Lincoln’s Replacement Children

There is so much to talk about after seeing Lincoln this weekend, but since I have my Replacement Child lenses adjusted, I can’t help but focus on one scene in the film that touched on Lincoln as a husband and father.

In the scene we discover that Abe and Mary lost a child to illness as Abe rails at Mary for her extended grieving, and she in turn admonishes him for putting their oldest son, Robert, in harm’s way by allowing him to join the ranks of the Union soldiers.  When her grieving over the death of their son became too prolonged, in Lincoln’s view, he had apparently threatened Mary with having her committed to an asylum, (using the vernacular of the film). She tells him that if Robert dies in the war, he had better plan to really put her away, not just threaten it.

Two things about this scene, so beautifully rendered by Steven Spielberg and brought to life by Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field, struck me as I watched this relatively small scene in the epic film. First, Lincoln’s admission that he couldn’t allow his wife’s grieving to go on, because he couldn’t allow it in himself. And, that he feared he could be swallowed by that grief every day. But he went on with his daily routine, we are to assume, including his legendary presidential duties. His wife’s continued grieving, then, was an affront to his daily struggle to contain his own grief and fed his anger at her.

I saw that kind of difference in grieving, between men and women, and between individuals, in my own parents. As I wrote Replacement Child, I had to dig back into the evidence of my parents’ behaviors soon after the death of their eldest daughter, and then throughout the rest of their lives. As Mary Lincoln in the film showed, the grieving for a child really never ends. My own father went back to his work as soon as he could, never speaking of his lost daughter and going on with life by tucking his grief away. One of the few times I heard him utter her name was as he told me of his wishes for his own eventual remains, “to be cremated like my girl.” It was the only time I ever saw him cry. For my mother, she nearly disappeared into depression until she did have another child—who might be called a replacement child.

The other part of this relatively small detail brought out in the film was the realization that Mary’s other two children became somewhat replacement children after the loss of the other. She pinned her hopes on the other two, and knew she might not survive another child’s death. That, I reasoned, was why her response to Robert’s going to war was so intense. It’s a version of replacement children that I have not explored before this, that seems so obvious now—that it’s not just the subsequent child born after the death of a child that is a replacement child, but the remaining children that take on that role as well.


The Search for Self for the Replacement Child; Captured in a Poem by Victor Hugo

In the literature and research I have read, there is agreement on at least one of the characteristics of the replacement child; the search for an individual identity apart from the child they have replaced, or have been born after. I can attest to this personally, in that the search for my own identity and for my role in my family was the strongest drive for me to write Replacement Child.

Looking at more academic studies of replacement children, I was struck by these selected lines from the poem “The One Who Returned” by Victor Hugo (1802 – 85) that are included in the article, “Life After Death: The Replacement Child’s Search for Self,” by Kristina Schellinski as part of her thesis for the Association of Graduate Analytical Psychologists in Geneva, Switzerland (2009).

The One Who Returned

Mourning mothers, your cries are heard up above.

God, who holds all lost birds in the palm of His hand,

sometimes returns the same dove to the same nest.

oh mothers, the cradle is linked to the grave …

death entered like a thief and took him

a mother, a father, the grief,

the black coffin, the head struck against a wall

the dismal sobs from the pit of the stomach …

the mother, with her wounded heart,

remained three months immobile in the shadows …

quietly pleading: “give him back to me!”

The physician advised the father, “She needs a distraction

for her unhappy heart, the dead child needs a

brother” …

time passed … she felt the stirrings of motherhood

for the second time …

when suddenly, one day she turned pale

“No, no I do not want this! You would be jealous!”

Oh, my gentle slumbering child, who are frozen in the


you would say: “they are forgetting me; another has

taken my place,” no, no! …

The day came, she gave birth to another child,

and the father joyfully exclaimed: “It’s a boy!”

But the father alone was joyful …

whilst she was bitterly, despondently

dwelling more on the departed soul than on this new

son …

saying: “My angel lies alone in this grave!”

she heard, in an oh, so familiar voice,

the newborn speak, from the crook of her arm,

and very quietly whisper: “It is I. No one must know.”


The full text is in: “Les Contemplations”, Librairie Générale Francaise, 1972, translated into English by Julia Roessler)

The poem touches on some pivotal issues that have I have thought a great deal about in my own life, especially during the four years of writing my memoir. Whether in beginning life after the death of my sister, I somehow straddled both death and life. Whether I carried my sister within me in some sense, her imprint on my soul, as both Schellinski and Hugo hint? And whether my search has been for my own identity, or hers?

Writing Replacement Child; a writer’s talk about building a memoir

Meeting with a group of writers at the Westport Writer’s Workshop last night was such a great evening. It’s always instantly apparent when you have writers talking together who have an understanding of the task of creating good writing. The discussion was deep around how to shape a memoir.

What if you weren’t there?

One topic that delved into a pivotal issue I faced when writing Replacement Child. What do you do when parts of your story happened when you were not there? Is that still memoir when you fashion a scene from the facts you know, the stories you were told and even the newspaper articles about an event? Since much of the story of Replacement Child happened before I was born, I faced this dilemma immediately as I started writing the book.  The plane crash, my parent’s dealing with the grief of losing their eldest daughter, the first treatments and surgeries for my critically injured two-year-old sister, all happened before my birth. But, they were an integral part of my story.

The example I gave for how I approached it was how I built a scene around a newspaper article I found that featured a photo of my father just after the accident. The headline was: This is the Day He Must Tell Wife Plane Killed Donna.  The article went on to describe how my father had waited all night for word that they had found Donna’s body in the wreckage. How my mother was recovering from burns she had gotten during the accident, and how he was waiting for her to wake up to tell her the news. From that newspaper account, my knowledge of the events and my intimate knowledge of my parents, I fashioned that scene as part of my memoir. I believe it is as true as anything could possibly be regarding that moment in their lives.

Piecing together your story

We talked about how you go about unearthing your memories and piecing together the themes that develop the characters, arc and conflict in your story; just like a novel. I told them how I lined my hallway with index cards of each chapter of Replacement Child to figure out how they fit together to tell the story. I’ve shared a picture of that here.

Piecing it together

In the small group of women, I was surprised to also learn that two were connected to replacement children; both a mother and a daughter. We also talked about that term and how I adopted the use for my book title after reading about replacement child syndrome being coined in 1964 in an article by Albert Cain and Barbara Cain entitled “On Replacing a Child.” I explained how I immediately identified with some of the characteristics noted in that research. No, I said, my parents would not have liked the term. But it didn’t make it any less true for me.

Thanks to the Westport Writer’s Workshop for a lively discussion that brought me back to thinking about the real work of writing. Write on!

Replacement Children You May Know

Replacement child Vincent van Gogh
Replacement child Vincent van Gogh

Last week we talked about the first reference to a replacement child in recorded history possibly being Seth (or Shet in Hebrew) who replaced Abel, who was killed by Cain. Talk about complicated family history. In Genesis 4:25, Eve refers to his birth:

“God has granted me other seed in place of Abel. . .”

And God said to Cain: (Genesis 4:10)

“The voice of your brother’s blood crieth unto Me from the ground.”

Interesting to note some of the other replacement children from history:

  • Solomon
  • Napoleon III
  • Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Vincent van Gogh
  • Salvador Dali
  • Rainer Maria Rilke
  • Sabina Spielrein
  • Françoise Dolto
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • James Barrie (creator of Peter Pan)
  • Eugene O’Neill (my favorite playwright)
  • Carl Gustav Jung

I’m heartened to see that some of these replacement children are creative stars, and include some of my favorite artists. It makes me wonder if the search for a unique identity, a trait of the replacement child, tends to express itself through art. Apparently my brethren can be credited for giving us some of the great pieces of literature, theater and visual art. Not to mention Carl Jung’s quest for understanding the human condition.

This puts a different spin on being a replacement child and makes me pretty proud to join the ranks.

I’ll be looking at more of the historical references to the replacement child in the coming weeks along with sharing more of the research that helped me write Replacement Child.

Let me know if you know of any other famous replacement children, or if you are one yourself. I would love to start a conversation here. Just leave a comment using the link at the top left of this post.

Also, I’ll be adding to the links on the right navigation of this page for other references you may be interested in.

More later—