Lives of Suffering and Survival

Reviewed by Juliet Wittman
Sunday, November 11, 2007

RACHEL IN THE WORLDBy Jane Bernstein Univ. Illinois. 266 pp. $26.95

When Jane Bernstein's first book about her developmentally disabled daughter, Loving Rachel, was published, she found herself on a television program with author Josh Greenfeld, father of an autistic child. The host asked if her guests regretted their children's birth, and Bernstein was surprised to hear Greenfield say that when he seriously considered the life his son would lead, he did. And she also remembers his comment: "It's hard when they lose their kittenness."

As a child, Rachel charmed strangers with her directness and easy chatter; they were unaware that she was simply parroting phrases that she didn't understand. Her mother worked with her, noting every gain in function, hoping that her daughter would find a viable life. But then the enchanting child became a persistent adult who seemed to have no empathy with others and required assistance every hour of every day while resenting the mother who gave it. "I want to get rid of you," Rachel said again and again.

Bernstein details the agonizing process of finding a home and occupation for Rachel. The book makes it clear that we, as a society, are not set up to help people like her or their families, particularly as money for social services continues to dwindle. But what gives the book its strength is Bernstein's ability to write as expressively about the times when she herself was nearing madness as about her deep love for her daughter.

THE FLORIST'S DAUGHTERBy Patricia Hampl Harcourt. 227 pp. $24

At the beginning of her memoir, Patricia Hampl is seated in a hospital room beside her mother, clasping her hand and writing her obituary. It occurs to Hampl that the night nurse might consider this a breach, but "not to her, I want to protest. She would have expected nothing less, the dutiful writer-daughter scribbling in the half-light, holding the dying hand while hitting the high points of her subject's life." The Florist's Daughter is an extended remembrance of this difficult and fascinating Irish woman, who with Hampl's Czech father brought two cultures together in St. Paul, Minn., to form the author's world.

While Mary Catherine Ann Teresa Eleanor Marum Hampl observed and calculated, her husband, Stan, creator of floral beauty, approached the world with trust and wonder. He was incapable of thinking ill of others; he admired the rich clients her mother tended to scorn.

Hampl avoids easy sentiment, conscious lyricism and emotional effusiveness. The narrative circles around, returning again and again to specific insights and images, which gain resonance with each repetition. You can see both her mother's incisiveness and her father's love of beauty in Hampl's prose, and there is a power here that makes the final chapters quietly devastating.

MY LOBOTOMY A MemoirBy Howard Dully and Charles Fleming Crown. 272 pp. $24.95

Howard Dully's early life was a catalogue of horrors. His mother died when he was 5, and his father married Lou, a woman with sons of her own. What followed is reminiscent of those gruesome newspaper articles in which one child is singled out to endure all of a family's abuse. Dully didn't die of the neglect he suffered or the beatings he received, but he lost all sense of himself as a worthwhile being. When he was 12, with little protest from his father, Lou arranged to have him lobotomized by the notorious Dr. Walter Freeman, who pierced the back of his eye sockets with an instrument like an ice pick, and then twisted it into his brain.

Mercifully, Dully wasn't entirely incapacitated, but he drifted through adolescence, spent time in institutions and on the streets, and was for decades unable to find a permanent job. When he finally found a loving wife and work as a bus driver, he began researching his own story. He gained access to Freeman's notes, talked to his brothers and attempted to question his father (Lou had died by then). In 2005, he was the subject of a National Public Radio program on lobotomy.

Dully's prose is clear, and his story compelling. You can't help admiring his ability to achieve a measure of peace and understanding, and even more the generosity of spirit that allowed him to forgive not only the father who betrayed him but also the unspeakable Lou. ¿

Juliet Wittman teaches writing at the University of Colorado and is the theater critic for Westword, a Denver weekly.

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