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Boy Alone: A Brother's Memoir Paperback – April 27, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Sibling rivalry—and love—of a ravaging kind is the subject of this unsparing memoir of the author's life with his severely autistic brother. Journalist Greenfeld (Standard Deviations) describes his brother, Noah, as a spitting, jibbering, finger-twiddling, head-bobbing idiot; unable to speak or clean himself and given to violent tantrums, Noah and his utter indifference to others makes him permanently alone. But Karl feels almost as alienated; with his parents preoccupied with Noah's needs (and Noah's celebrity after his father, Joshua, wrote a bestselling account of his illness in A Child Called Noah), he turns to drugs and petty crime in the teenage wasteland of suburban Los Angeles. Greenfeld doesn't flinch in his depiction of Noah's raging dysfunctions or his critique of a callous mental health-care system and arrogant autism-research establishment. (He's especially hard on the psychoanalytic theories of the Viennese charlatan Bruno Bettelheim.) But the author's self-portrait is equally lacerating; he often wallows in self-pity—I return home stoned, drunk, puking on myself as I sit defecating into the toilet, crying to my parents... that I am a failure—and owns up to the coldness that Noah's condition can provoke in him. The result is a bleak but affecting chronicle of a family simultaneously shattered and bound tight by autism. (May)
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“Gripping.” (Suki Casanave, Washington Post)
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Into the future.
I want to fly like an eagle, till I'm free.
Fly like an eagle, let my spirit carry me."
----Steve Miller Band, 1976
At last! For years I have hoped Karl Greenfeld would share his experiences of growing up with his younger brother, Noah, whom Karl describes as "the most famous autistic child in the United States." Karl's father, Josh Greenfeld wrote a trilogy of brutally honest books about life raising his boys. The Noah Trilogy, as "A Child Called Noah," "A Place For Noah" and "A Client Called Noah" have been called have helped unmask the myth of saintly families like Marie Killilea of the “Karen” trilogy fame who cheerfully sacrifice all for a member with multiple challenges. The Karen books ("Karen," "With Love From Karen" and "Wren") make me tired as nobody is that saintly and unselfish. The Karen trilogy has for decades created an idyllic mash up of "Father Knows Best" and "Donna Reed Show" meet cerebral palsy. The books and baby boomer sitcoms create the fantasy of Platinum Standard families who leave readers and viewers feeling that they could not live up to what the Karen trilogy portrayed. Josh Greenfeld's books are refreshingly brutal in their unabashed honesty.
Before and After Zachariah: A Family Story About a Different Kind of Courage, which began as an article in the January 1980 issue of "Redbook" and was later expanded into book form mentions "A Place For Noah" by describing the "patchwork after school programs of the day care center." This book also describes the plight of the multiply challenged and the dire need for good placements.
Karl, long relegated to the background because of his younger brother's great needs has finally taken his turn at bat. Born in Japan on November 26 1964, some 18 months before Noah's birth on July 1, 1966, Karl describes his life in the New York suburb of Croton, unaware of a life before and without Noah. He describes his life with Noah; as boys he said he and Noah did not grow up together; they grew alongside one another.
In 1978 "60 Minutes" aired a segment about life with Noah; a follow up to Noah's story was broadcast in 1998. It is interesting that Karl said in 1978 that he did not want to be on television because, according to him, "he hadn't done anything" and that the story was really about Noah. Fortunately Karl does make an appearance in the segment, which would NOT have been nearly as moving or as effective had he not.
Interspersed with passages from his father's diaries, Karl's voice resonates loud and clear. His impressions appear to jibe with that of his father's; over time, the two would lock horns over many issues, such as Karl's burgeoning independence and sense of self.
Karl himself is described first by Josh Greenfeld in the Noah trilogy by his distinctive beginning. A handsome, Eurasian man, Karl reflects on being a member of a biracial family. Karl's mother Foumi is Japanese; Josh is Jewish. In "A Place For Noah," Karl describes himself as "half-Jewish and half Japanese; half Buddhist and half Jewish" and identifies Asian items and products in the household, such as foods and their car, which was a Japanese import. He draws on his Asian heritage, musing on how his work ethic differs and even clashes with Foumi's, who cannot understand why Karl has taken such a lackadaisical attitude toward school. Josh even enrolls the boy in a Japanese juku, or "cram school" so as to give him a leg up in mathematics. Karl is the only member of the class who is Eurasian and unable to speak Japanese. Sadly, the juku does not meet Karl's needs at that time.
Bright and resourceful, Karl in adolescence meticulously mapped out war zones and strategies in his own home, using military model weapons as props for his detailed strategy. School was not a priority for Karl during his adolescence; he spends much of those years taking drugs and running with a questionable crowd.
Like Josh, Karl is delightfully brutally honest. He describes his fall from grace; his years of sinking and slinking deeper into drug abuse and trouble. As Karl's challenges arise, Noah's recede slightly. By 1979, Noah, then 13 is enrolled in the Behavior Modification Institute. Noah serves several months there until it is discovered that he is being abused. He was withdrawn from the BMI (called OCC in "A Place For Noah") and once again the focus was understandably back on Noah. Severely autistic and cognitively delayed, Noah's self help skills remain marginal at best, absent at worst. His lack of speech continues to be a problem. Luckily, the Marlton School for the Deaf accepts him in their Special Program and it is there that Noah learns rudimentary signs and does well under their program.
By the early 1980s, the Greenfelds come up with the ingenious solution of buying a second house, so that Noah can live in his boyhood home with caretakers and they can enjoy respite in a home in the area. They continue checking in with Noah and Karl even spends some nights with Noah. Upon Noah's graduation from Marlton, Karl accompanies him to the school dance, where he is ready to do battle for Noah when his deaf classmates look askance at him.
Noah's caretakers range from a sexual predator named Ben to two very kind men from Japan who help him master many new skills. One has Noah on a strict exercise regimen, taking him out running on a local track. The other teaches Noah how to swim. Josh even said in "A Client Called Noah" that Noah loved the two men from Japan and thrived under their tutelage.
Karl, after years of backsliding into the abyss of drug addiction, graduated from Sarah Lawrence in 1986 and carved out a career for himself as a writer. He is amazingly self-deprecating in re his career of choice. He says his decision to be a writer underscores "a lack of imagination." Au contraire. His decision speaks to a real talent, one he inherited from Josh and Foumi, both of whom are published writers. He continues his steady climb uphill, after a stint in rehab in the 1990s. He later marries his long-time girlfriend, Silka and the couple are blessed with two daughters.
Karl's brief thumbnail sketches of his girls and his pure love for them (Josh described loving Noah as "purity;" Karl would later use this term in describing paternal parental love for his girls) are quite heartwarming. Silka's steadfast determination to stand by Karl's side as he struggles through rehab makes me think of the 1976 Steve Miller classic, "Fly Like an Eagle" and the hymn, "On Eagle's Wings." Karl does take off on Eagle's Wings and he does soar. By claiming his literary voice, he finds his place in the literary world with several published books to his credit.
Karl is also a gifted story teller. He is a master at taking his reading audience along for the ride. Gary Wright's 1975 "Dream Weaver" could easily be the soundtrack for the last chapter of this book. Without spoiling anything, let's just say that he is very good at convincing his audience and then he cleverly comes out from behind the curtain to take his bow.
I love this book.
Now, having finished the book, I am still amazed at the parents of Noah and Karl, their amazing strength and will to find resources at a time when the state institution was the most common choice.
It was also interesting to hear of Noah's journey through the system and what his adult life looks like. Karl is equally honest about his own journey: through drugs and anger and teen angst to a life as a writer, with a family of his own. His relationship to Noah continually baffles him.
There was one part of the book I disliked immensely, but I do not want to throw in a spoiler. I think the language in that part could have been couched differently.
Definitely a good read for all who wonder about the miracle cures touted in books and television interviews.