Love Letter: Why Lexi Magnusson Kicks Kelle Hampton’s Ass

WARNING: Very long post. I’ll summarize for you:

  • Lexi has a blog. Kelle has a blog.
  • Lexi recommends Kelle’s writing as better than her own.
  • It isn’t.
  • It really, really isn’t.
  • The two blogs satisfy different needs: nothing wrong with that. Read ’em both if you want.
  • Kelle’s is prettier.
  • Lexi’s is smarter, vastly better written, funnier, more substantial, and more useful.
  • I don’t know these women.
  • I’m not telling you to stop reading Kelle’s blog.
  • But Lexi’s is better.

There, now you don’t have to read the rest. But if you must:

Rewarded for My Bad Behavior

I have already copped to a terrible habit of reading blogs by parents coping with a variety of childhood illnesses and neurological conditions. The kindest interpretation is that it makes the whole world go away for awhile: these narratives, even some of those poorly written, are riveting, their stakes some of the highest possible. Reading them will teach you an effing lot: about science, about the law, about human nature, good and ill. But learning alone does not necessarily justify your submerging yourself in them: even if you maintain at all times all the respect in the world for the authors and their families, it can be a ghastly form of pain tourism — the mental equivalent of cutting, of which I’ve written before.

Yes, pain tourism is how I found Lexi Magnusson’s blog, Mostly True Stuff. [EDITED: In April 2014 Lexi lost her original domain name: for a while she could be found at lexistential.com, but sadly, that domain appears to be having issues too. I have linked to new as well as archived versions of as many of her posts as I can find, and because I am an information hoarder, I’ve left the original URLs there too, to help anyone who may be searching for them. EDITING MY EDIT: try leximag.com now — and forever I hope!] She has four young children, one with autism, the youngest with Down’s Syndrome and autism. I defy anyone without children, or whose children are all neurotypical and without major health conditions, or maybe even just one child with health issues, to not wonder, “What is your life like???”

I peeked in for a few minutes’ escape from my own life, and because her voice was so strong — it reminded me of Dooce’s back in the very earliest years: funny, intelligent, open to change, heartbreakingly and bravely and scarily honest — I stayed, and I read, and I read, and eventually her children’s various permutations were normalized for me. I don’t mean that I forgot about the autism or Down’s syndrome, it’s just that because she and her voice were so likable and I got such a round picture of her life and the variety of things in it, children and otherwise, that it became unremarkable that her children are the way they are. And Lexi’s life, which includes airlifts to the hospital and features therapies and insurance battles and entire days ruined because the wrong backpack was used — her life was less something to marvel at for its foreignness and more a narrative that defined its own normal, full of happinesses and anguish and rewards and trials and love and chaos. Her life is not pain tourism for the reader who spends any time with it: it just IS. A life. A rich and a good life, with more challenges than some but less than others. My mind still boggles at how she does everything she does, but oops, guess what, I forgot to pity her.

How to Win Friends and Influence People without Smiley Faces or Holland

Look at how she can write honestly about things that are hard and yet show you how much she enjoys and appreciates her children exactly as they are:

The Difference: Early Intervention (www.lexistential.com/2013/02/earlyinterventio/)

(also archived here: http://web.archive.org/web/20130217010913/http://www.mostlytruestuff.com/)

originally posted at mostlytruestuff.com/2013/02/14/earlyinterventio/

She is extremely brave, thoughtful, and intelligent on the subject of prenatal testing and a woman’s right to choose: Yes, women should have the right to find out and yes they should have the right to choose and YES to choosing to have that baby with Down’s! My own love letter was prompted by a post of hers in which she worries that women who have learned they are carrying a child with Down’s syndrome come to her blog and are quickly driven away. And perhaps some of them are. But what she may never know, because site statistics can’t track it, is who she has lured in, whose mind she has slowly inveigled into new viewpoints. Her complicated and compassionate grapplings with the prenatal testing and choice issue are the first that have tempted me to think more carefully about it. I strongly believe that many people who would never have considered carrying to term a baby with Down’s will find themselves, after reading much of Lexi’s blog, not quite so sure. Or even having done a complete about-face.

All those blogs about children with Down’s syndrome being blessings and angels from heaven and that ever-present “Welcome to Holland!” metaphor-slash-essay find me closing them faster than Netflix popup windows, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Hey, I’m glad for the people that like them (and enormously glad for the children so loved), but their reality and version of happiness isn’t mine. Things that look to them like “lighting a candle against the darkness” sometimes look to me like denial and irresponsible, occasionally even dangerous reductiveness. Things that look to me like honesty and like empathetic and complicated weighing of needs and difficulties on all sides look to them like whining and negativity. Lexi’s reality feels more like mine. Thoughtful articulation of conflict and disappointment, unresolved difficulties amid happiness and wellsprings of happiness within the difficulties — this is a place where I can spend some time. This is a person who has things to show me, things I can learn from. Blessings and angels and “Welcome to Holland” don’t teach me jack about how parents and kids with special needs make their way forward on this planet together. This does:

http://www.lexistential.com/2013/06/abbys-first-day-of-school/

(also archived here:

https://web.archive.org/web/20141120022720/http://www.lexistential.com/2013/06/abbys-first-day-of-school/)

originally posted at mostlytruestuff.com/2013/06/04/abbys-first-day-of-school/

And so does this:

Autism and Accountability (www.lexistential.com/2013/02/autisticandaccountabl/)

(also archived here:      http://web.archive.org/web/20130204231952/http://www.mostlytruestuff.com/2013/02/autisticandaccountabl.html)

mostlytruestuff.com/2013/02/01/autisticandaccountabl/

Somebody pregnant and scared because of certain test results or whose child has just been given an autism diagnosis might just want hearts and happiness, and she should get to have that. But somebody else sees pages of hearts and smileys and thinks, You are fucking lying to me, you don’t have a goddamn thing to say to me about what I am really looking at, what my child’s life and my other children’s lives and my own life will be like. But here, here is somebody I can believe. Here is someone who will not lie to me: 

I’m Jealous of You. (www.lexistential.com/2013/05/im-jealous-of-you-2/)

(also archived here: http://web.archive.org/web/20130517234106/http://www.mostlytruestuff.com/)

originally posted at mostlytruestuff.com/2013/05/17/im-jealous-of-you-2/

I broke. (www.lexistential.com/2012/09/i-broke/)

(also archived here: http://web.archive.org/web/20120905175015/http://www.mostlytruestuff.com/2012/09/i-broke.html)

originally posted at mostlytruestuff.com/2012/09/02/i-broke/

She is not sugarcoating anything. She is a straight shooter. She is not in denial. And her life has hilarity and joy in it.

https://www.facebook.com/MostlyTrueStuff/photos/a.275066505911653.66712.195080907243547/1024995857585377/?type=3&theater

(The “Selfie Sequence” is a moving target. Click on the Facebook image linked above, so you can see the background, which is crucial. It might also be saved at https://web.archive.org/web/20141120021336/http://www.lexistential.com/2013/05/photolance-the-selfie-sequence/. Damn I love that mini drama in a child’s selfies.)

http://instagram.com/p/mJ7QJEggPf/

http://instagram.com/p/laWH90AgDs/

http://instagram.com/p/kfvH10AgIv/

And her children are happy and beautiful, so beautiful.

http://instagram.com/p/cP3X1MAgB3/

http://instagram.com/p/aTwUerggMa/

http://instagram.com/p/aLUUgkAgMQ/

So why not my child? one ends up thinking. Why not us? Why shouldn’t we have a beautiful happy family too? Maybe we could.

Who Is Kelle Hampton and Why Should I Care? (Answer: You Don’t Actually Need to Care)

Don’t worry, Kelle fans, this isn’t a “Kelle Hampton sucks” or “I hate Kelle Hampton” post. I had never heard of her before I looked at Lexi’s link to the birth story that apparently went viral, and while I understand why that birth story made the rounds, I was surprised at the level of interest in the blog. Granted, I haven’t spent as much time with hers as with Lexi’s, since it’s not as interesting to me, but I’m not telling you to stop reading it. For those who don’t know: Kelle Hampton is a woman with a true and professional gift for photographing children (though she’s no Elena Shumilova, wow); with basically good intentions; and with writing skills serviceable enough for a church newsletter. She has built her blog into a small business, much of its larger success stemming from her description of giving birth to her second child. I admire the professionalism of her perseverance and hard work, and her photographs of children are evocative and moving.

Here’s the thing: that birth story of Kelle’s, the big moneymaker, was compelling, but not because the writing was anything out of the ordinary. Her birth post hooked us because it showed us something happening that many people have secretly wanted to happen for a very long time: In Kelle’s birth story we watch a Martha-Stewart-type crafted birth event unfold, with candles and music and ribbons with the child’s name and everything magazine-slick and posed, right down to the flawless, camera-ready makeup on the mother in labor — everything is gorgeous and manicured and decorated and scripted and perfect . . . and then a baby with Down’s syndrome is slammed down into the middle of it. Wham.

Hold on, hold on, before you write those indignant letters. I am NOT NOT NOT saying that I or anyone else wanted anyone’s child to be out of the ordinary in any way. But if you have never wished, just a little bit, looking at some coiffed dinner party in a magazine, that somebody’s drunk and horrible brother-in-law would walk naked into the room and take a whiz in the soup tureen or that that obscenely expensive televised wedding would be disrupted by police coming in to arrest the bride for arson . . . well, you are either lying or simple. Most right-thinking people secretly long for the occasional disruption of the overprocessed and packaged-for-media-dissemination product, but in a smaller way. (Kelle brought a crown, for god’s sake, as if she were a child playing dress-up. She speaks of that post-birth moment as one in which everybody is jealous and wants to be you: if she is jealous of other women when they are in that moment, that’s fine, that’s up to her, but it is bizarre to assume that everyone feels that way — and more than that, it is a small and self-involved person who takes pleasure in what she fancies is the jealousy of others. How can we not want something so childish and shabby disrupted?)

When we got disruption in a big way, the right-thinking people among us also felt a little guilt: Be careful what you wish for. But we didn’t wish for this, no! We wanted a cloying Real Simple family picnic discombobulated, with gnats or something — not a birth! Or if a birth, we just wanted blood to mess up the photographs! That’s all! I swear to god!

Respect.

You have to give credit where credit is due. Kelle was open about the rip-the-needle-off-the-record effect that the news had on her party script. She didn’t pretend that she shed a few tears and jumped right to angels and blessings. Oh, she got there, to give us all a happy ending for our story, but she said a lot of things about her own emotions that opened her up to accusations of shallowness and narcissism. Her including her suffering, whether you feel it self-involved or no, is crucial to the post’s popularity. When Kelle describes going through her long dark night of the soul, gives us some real anguish, we all go through some pain, both for her and for our own smallness. When she emerges OK on the other end, in love with an adorable baby, we all feel relieved, and it is as if we feel ourselves forgiven for our initial uncharitable thoughts. The post satisfies so many desires: for the script to go awry; for honest pain to show us our own selfishness or make us feel less alone in our own pain; and for a happy ending that forgives us and makes us feel glad for the whole family. A supremely satisfying catharsis, the whole narrative.

I suspect Kelle didn’t necessarily know the extent to which she was revealing things that might reflect poorly on her — I think her naiveté actually worked in her favor here, by making her even more honest and vulnerable than she even realized, more that she realizes today. She doesn’t strike me as particularly self-aware, but that quality may be contributing to her success. Let me explain. Take romance novels and hard-boiled fiction: the more popular ones tend to be written by people who . . . aren’t always the sharpest knives in the drawer. Thing is, the people who are really smart often get tired of their characters and bored of their genre before they make it through, and they can’t help starting to make fun of the characters or of their own selves a little bit. The ridiculousness and their own self-consciousness get to them. On the other hand, authors who believe in the high quality of their product and who really love these stereotype characters they are creating — they are more likely to have the energy to see it through to the end, in a consistent voice, which is what readers want. If readers are invested in your irresistible heroine or rugged detective, they don’t want the author to start making fun of those characters. When you make fun of a character, you make fun of the reader who loves him or her, and readers are not reading Twilight or The DaVinci Code for you to make fun of them. Authors who can maintain that love for those characters make their readers happy, and those authors . . . well. They ain’t Joan Didion.

Kelle, then, knew she was taking a risk by sharing her disappointment, but I suspect she didn’t know how big a risk. She was naked in her hubris: her lavish decoration made very clear her expectation that health surprises were for other people’s children. There are claims that Kelle had some advance warning about the possibility of Nella’s having Down’s syndrome. I have no evidence one way or the other. It would not surprise me: “genuine” and “real” are not a big part of Kelle’s product, which is primarily about image. But if she was less surprised than she pretends, I can count it a venial sin in this case, because the primary good of the post is the comfort it may offer someone who is struggling with a truly surprise diagnosis. It is disappointing but not necessary that Kelle’s surprise be “real.” And I will say that even if she had good reason to prepare for a diagnosis, I do believe she would be capable of going into denial about it and investing herself 100% in the belief that bad things happen to other people and everything for me will be fine, fine, fine. The surprise may not be completely real but may yet be just real enough.

Though as I write, I feel more gently toward her. Her makeup and ribbons were trying to make something she thought would be beautiful, and if I think those trappings are silliness, as long as there were doctors nearby and responsible precautions and love, I got nothing against makeup and ribbons. I find more sweetness and elemental joy in what she was trying to achieve than in earth-mother fetishizations of the birth process in which modern medicine is not only eschewed but vilified and children subsequently endangered or worse. I mentioned in an earlier post a blog archive I glanced through once, one by a woman who wanted a VBAC at home (already risky) and had a midwife and never saw a doctor and whose child was stillborn from gestational diabetes that could have been treated and who now blames the midwife — I only wish she had been obsessed with makeup and ribbons and a photographer instead of some weird idea of what birth “should” be, other than a living mother and baby at the end. People complain that Kelle was performing her birth for an audience, and maybe she was, but so was this other woman, an audience she imagined in her mind. If she had worried more about staging a hospital room attractively and less about an imaginary gold star for her vagina, she’d have had a doctor, and her baby might very well be alive.

For Those Who Like This Sort of Thing, This Is the Sort of Thing That They Will Like

So. Kelle’s birth story and her entire blog have their place. The pictures display an idyllic life of crafts and cookie dough and charmingly mismatched toddler outfits on breezy beaches. She will tell you that it isn’t her entire reality, that there is chaos and tasks undone behind the scenes, but the pictures let you forget that, and this pretty, soft-focus version of a life with small children is the product she markets. And I am not unhappy that she does: Someone who is in shock at having their life trajectory hijacked by a diagnosis can find calm and comfort here. Look, that Martha Stewart life has room for you, too. You, too, with your child with Down’s, can look at another pretty child with Down’s making popsicles with her sister in the morning light in a pretty kitchen and think, “I’ll do that next week! No I won’t, who am I kidding, I’ll buy all the ingredients and then they’ll go bad. But I like to think that I could do that.”

And if that is what you want, then you should get to have that. You should get to enjoy Kelle’s product that she works so hard to craft for you (that is, if — and ONLY IF — you can remember that it is NOT REAL; if and only if you can keep its fantasy from making you feel in any way bad or like a failure regarding your own reality. I mean it: aspiring to create in real life the fantasy life she and her stay-at-home husband carefully sculpt for pictures — this product that is their full-time job, which supports the family — will make you and your family sadder than if you had not tried). And if she would limit her high-school-kid-meets-Hallmark-card prose with its “hotties” and “sucktacious”-ness, its sticky overwritten clichés and mixed metaphors about magic and mamas and life and whatever, to a few sentences — if she would just give us the pictures and craft instructions (the birth post worked because there weren’t any metaphors, she simply stated what happend and how she felt) and if she would banish from her Internet presence (or at least rein in) that attention-starved father of hers whose every word feels like eww, BAD touch — I could maybe go look at the pictures too.

I don’t think Lexi’s perfect or anything. She leans a little more into Hallmark-land than I like sometimes; posts like “Ways to Make Your Next IEP Awesome” get a little too broad and yuk-yuk and are less funny than her wryness; and the “You’re welcome” tic has worn out its welcome. The make-an-ugly-face photos make me a little sad, since the accumulation of them starts to smack of an extremely attractive woman who doesn’t feel herself to be so, and that’s always depressing.  But someone who wields a Wal-Mart metaphor like a BOSS is someone formidable, someone worth reading. Spend some time with Kelle’s pictures for mindless escape, and then come read Lexi and think about how to live your life:

 I Hope You’re Wrong. ([dead link] http://www.lexistential.com/2014/01/hope-youre-wrong/)

(also archived at: web.archive.org/web/20140209220344/http://www.mostlytruestuff.com/2014/01/hope-youre-wrong.html)

originally posted at mostlytruestuff.com/2014/01/hope-youre-wrong.html

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