As a child with a Downs Syndrome sister, I recall in the 1950s families with Downs Syndrome children often kept their kids in the proverbial closet. My mother and father thought differently. They felt Carol, their daughter, needed to be visible in the community and that the community should provide the resources for such kids to develop their potential to the fullest extent possible. That’s why my mother fought for the establishment for a school in Westchester County for the mentally retarded and, when Carol was older, for the establishment of a retarded children’s workshop in White Plains so that Carol could feel and be productive in her mature years.
Not all parents felt the same way. Some wanted to hide the disability, for they were uncomfortable saying they had a retarded child. I know of one specific instance where the parents decided not to take the child home from the hospital, consigning the baby to life in an institution.
Infinitely Polar Bear does not deal with mental retardation, but rather with a manic-depressive father and the family’s attempt to live a normal life, which is challenged every day by the erratic and outlandish behavior of the father.
It is Boston in the late 1970s. Cameron Stuart suffers from manic depression, sometimes referred to as bipolar disorder. The film begins with him being fired from his job and going into rehabilitation in a hospital setting. To manage the situation financially, his wife Maggie and their two young girls move into a small apartment while she does her best to support the family.
As Cameron’s mental health stabilizes, Maggie applies to graduate school for an M.B.A. so she can earn more money and send her girls to private school. Fortuitously, Columbia University grants her a scholarship. To attend, she asks Cameron to take care of their kids for 18 months, the time she needs to complete the degree, after which they can reunite as a family. Cameron agrees, but has his doubts about whether he can fulfill the mission.
Living with their father is a constant source of embarrassment for the girls. They love him dearly, but Cameron’s bizarre behavior tests them. He occasionally abandons them during the night, is overly friendly with neighbors whom he hardly knows, and begins many home improvement projects that are never finished, leaving the house in disarray. To complicate matters, Cameron does not take the meds needed to keep him calm, and the home life of the family is shattered with frequent emotional outbursts.
Infinitely Polar Bear raises the question of how much a child should tolerate the abusive behavior of a parent. The Talmud in the Tractate of Kiddushin (31a) is instructive. A story is recounted in which a prominent man wearing expensive garments was seated among Roman officials. His mother forced her way into the gathering and tore his garment, hit him on the head, and spat in front of him. In spite of this, he did not embarrass her. Another sage states that if the mother threw his wallet into the sea, the child should remain passive and not embarrass his parent.
Implicit in this Talmudic narrative is the notion that honoring parents does not depend on what parents did for you or whether they were good to you. Rather the commandment to honor parents is simply because they gave you life. As a result, you need to be nice to them even if they are not nice to you.
Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin, a clinical psychologist, considers the extent to which a child should honor a parent who is abusive. He makes a distinction between a parent who is mentally competent and one who is deranged. In the former, there is more latitude for the child to respond to abuse; in the latter case, there is less. When a parent, for example, has bipolar disorder or Alzheimer’s, the child is faced with a great challenge to keep his composure in the face of behavior that might otherwise be condemned.
Infinitely Polar Bear reminds us of the challenge of being respectful to parents even when they do not behave as parents. It also indicates that an abiding love for parents can often overcome the worst of parental provocations.