Monthly Archives: December 2011

Running With Scissors and Be Different

Several years ago, a woman who lived three houses down the street from me lent me a copy of Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader.  This is what happens when English teachers live down the street from one another.  She didn’t belong to our neighborhood book club, which was hosted at one of the houses between our two houses, because she didn’t usually do those kinds of joiner things, but I was all about drinking wine and talking about books, so I had joined.

As soon as I finished Fadiman’s book, I picked up the book for our next book club meeting, George Howe Colt’s The Big House, another memoir.  Some of you already know where this is going.  About two or three pages into the book, everything seemed very familiar, as though I already knew this family.  A quick Google search confirmed: Colt and Fadiman were married to each other.  That I read the books back-to-back was a bizarre coincidence never to repeat itself.

Until now.

Somehow, I found myself reading Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian, by John Elder Robinson, on my phone while working through a paper copy of Running With Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs, before bed each night.

So here I am, reading along in both and thinking, “This is so fucking weird.  They both grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, where I grew up.  They had bad, bad childhoods in Amherst, where I had a bad, bad childhood.  Is Amherst just the scene of miserable childhoods?”  Because these dudes have different last names, it took awhile for me to realize they are brothers.

Another reason, perhaps, is that these guys present radically different perspectives on their childhoods.  Now, maybe Robinson’s Asperger’s colors the way he perceives things, but he isn’t all that pissed about his childhood.  He acknowledges that his father is a drunk and his mother is a lunatic, but he also credits them with helping him as he grew up. Burroughs, on the other hand, rakes his horrendous parents over the coals, hilariously and painfully.

Did their age difference have something to do with it? Or perhaps it’s because Robinson is writing a book about Asperger’s, not crazy mothers?  Or is one telling only part of the truth?  But then, memoir is always only part of the truth. You leave things out when you don’t want to hurt people, you arrange things to be artistically coherent, and you meld together two days for the sake of brevity.  I take no issue with this, and my rule as a memoirist is always tell the absolute, ugliest truth about myself, but feel free to spare any others by leaving stuff out or to run it through a writerly lens.  If memoirs were just factual, they’d be boring as hell.  I intend to preface any books I ever publish with that disclaimer.  Nothing I tell is untrue, but if Henry David Thoreau could meld two years into one to give Walden a strong structure, I’m allowed a little leeway, as well, as long as I’m never trying to make someone else look worse or to make myself look better.  Does that make sense?  I value honesty, not naked facts, which seems to be much the way Burroughs approached his book.  I have absolutely no doubt that the doctor’s turds were removed and set out to dry, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Burroughs had to fictionalize some of the dialogue around it or edit out some detail that would make Hope look pathetic.

Anyway, both books were excellent.  I learned a lot from Be Different.  It’s a wonderful way to learn the perspective of someone on the spectrum.  I laughed a lot with Running With Scissors.  And cringed regularly.

Anyone want to recommend any other family-tie book pairings I could try out?

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A Slant of Sun

I’ve not gone into great detail about how hard last summer was, but it was pretty brutal.  After pinpointing the sensory processing disorder with both boys, we had to face it head-on.  Benjamin, especially, was incredibly high-needs.  Is high needs, but we’ve become accustomed to that now.  At the beginning of last summer, our Occupational Therapist was able to explain exactly what was going on and provide a ton of feedback on how to help Ben, which was great except then we actually had to implement everything, and that ain’t easy.  He needed regular intervals of heavy work, tactile input that didn’t overstimulate, deep massage, and help planning tasks, among other things.  Suffice it to say, the summer found me laminating little squares of paper with tasks like “choose breakfast” and “take off pajamas,” then affixing Velcro to the backs.

While Beth Kephart’s son, Jeremy, had a different and more acute set of needs, her 1998 memoir A Slant of Sun particularly resonated with me.  It’s a glimpse into the challenge of trying to help a small child with high, high needs.  Kephart’s language is poetic and evocative of the way parents live from one trial to another error as they search for the right school, the right professional, and the right parenting methods for this unique child in this very moment.

Jeremy is diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, which offers his parents little guidance, beyond don’t let him fixate for too long on his cars.  Kephart is home with him while also maintaining a freelance writing career, but her quest to help her son takes over all aspects of her life. It is draining: emotionally, financially, and physically, yet Kephart remains steadfast and committed to her little boy.

If A Slant of Light has a weakness, it’s that it evades the sense of hopelessness I feel so often.  Even when Kephart is writing about the way her son completely shuts down and refuses to join in at school, she never seems to give up believing she can help.  As a mother who desperately wants to give up much of the time but then doesn’t because parents don’t get to give up, it’s humbling to imagine that other mothers face their children’s special needs without that feeling.  I don’t know if Kephart really did feel that way but kept it out of her book or if she’s just a better woman than I am.

I left the book with the desire to email Kephart and ask her: “Now that he’s all grown up, how are things?  Is he happy?  Living a fulfilling life?  Has he read this book?  Is he OK with you having written such personal things about him?”  Standing where she stood 13 years ago, and writing about my kids in a similar vein, I want to know these things.  I want to know it’s all going to be OK.

Remind me to check for a sequel.  Right after I’m don’t helping Benjamin plan how he’s going to put on first one sock, then the other.