A Letter from Chris Piazza

I recently saw the film Penny Serenade, staring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. It’s a classic from 1941 and I’ve seen it at least half a dozen times.

Penny Serenade Poster

In a nutshell, this story is about a couple who, after a devastating miscarriage adopts a baby girl. The marriage, which was strained before with multiple problems, begins to totally unravel after the miscarriage. However, an infant baby girl becomes available for adoption and becomes the saving grace for this couple. All is well until six or seven years later when they tragically lose this little girl.

Without this child in their life, all the old issues now resurface. With this enormous loss the marriage totally falls apart. But as Cary Grant is driving his wife, Irene Dunne, to the train to leave forever, they get a miraculous call from the adoption agency saying they have another child for them…an infant boy, and the film ends on this heart-warming note. 

As I said, I’ve seen this film many times but this time I saw it quite differently. Having recently read, Replacement Children: The Unconscious Script by Rita Battat and Abigail Brenner I had an entirely different reaction. 

I realized that this ending was not going to be a happily ever after one for this new child who was coming into this torn grieving family. I realized that this new baby would be living in the shadow of the “angel” daughter and expected to heal this couple. This child was about to become part of an inevitable complex family drama that it couldn’t possibly understand. In the film this new child was seen like a gift from heaven. It would save their marriage and leave all of us watching this story to feel hope. Though the dead child was with “the angels” this new child was a gift from “the angels” sent to save these parents. What a perfect way for us all to feel better? 

This made me wonder how many other popular films shared this message of hope tied up with a “replacement child” and without thought to how this would play out for the child, something that I think about now after having an understanding of what it means to be a “replacement child“.

What this also suggested is how ill equipped we’ve been culturally to deal with mourning. The parents in this story needed help to understand their loss and to heal. Instead, a new child is thrown into this mix with the heavy burden of having to fill a huge hole. A tall order and, realistically, an impossible one.

Though I’m not a replacement child I can certainly identify with both the children and the parents in this sad tale. 

Chris Piazza

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