The National Book Award-winning author of The Noonday Demon and the new book Far From the Tree, a monumental examination of hundreds of parents and children who have coped with special circumstances such as disabilities, deafness, dwarfism, and mental disorders, picks his favorite books about family love.
Five books that deal with the complexity, nuance, and fearful intensity of family love.
Torn in Two
By Rozsika Parker
In an era when people gamely put themselves on network television to talk about the most unlikely sexual practices or personal criminal activity, few parents are willing to admit to ambivalence about their own children. Parker maintains that good mothering entails two conflicting instincts: the instinct to cling to and protect your child, and the instinct to push your child out into the world—to steer, in her words, between “the Scylla of intrusiveness and the Charybdis of neglect.” This book is a needed corrective to a society that has sentimentalized motherhood, and so reduced it.
By Jennifer Franklin
In poems that are both searingly direct and metaphorically ambitious, Jennifer Franklin compares her experience of having a child with autism to that of Demeter, who half-lost Persephone and raged for her return. She writes: “I was the last to hear you / Scream because I did not // Want it to be true. You cried / Out in torment and the sun // Kept shining through the leaves. / That wasn’t right.” Franklin describes her painful love for the child she has, and her attempts to reconcile that with feelings of intense loss: “I did not / Only lose you in an instant; / I abandoned the infinite possibilities / Of what you might have become.”
The Boy in the Moon
By Ian Brown
Ian Brown’s son, Walker, has multiple severe disabilities caused by a rare genetic illness. Brown’s book charts his quest first to find treatment for Walker, and later, when it is clear that no treatment will make a difference, to accept Walker for who he is. Written in vivid, wry prose, the book examines illness, ponders the inexplicable nature of intimacy, and describes how Brown’s son, by failing to evolve, forced his parents to evolve instead. It’s a book full of pain and joy, a miracle of empathy and wisdom.
By Clara Claiborne Park
This is the first of the great autism memoirs and the first to describe autism as not merely an illness, but also an identity. Park’s daughter was born in 1958, at a time when mothers were routinely blamed for their children’s autism, but somehow Park made it through with an intact sense of self—and with, moreover, an intact sense of her daughter, who ultimately seemed different rather than damaged. Park summed it up: “I write now what 15 years past I would still not have thought possible to write: that if today I were given the choice to accept the experience, with everything that it entails, or to refuse the bitter largesse, I would have to stretch out my hands—because out of it has come, for all of us, an unimagined life. And I will not change the last word of the story. It is still love.”
By Virginia Woolf
No book better describes how a mother loves her child; none better sums up the pain that relinquishing him into the world entails. Woolf ponders Betty Flanders writing to Jacob and comments on “how mothers … scribble over the fire … and can never, never say, whatever it might be—probably this—Don’t go with bad women, do be a good boy, wear your thick shirts; and come back, come back, come back to me.” Elsewhere in the book, Woolf writes, “These changes of mood wear us out.” That sums it up.