Sunday, February 21, 2010

Book Review: Boy Alone: A Brother’s Memoir, by Karl Taro Greenfeld

Boy Alone is a gripping, honest, and heartbreaking story of a family caught up in trying to raise a severely autistic child in the 1960s and 70s, told from his now adult brother’s perspective. Karl Taro Greenfeld is two years older than his brother Noah, so he barely remembers life without him. Noah, who spoke for a brief period, regressed at age two and his family began a decades long struggle to find answers. It’s a journey many families go through, first that nagging doubt that something is wrong,  then searching for a diagnosis that fits, and seeking just the right treatment, one that might lead to a cure, or an improvement, or finally, sometimes, just hoping their child is safe and cared for. Through it all the Greenfelds, like most of these families, struggle to maintain hope in the face of ever multiplying disappointments. Greenfeld documents these experiences in his family with a haunting clarity.

Beyond the story of the family is a more personal memoir about a sibling’s experience. Greenfeld writes honestly from his own perspective, chronicling his childhood confusion, his adolescent resentment, and his adult despair. Through it all, he maintains what one reviewer called a “ruthless honesty”, owning the hard truths that so many books shy away from.

When I work with the siblings of special needs kids, I’m always struck by the idea of “mixed feelings”. Children love their special needs siblings, bond with them regardless of the difficulties, but too often, they’re expected, or expect themselves, to ignore the uglier aspects of the truth, the feelings of loss and grief, the rivalries, anger, embarrassment, and even hatred they may be feeling.

That’s why Boy Alone can be so valuable for parents, older teens and adult siblings. Karl Greenfeld is not the only sibling to struggle with his feelings toward a disabled brother, but he’s one of the few who is able to step back into his childhood emotions, presenting the truth about his feelings and experiences with a raw substance, even decades later. Siblings often feel very alone in what they're going through. This book can help them feel connected.