UP ON LONG ISLAND, Marion McBride sued Anthony Redmond for paternity, alleging he was the father of 4-year-old Monique. Both McBride and her daughter took blood tests that proved not only that Redmond was not the father of Monique but (surprise!) Marion was not her mother. Little Monique may be the first baby brought by the stork.
Marion McBride, though, is dubious of that. All she knows is that she went into the hospital four years ago and came out with a baby. That the baby is not hers is now patently obvious. She is therefore suing the hospital, alleging that the real Monique went home with someone else, maybe the wife of a Long Island orthodontist, and that little girl, instead of living on welfare with her mother, is now probably studying the violin by the Suzuki method.
This is the basic stuff of childhood fantasies and adult anxieties. There is hardly a child who has not toyed with the notion that he or she somehow got into the wrong family, or, barring this, was secretly adopted. To them, this is the surest explanation for why they are always getting punished and reprimanded, seem to share nothing in common with other members of the family and are, at least for the moment, demonstrably unloved.
As for the parents, they have their own version of the fantasy, only with them it is anxiety. Just raise the possibility of a baby switch and everyone goes absolutely bonkers.
For instance, in Washington recently, a baby was taken home from George Washington University Hospital wearing two different identification bracelets -- one with the right name, the other with some other name. When this happened, the parents demanded that the hospital prove that they had the right baby, or, to put it another way, that someone else did not have their baby. There seemed to be nothing that the hospital could do, including fingerprinting and other tests, to assure the parents that they indeed had the right baby. The question lingered.
There are probably a bundle of Freudian reasons for all this -- why children fantasize about being the "wrong" child and why adults fear that their children may be right. Whatever it might mean in some psychological sense, it's clear that it reflects a common sense appreciaton that the Declaration of Independence was only theoretically right: In practice, all men are not created equal. In fact, nothing matters as much as the environment into which you're born.
Mostly, this is a fact of life we tend to ignore. We tend to treat the poor, for instance, as if they chose to be poor, as if they are somehow responsible for their plight. Sometimes, of course, they are, but a good deal of the time they are not.In many cases, their lives were shaped the moment they were born and a certain set of parents came to claim them. It was all over then.
In this sense, the McBride case could not have come along at a better time. The nation is swinging to the right, becoming less tolerant of the poor, less willing to help, less sure that helping matters any. There is a tendency, understandable maybe, just to throw up our hands, to turn our backs on the poor, to say that they are accountable for their own plight.
In a way, this is a very satisfying thing to do. It not only helps us wash our hands of the poor, it also builds our own self-esteem, enhances our own accomplishment. I, for one, would love to think that I am what I am solely because of who I am -- not who my parents are. It won't work though, and if it won't work for me, it won't work for anyone else, unless they were born dirt poor and got to be fat and middle-class all by themselves. As for the rest of us, we had help.
Lately, though, we've been losing sight of this fact. We tend to think that we have individually earned what we were simply born with. So commonplace is this kind of thinking that it has not occurred to McBride or her lawyers or anyone else that the wrong person is doing the suing. It should not be Marion McBride, who is what she is. The hospital did not change her life one whit if they gave her the wrong baby.
The one who should sue is young Monique. Any jury would agree she is the injured party. She can claim she was deprived of a wealthier parent, and that her chances for success and happiness in life have been diminished. It would be a good suit, but a bad precedent.
After all, most poor people could make the same case.