A generation ago, children born with severe learning disabilities were usually shunted aside, denied the chance to go to school and find their own place in the world. But in the last few decades, an often heroic group of parents have been pioneers in advocating for their sons and daughters. A number of them have written movingly of their struggles, creating an inspiring subgenre of parenting books. Now the youngsters have reached an age where at least some of them can tell their own story—one that any parent faced with raising a challenging child needs to hear.
In his new book, A Different Life, Quinn Bradlee—the son of legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his wife, the writer Sally Quinn—describes a childhood spent largely in the hospital, where he was treated for a bewildering and frightening series of ailments: a hole in his heart when he was just three months old, numerous seizures, migraines and mysterious infections. Over the years, his parents received many confusing and sometimes contradictory diagnoses. It wasn’t until he was 14 that a doctor finally made the right call: He has Velo-Cardio-Facial Syndrome (VCFS), a genetic disorder that manifests itself in a range of physical ailments and learning problems.
Now 26, Bradlee writes candidly about his troubles in school, his difficulties making and keeping friends, his deep love for his parents, and his fervent desire to live on his own: “Will I ever be truly independent of them? I don’t know. It’s one of the biggest riddles of my existence.” For the moment, the answer is moving to the house just next door.
Bradlee is, at times, funny, mordant, surprisingly perceptive and disturbingly naïve. And then, there’s this: “More than anything, I really want a girlfriend…It may sound funny, but I think part of my depression is that I can’t get laid.” (Not that he’s a virgin. One of the revealing stories is his first time—with a hooker in St. Martin, courtesy of a well-meaning friend. His mother, he says, “ went nuts.”)
At first, it is easy to dismiss Bradlee as an overindulged and overprotected child of privilege. He’s not coy about his advantages, even starting the book with a chapter on generations of his illustrious ancestors. He appreciates the access his famous and wealthy parents provided (the book includes a story about the time his mother took him to meet Nelson Mandela). He enjoys the glamorous family life that includes not only the townhouse in Georgetown but also a lush weekend place on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and a Hamptons summer place (once owned by eccentric relatives of Jackie Kennedy).
But it’s clear that even enormous privilege did not protect him from the profound loneliness of being different. Some of his insights are painful to read. After describing a period of near-suicidal depression when he was 18, Bradlee concludes with this passage: “Sometimes, I’ll see a leaf being driven over by cars, and it’ll slowly get to the other side of the road. That’s how I feel from time to time.”
His parents tell their own version of events in relatively brief asides, filling in some of the factual gaps. The most touching of these is his mother’s description of her delight when Bradlee delivered an eloquent speech at a conference on learning disabilities. The audience gave him a standing ovation. “I remember feeling like I was almost levitating, I was so proud,” she writes. You get the clear feeling that she worked hard for every ounce of that joy.
Bradlee’s story ends on a upbeat note. He went to two colleges although he left without graduating and wound up at film school, where he found his true passion. With help from some pros, he made a film about VCFS that is used to raise money for research. And he has also started a social networking Web site, www.FriendsofQuinn.com, where he hopes learning-disabled kids and their families will find and support each other. The book, written with a co-writer, Jeff Himmelman, is part of his goal to help others who are struggling as he did. “In the deck of cards of life, I’ve won some and I’ve lost some,” he says. Just an ordinary, extraordinary life.
Barbara Kantrowitz is staff editor at the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Columbia University Teachers College and a contributing editor at Newsweek.