by Dana Buchman
Da Capo Lifelong, 2006
Review by Leo Uzych, J.D., M.P.H. on May 22nd 2007
A Special Education is a mother's emotionally poignant story of her daughter's learning differences. The mother, Dana Buchman, is a New York City based fashion designer. And her eldest daughter, Charlotte Farber, has "learning differences" entwined knottily with strands including dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. Resolutely baring her emotions, Buchman cuts deeply, and painfully, to the bone in recounting anecdotally the effects of Charlotte's learning differences on family members. The textual soil is watered copiously by the emotion laden wellsprings flowing profusely from real life experiences. The torrent of emotions that engulf this personal memoir traverse an expansive gamut, encompassing gritty determination, great love, endearing humility, and profound despair. Buchman's remarkably blunt, and perhaps cathartic, memoir, focusing on special challenges which may beset family members of a child with learning differences, very helpfully contributes to bridging the chasm separating persons with learning differences from others.
Sounding a very pronounced tone of frankness which reverberates with enlivening force throughout the body of the memoir, Buchman, in an "introduction", explains pithily that Charlotte's learning differences set in motion a roller coaster ride of oftentimes jarring emotions. In the chapters that follow, Buchman, employing an informal, plain English writing style, describes with great candor her family's arduous, and "mistake"-filled, journey through the maze of learning differences.
In Chapter One, Buchman recounts briefly some details of her early life growing up in Tennessee, and, later, her career as a fashion designer. There is also comment on the immense joy of becoming a mother. But, as described in Chapter Two, chagrin began to seep in when Charlotte was six months old, and still not crawling. And the worries persisted when Charlotte was one year old, and not walking. When Charlotte was two years old, her sister, Annie, was born. As recollected by Buchman, her joy of again being a mother was tempered by worrisome concerns about Charlotte, who did not speak clearly or in complete sentences, and had great difficulty with counting. For Buchman, it was an unrestful, confusing, and very difficult time. When Charlotte, at the age of four years, still could not count, Buchman and her beloved husband, Tom Farber (as described in Chapter Three), decided to have Charlotte evaluated neuropsychologically. The findings were perplexing, and quite unsettling. Charlotte was believed to be neurologically dysfunctional, and at significant risk for learning difficulties. Exhibiting the characteristic emotional bluntness that pervades the memoir's length and breadth, Buchman recalls feeling bewildered and disappointed as well as fearful, heartbroken, and, frankly, rather overwhelmed.
It was Buchman's personal experience that the learning bar, to becoming knowledgeable about learning differences, is formidably high, and not hurdled easily. Some details of Buchman's game efforts to master the daunting challenges of parenting a child with learning differences are described in Chapter Five. In this chapter, Buchman also comments with her usual forthrightness on some of the emotional travails accompanying such efforts, enveloping exasperation and, occasionally, even anger. The unadulterated candor of Buchman continues in Chapter Six. Reflecting on the astoundingly time consuming special demands of parenting a child with learning differences, Buchman laments fretfully that her workaholic ways may have interfered with time that should have been devoted to her family. Buchman further fleshes out her feelings in Chapter Seven. She feels haunted that she gave her daughter Annie insufficient attention, because she was focused, instead, on the special needs of Charlotte. According to Buchman, Charlotte's learning differences also impacted Buchman's relationship with her husband: for the two of them, Charlotte's learning differences incited confusion and considerable perturbation.
One day, as Buchman describes in Chapter Eight, she suffered a "panic attack". In consequence, Buchman turned warily in the direction of psychotherapy, as a way to possibly disentangle her sorely knotted emotions. Buchman explains that, in therapy, she learned that it is OK for the parent of a child with learning differences to experience feelings of anger, shame, and disappointment. And further, that the acknowledging and accepting of such feelings might pave the way to a more authentic life. Importantly, Buchman proffers the view that therapy also taught her a lot about Charlotte. As Buchman recollects in concluding Chapter Ten, the therapist was shocked when Buchman brought Charlotte to meet the therapist, because the many positive traits the therapist observed in Charlotte belied the negative things Buchman had tended to focus on when discussing Charlotte with the therapist. Buchman muses, in this last chapter, that there are great advantages to having a child with learning differences, and that Charlotte's learning differences have given Buchman, and other family members, a chance to reexamine their values.
A fascinating, if succinct, structural "afterword", written by Charlotte, is appended to the memoir's body. Charlotte's view is that it would be helpful, to persons with learning differences, if society didn't treat learning differences like a taboo subject. The belief of Charlotte is that her learning differences have made her more sensitive to the struggles of other people. And indeed, the desire, of Charlotte, is to some day help children with learning differences.
Prospective readers should be mindful that Buchman's personal experiences may differ in significant ways from the experiences of other parents, of children with learning differences. Critics may also express concern that Buchman, as a layperson, may unwittingly have described in a scientifically faulty manner the neuropsychological phenomena lying at the core of the memoir's substance.
But the personal story related movingly by Buchman, with animating emotional force, should prove to be immensely interesting as well as highly instructive to persons with an interest in learning differences, including laypersons and professionals. Psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists, psychotherapists, speech therapists, and pediatricians are among the professional groups who quite likely would be enriched greatly by the many treasures embedded in this engrossing memoir.
© 2007 Leo Uzych
Leo Uzych (based in Wallingford, PA) earned a law degree, from Temple University; and a master of public heath degree, from Columbia University. His area of special professional interest is healthcare.