowly escaping the fate of being an incestuously pregnant 10-year-old with a devoutly Christian mother who didn’t know that I was being pimped out to pedophiles when my dad picked me up from school or when he carried me sleeping from my bed or took me along to job sites in San Diego, Portland, Kansas City.

The night before seeing the geneticist, I sing along to Minnie Riperton’s soprano ballad “Loving You,” serenading my husband as we wash the dishes together. It’s cartoonishly over the top how much I love him. He teases me for insisting that we live in a 1970s musical. After I sing the chorus he asks me again if I’m sure that I want to go to the appointment alone. I reassure him that I’ll be OK.

But sitting in the OB-GYN waiting room, I suddenly regret that I insisted on coming by myself. Affectionate pregnant couples offer each other saltines and bottles of water. They hold one another close as they sit side by side on mauve vinyl couches and stare down in wonder at pregnant globe-bellies.

I tap my pen against the clipboard cradled in my lap. The genetic counselor calls my name, and I follow her to a tiny exam room bleached with fluorescent light. She motions to a chair and asks me if I have any questions before we start. I focus on my words, attempting to craft a response that won’t sound too crazy or paranoid.

“Mostly, I want to know if there is any way to genetically predict psychopathy.”

“Honestly, there is not much that we can predict in terms of psychological phenotyping.” She tells me that testing for Tay-Sachs or Down syndrome is straightforward, but that there are too many factors and unknown genetic markers for psychological development. As long as they are provided with a healthy environment, she tells me, many times children won’t develop any of the psychological disorders that they might be predisposed to.

She begins to sketch my family tree. “What’s your mother’s ethnicity?”

“German and Swedish and Norwegian.”

“And your father?”

“Well, my dad is my main concern. He’s a violent felon. And I don’t mean to stereotype him, but he is Sicilian and Irish. I guess there’s no surprise that he’s a mafioso.” The genetic counselor stifles a laugh.

“Any health issues that you know of?”

“I don’t really know anything about my paternal grandparents. My mom told me that my grandfather died from a cocaine overdose about a week after I was born. And then at the funeral my dad and his brothers almost killed each other in a fistfight over who would get my grandfather’s ashes and the Cadillac.

“All kinds of people have children,” she reassures me.

“Yeah, I guess that’s true. Unfortunately, my parents did.”

At the end of the visit, the genetic counselor reminds me that nurture and environment will supersede nature. But this is the vague answer that I already knew. I had really hoped that she would be able to recommend new research, refer me to another doctor, or order a genetic test of some kind.

I leave the clinic more uncertain than before, wondering what I should read when What to Expect When You’re Expecting doesn’t have a chapter on this; I need a book called something like Bringing Up Bambino.

When I get home, we talk about the appointment and my long list of fears. The list is longer than a CVS receipt for a home pregnancy test.

“I want to have children,” I tell my husband. “I have never wanted this with anyone else.” I remind him that there is a chance we might not even be able to conceive. After all, in 34 years I’ve never tried to get pregnant, and I am fast approaching “advanced maternal age.” My husband holds me as I cry and reassures me that we are a family no matter what. And that when we are ready, we can foster or adopt.

“I’m sorry for being so neurotic about all of this.” I pry my glasses off my face and wipe them clean from the salty fog of tears.

“I love you,” he smiles. “You are beautiful, smart, a little neurotic sometimes, and you are so easy to love.”

I am just as uncertain as I had been before talking to an expert. When I tell my friend about the appointment, she points out that uncertainty is something that all parents grapple with. Just as I can’t get a blood test for mafia genes, others don’t have the luxury of knowing that their child’s life will be idyllic. That she will graduate from Harvard with an athletic scholarship, that he will be kind, curious, intelligent, and successful. All we can do is try our best—and get therapy to avoid repeating our parents’ mistakes.

Genetic tests have unlocked so much information about our genealogy that we never knew before. The popularity of services like 23andMe and have made the capture of the Golden State Killer and other violent criminals possible. And yet, there are vast limitations to what our genes can tell us. A swab of my cheek cells cannot tell me in detail what it means to be human in the 21st century. My chromosomes will not reveal why my little sister went to prison but I did not. No allele can decide for me whether I am ready to be a parent. But asking these questions will make me a better parent when that day comes. Gradually, I am learning to accept that life is full of ambiguity and that parenthood is a leap of faith.

Sabra Boyd is a writer, reader, and child-trafficking survivor activist.

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