This Is Not a Love Story by Judy Brown is a painful memoir about the author’s childhood, growing up with a brother that no one understood.
Brown, who also penned the phenomenal YA novel Hush under the pen name Eishes Chayil (which was seriously so good that I sat up until 2 or 3 am, reading it on the bathroom floor with the door closed so the light wouldn’t bother my sleeping husband, because it was winter and the downstairs was far too cold to be comfortable in, and so I made do and it was entirely worth it), grew up in a Hasidic Jewish family in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. She’s the third of six children, and she’s aware from an early age that her younger brother Nachum isn’t like everyone else. He doesn’t talk, he seems to stare through everything and everyone without seeing any of it, he bangs his head and rocks, he can’t tolerate touch or loud noises, he has public meltdowns.
Most readers today probably recognize those characteristics as falling on the more severe end of the autism spectrum, but back in the early 80’s, no one seemed to know what was wrong with Nachum. ‘Crazy’ was the word most frequently used to describe him and his behavior, and her insular community assigned many reasons as to why Nachum acted the way he did, including the rumor that Brown’s parents, disregarding Hasidic tradition, fell in love before they were married. The entire family is deeply stressed by Nachum’s mysterious behavior, each family member showing it in different ways. Their mother never stops searching for answers, dragging her son from doctor to doctor. Their father alternately shuts and explodes with anger. Brown makes deals with God to help her brother, prays for his death, and feels nothing but relief the two times Nachum is shipped off to live with relatives in Israel. Her behavior seems harsh until you remember that no one understood what was wrong, and she was only eight years old and extremely frightened (to the point where she worried that Nachum was contagious, and that her future marriage prospects- something incredibly important among the Hasidic community- would be compromised, because no one would want to marry someone with such a brother, which wasn’t an unfounded fear if you know anything about Hasidic matchmaking).
In 1993, when Nachum is sent to Israel for the second time, a specialist finally diagnoses him with autism, something Brown’s mother had never heard before, and his life starts to change. When Brown reluctantly visits him four years later, she finds a brother who can talk- differently than her, haltingly, but he’s a brother she finally starts to understand, because he’s able to participate in the world around him.
This is a tough, sad read, and it’s important to remember that when the author was young, especially in her insular community, there wasn’t quite the understanding we have of autism now. I have to admit, I was surprised by the medical community’s inability to diagnose Nachum- if I read this correctly, Brown is about my age, and thanks to The Babysitters Club book Kristy and the Secret of Susan, I was aware of autism back in 1990/91 when I was just ten or eleven years old. Nachum wasn’t diagnosed until 1993. Were doctors more conservative with that particular diagnosis back then? I’m deeply curious as to how it took him so long to receive the proper diagnosis (and it wasn’t for a lack of trying on Brown’s mother’s part, that’s for sure). This book also made me realize how damaging the societal attitude about people with disabilities was in the past- not just for those with disabilities, but for their families as well. Brown and her siblings suffered deeply (as did the parents, my goodness), and it was only as an adult that Brown was able to connect with her brother, reconcile her childhood attitude towards him, and forgive herself. We still have so far to go in terms of how we treat people with disabilities, but thank goodness we’ve already come so far.
This isn’t an easy read, but it’s a deeply fascinating one.
Visit Judy Brown’s website: http://judybrownhush.com/