When I was seven years old, I was in love with, and terrified by, a movie called Dolls. Its director, Stuart Gordon, was famous for his film adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories–including the cult classic The Re-Animator, which would’ve made Lovecraft himself projectile-vomit–and would later switch gears entirely with Disney’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. In Dolls, these career paths converge: it’s as magical as Peter Pan and as violent as Friday the 13th.
What does some movie about angry dolls have to do with Nancy Russell Burger’s book about raising an NLD child? Dolls isn’t a terrible film, but it doesn’t fit its own format very well–it’s too childish for grownups, and too gory for kids. And A Special Kind of Brain isn’t a bad book by any means. But it’s neither the “how to parent an NLDer” book it claims to be, nor the memoir it probably should’ve been.
Mrs. Russell-Burger’s son Jimmy was diagnosed with NLD when he was almost five years old. He was very well-spoken, but had trouble mingling with other kids. At birthday parties, he’d wander off by himself or get overwhelmed, asking one day, “Why am I so wrong?” Changes in his routine made him anxious.
Jimmy’s NLD diagnosis was confirmed by Dr. Byron Rourke himself, and his parents set about trying to find out how their son viewed his world. Reading this book, it’s clear that Mrs. Russell-Burger understands Jimmy very well. I’m just not sure she understands NLD.
For example, Jimmy has very strong interests–in tractors, microwaves, singer/songwriter James Taylor. His mother makes it sound as if fixations like these are common in NLDers: “fixations or obsessions are idiosyncrasies of the NLD child,” she writes. But this is a controversial assertion at best. Certainly, some NLDers do have fixations, but I’ve never read that such fixations are a feature of the syndrome. In fact, some writers argue that fixations are an important distinction between NLD and Asperger Syndrome: people with AS have them, people with NLD do not.
But the “perseveration problem”–if it is one–isn’t a big deal. It’s the author’s overview of the NLD syndrome that leaves a lot to be desired. Her description of the visual-spatial/organizational part of NLD is the worst I have ever read. She “explains” it with examples from Jimmy’s life: his difficulty following multi-step directions and his difficulty paying attention during storytime. We don’t know if Jimmy has trouble understanding graphs and charts, if he can line up numbers while doing math, if he can tell how far away or how fast a car is, if he can follow where people are pointing (“It’s over there, Jimmy”), if he gets lost easily, if he has trouble finding things that are right in front of him, if he sometimes stares into space in a way that would make George Romero proud. I was left feeling like the “visual/spatial” problems in NLD were attentional disabilities, not spatial ones.
The “Show, Don’t Tell” rule of writing “is the first rule we writers must learn,” Mrs. Russell-Burger points out. Unfortunately, like all rules, it’s sometimes meant to be broken….especially when you are explaining an unfamiliar concept. I saw examples of Jimmy’s behavior that *could* be spatial problems (Jimmy has trouble with instructions like “Put down your truck, get your hat off the hook, and let’s go to the car”–does Jimmy know where his hat is?)–but I needed the author to tell me I was on the right track. As my writing teacher used to say, “You’ve made all these connections in your head, Tera, but I need you to make them for me.”
The central problem with A Special Kind of Brain is that Mrs. Russell-Burger has trouble writing about any NLD that isn’t Jimmy’s. But that’s only because she’s such an expert on her son. When she talks about him and other members of the family, it feels like she’s talking to you and no one else–maybe sitting in your kitchen, drinking iced tea. I was always hungry for pool parties, birthdays when the training wheels came off the bicycle, Bernie the Hot Dog Guy, Jimmy’s bowel habits. (Hey, I was there with bells on).
A Special Kind of Brain works much better as a memoir than as “a friendly NLD road map…to help…anyone who comes in contact with the NLD child.” But in trying to be both, it ends up, unfortunately, as neither one.