Arthur Miller's Lost Opportunity

03/22/2016 05:57 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2017

In an election season marked by finger-pointing, bitter political infighting, and gender anxiety, the time is ripe for a revival of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, the semi-fictional dramatization of the Salem Witch Trials that will premiere in a much-anticipated Broadway production this April.

Miller wrote The Crucible--the most frequently performed of all his plays--in response to the atmosphere of suspicion and treachery surrounding the hearings led by Senator Joseph McCarthy's House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). It comes on the heels of festivities surrounding the Miller centennial in October 2015, which recognized the playwright's political integrity in denouncing the war in Vietnam and standing up to HUAC. But renewed interest in Miller continues to overlook a darker episode of secrecy and evasion in his past: the story of his 49-year-old son, Daniel, born with Down syndrome.

The child of Miller and his third wife, Inge Morath, Daniel was institutionalized at his father's insistence. Miller rarely accompanied Morath when she visited Daniel and did not mention him in his memoir, Timebends. It was not until 2005 that an expose published in Vanity Fair disclosed Miller's secret shortly after his death. According to the story, Daniel was placed in a home for infants just a week after his birth. Between the ages of four and seventeen, he was housed at Southbury Training School, which former staff member Marcie Roth recalled as "not a place you would want your dog to live." While Daniel's three siblings enjoyed the benefits of wealth and celebrity, he was raised in squalid, overcrowded confinement. Despite the circumstances of his upbringing, Daniel is said to be a warm, capable, and well-balanced person. Although Daniel was not mentioned in his father's will, a separate trust bequeathed him an equal share of the Miller estate.

I wept while reading the Vanity Fair story after my son was born with Down syndrome in 2007. Determined to love and protect my new baby, I was outraged at the thought that a parent--especially one who had devoted his literary career to speaking out against oppression, injustice, and war--could send his child away. I also was reminded of the good fortune that my child was born at a moment of greater commitment to including people with disabilities rather than hiding them from view.

Over time, I came to understand Daniel Miller as part of a generational tragedy. Miller was certainly not alone in giving up his son, although his failure to visit or publicly acknowledge Daniel is his own. It was common for doctors to advise new parents to commit children with disabilities for their own good and that of the family. This was the fate of Judith Scott, the celebrated fiber artist with Down syndrome who was institutionalized for over three decades until being rescued by her twin sister. And of Dwight Core, Jr., born with Down syndrome in the 1960s, whose story is movingly captured in the home movies that were added to the Library of Congress archives in 2006. When Emily Perl Kingsley, a writer for Sesame Street, gave birth to her son Jason in 1974, doctors counseled her to send the baby away and tell people he had been born dead. Instead she brought him home, raised him alongside her other children, and became a pioneer in making people with disabilities visible on television.

People with Down syndrome weren't the only victims of institutionalization: Steve Silberman's recent book Neurotribes tells the stories of countless people with autism who were tortured, ostracized, and locked away because of their unusual behavior. Ruth Sienkiewicz Mercer, a woman with cerebral palsy born in 1950, was diagnosed as an "imbecile" and sent to an institution at age eleven, where she was abused for eight years. Eventually, advocates enabled her to publish a memoir and secure her release. Countless less fortunate others died without ever having a voice.

Why, then, dig skeletons out of the closet at a moment devoted to celebrating Miller's accomplishment? Is it unfair to hold Miller to present day standards of decency and compassion? The point is that Miller wasn't just anybody. He used his public stature to decry injustice and persecution, even when it put his career and reputation at risk. He could have used his position to speak on behalf of people with disabilities, like the Kennedy and Shriver families, Kingsley, or George Will, whose son Jon was born with Down syndrome just 6 years after Daniel.

Miller recognized the tragedy of wasted human lives. He made his audience understand the necessity of valuing those deemed insignificant by the history of great men and events. Far more important than Miller's personal shortcomings are what the secrecy surrounding Daniel's life says about a shameful episode in American history. "I don't say he's a great man," says Linda, wife of Willy Lohman in Miller's Death of a Salesman. "But he's a human being and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid."