Monday, May 21, 2012

Review: The Anti-Romantic Child by Priscilla Gilman

When I was in graduate school, there was a couple in the department who had just had their first child. I was impressed that they were able to juggle dissertations and a baby. Once I left school and started my own family, I am even more impressed with the decision they made. It can't possibly be an easy one and I have no idea how they've ended up, in academia or leaving it for other fields. But if their little boy (he was an infant the last time I saw him) ultimately was diagnosed with developmental disorders, how much more difficult exponentially would their lives have become? This is precisely the situation that Priscilla Gilman finds herself in. Not only is she consumed with getting her degree, teaching English literature and poetry to undergraduates, searching for a tenure track job, supporting his husband in the same quest, but suddenly she is also faced with the knowledge that their beloved toddler Benj is not "normal;" he is in fact developmentally delayed and hyperlexic, a condition in which a child is a precocious reader but has difficulty acquiring social skills and regular language, using echolalia instead.

Gilman grew up in a literary family and married a fellow English graduate student so when her small son shows an amazing capacity to repeat verbatim poetry read to him and learns to read himself at the young age of two, she is pleased and proud to see that he has inherited the family facility with language. While she has some concerns with Benj's development, family and her pediatrician allay her concerns equating Benj's actions (or non-actions) to one or another relative's preferences as a child. But after an admissions visit to a preschool, the differences between Benj and other children his age are no longer dismissable. In fact, the preschool's serious concerns about Benj's visit will start Gilman on the path to discovering the developmental delays and the challenges that Benj will have to face and overcome all of his life.

As Gilman and her husband discover the extent of Benj's challenges, they are also facing change in their jobs, awaiting the birth of their second son, looking to move homes, and starting to develop cracks in their own marital relationship. So many changes looming all at once. Gilman details her own heartbreak at the realization of the extent of Benj's delays and the fact that there is no good way to ease his path in life. A professor whose area of focus is the Romantic poets, she uses excerpts from Wordsworth's poetry to mourn the loss of the romantic child she expected to have. Benj will always have to work harder than a typical child or adult to make sense of certain things socially or emotionally and there is a gut-wrenching acceptance in Gilman's narrative here. At the same time, she learns a lot from Benj as she comes to accept and celebrate all those wonderful, quirky things that make him the unique and lovable child he is.

This story brims with deep feeling. Gilman's strong and unshakable love for Benj shines through even as she is rawly honest in exposing her fears and her disappointments in facing parenting a child who, in many ways, is the antithesis of the idealized child in Wordsworth's poetry, the child she thought she would have. The pain of changing expectations is clear but so is the joy of finding the wonder in Benj just as he is. The integration of the snatches poetry as exposition definitely had an academic feel as if these passages were inserted to restate her previous point. Sometimes this strengthens the narrative but oftentimes comes off as repetitive. And it is definitely a hallmark of the sort of writing that pervades academia but it risks losing the casual reader. The personal tale of Gilman's and Benj's growth helps to balance this more abstract academic feel though. And her determination and advocacy in order to find Benj the best possible doctors, schools, and teachers is inspiring and instructive. I felt a kinship both with Gilman as a parent but also with Benj. And as I read some of his challenges, I easily recognized them in myself: precocious reading, social anxiety, sensory issues, and more. Perhaps we all have something of the "special" child in us. With the love and understanding of a parent like Gilman, who has shared this very personal journey, I have no doubt that Benj will continue to grow and face his challenges with courage and to bring unexpected joy to those in his life.

For more information about Priscilla Gilman and the book visit her website, her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

1 comment:

  1. I love your comment about us all having something of the "special child" in us ... what a wonderful thought that truly is.

    Thanks for being on the tour!


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