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Forgiveness and Healing: My Thalidomide Story

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Eileen_Joy(noisefilter2)Eileen Cronin and her mother Joy Cronin

By Eileen Cronin, Special to Everyday Health

For decades I was haunted by this nightmarish story about my birth: It began with the doctor handing me to my mother and saying, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but your baby is missing her legs.” The fact that it was true that I was born without legs from about the knees was not the worst part of that nightmare. It was the words:I’m sorry. One never wants to imagine themselves as the source of another’s regret.

When I was a small child, my mother told me that she never had a moment’s regret over my birth. She’d tell me that I was her four-leaf clover. I never believed her.

I was born in Cincinnati in 1960, two years before the news would break that thalidomide, a sedative given to thousands of pregnant women for morning sickness, insomnia, and anxiety, caused severe birth defects, including missing limbs. Because of thalidomide, we now have tightly regulated research guidelines. In the 1960s in an effort to get FDA approval, thalidomide was handed out in a reckless fashion under the guise of “clinical trials.” The company seeking FDA approval, which was headquartered in Cincinnati, was not forthcoming about the damages.

Women were left to devise their own explanations of what happened. My mother claimed she hadn't taken the drug while she was pregnant with me. She was a devout Catholic, a woman who had eleven children because the Church didn’t approve of birth control. When I rejected her four-leaf clover explanation at five, she attributed my situation to “God’s Will.” I’m not sure what adults hope to achieve with the “God’s Will” explanation to a young child with a profound loss, but I believed God was punishing me. I was sorry for everything. When my mother went into a mental hospital in a manic state, I believed that I was to blame. I was seven years old.

Joy Cronin, Eileen Cronin's motherJoy Cronin, Eileen Cronin's mother

My mother recovered from her illness but we grew apart. At the time I believed this was because we had different religious views. But the real problem was that we had never healed from the mental and emotional damages of thalidomide. Physically, thalidomide had hardly taken me down. Due to Mom’s persistence, I was fitted for artificial legs at age five. At six I was confronted with my first bully, and I handled him with a whack from my lunch box. I went to the same Catholic schools as my siblings and adored my progressive all-girl high school. My teenage years included about a dozen girlfriends and a few boyfriends. It was my early adulthood that was the most conflicted: I didn’t know if I could have healthy children. If my mother had taken thalidomide, then I had no genetic concerns. My children would be fine. But my mother said she had not taken it. Maybe I had a genetic disorder.

Now I see that the problems my mother and I faced did not begin with the words, “I’m sorry.” If we had dealt with our loss honestly and realistically, we would not have been at odds with one another. We would have been demanding an apology from the drug company — not from each other. Or we might have dropped the whole thing.

Last year, as I was finishing my final draft of my memoir , my mom called. My heart seemed to pound from my throat. I could hardly breathe. We made the usual stilted chit-chat until I said, “Mom, I’m finishing the book. I know that you took thalidomide.” I’d had proof since my daughter was born sixteen years earlier. A geneticist confirmed it. But I’d had to research the drug and piece together information for years before I became pregnant. I was treated as a pariah by some family members because I doubted my mother. The book ended my private hell.

“I forgive you,” I said to Mom.

On earlier attempts to confront her I said, “I never blamed you for taking a pill that doctors gave out.” This time I meant that I forgave all of it: the innocent mistake, the cover up, the alienation, everything.

Then I sobbed while Mom talked at a hectic pace. In her gibberish was a confession. That was all I needed.

Eileen Cronin grew up in the Midwest during the 1960s and '70s. Her first publication was a cover story for the Washington Post Outlook section. She was awarded the Washington Writing Prize in fiction and had a notable essay in Best American Essays. She practices psychology in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and daughter.

Last Updated:1/16/2014
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