Boy Alone: A Brother's Memoir

~by Karl Taro Greenfeld

Autism has recently become a subject of great interest in the United States and is steadily gaining more recognition as the general population has become more aware of it. Boy Alone is the memoir of Karl Taro Greenfeld, focusing primarily on growing up with Noah, his younger brother who was diagnosed as autistic, and how his family and their lives were impacted. From the description sent when the book was offered to me for review, Boy Alone seemed to be examining autism from a different perspective than many of the other books on the subject currently in print. Lately, high-functioning autistics, particularly those with Asperger syndrome, seem to have been receiving more attention and autistic savants have always been fascinating. Noah is none of these--a low-functioning autistic, he has little hope for improvement or recovery. He, and others like him, often fall through the cracks of public discourse.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, autism was a relatively rare diagnosis and was poorly understood. Having an autistic family member meant, and still means, that much of the family's time and energy are devoted to the care of that person, even to the detriment of other family members as sacrifices of varying degrees must be made. In Boy Alone, Greenfeld explores the history and development of treatment for those with autism through the very personal lens of his family's history. Noah is such a huge part of his family's identity, Greenfeld struggles while growing up to be defined by something other than his brother. So many things are overshadowed by Noah's condition: his Japanese mother and her desire to paint, his Jewish father who gives up the work he loves to try to make ends meet, his brother who is painfully average and normal. The book itself also struggles to define itself--is is supposed to be about Noah, Karl, or the family as a whole? Ultimately it is really all of these things since they are so completely interrelated. The book is mostly chronological, beginning with Noah's emerging developmental issues as an infant and following the family as they age, although interjections and reflections from Greenfeld's current situation interrupt this flow to some extent.

I only have one major complaint about Boy Alone and that is with a particular technique that Greenfeld employed. (If you are sensitive about spoilers, if a memoir can even be said to have a spoiler, you might want to skip to the next paragraph.) At some point towards the end of the book, Greenfeld allows himself to completely succumb to fantasy and imagines what life could have been like under different circumstances--namely, what it would have been like if his brother had shown signs of improvement. The main issue that I had with this is that fact and fiction isn't clearly delineated for the reader; I have a vague idea where the fantasy may have began, but I'm not entirely sure what was what, even after the author's explanation. At some point I had noticed a subtle shift--the writing or the story no longer felt entirely authentic--but I can't say for certain where this break in reality occurred. I understand what Greenfeld was trying to do and the point he was trying to make, but for me it just called into question much of the factuality of the rest of book. In addition, some readers will probably feel manipulated.

It is obvious that Greenfeld cares deeply for his brother. The writing in Boy Alone captures beautifully his evolving and complex feelings towards Noah as they both grow up. Noah has become a primary focus for the family in many ways; both his parents, and now his brother, have written stories, books, and articles based on their experiences living with an autistic child who of course can only grow up to be an autistic adult. In addition to the memoir, Greenfeld has also included a marvelous bibliography of works mentioned or cited within the text. Boy Alone is a deeply heartfelt book and Greenfeld has written an important addition to the increasing number of personal works and memoirs about autism; particularly, it is not overly optimistic and yet does not completely succumb to despair.

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