While explaining diversity to the class, a teacher says, “We are all individuals,” which prompts one student to proclaim, “I’m not!” A funny joke, but it’s also an apt depiction of “different.” Manuals on identifying and coping with human differences are factually and practically useful, but sometimes hearing about someone’s life helps a reader more fully understand a “difference.” Memoirs often paint a more realistic picture of what it’s like to be different and touch us on a deeper level.
Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is a case in point. Readers will understand why the author continually wonders what a happy childhood looks like as she describes her abusive adoptive mother and why she continually looked for the love she missed in her early years. Searing, funny and heart-wrenching, this is a memoir of a woman seeking the illusive “normal.” Humor is a common feature of this type of memoir and sometimes funny covers or clever titles, like those of the books below, can help us identify the quirky memoirs that are the perfect uplifting, helpful and supportive books we need.
Blake E. S. Taylor’s ADHD and Me: What I Learned from Lighting Fires at the Dinner Table helps readers better understand ADHD and its effect on kids. Barely out of his teens, the author shares his own methods for coping, along with some hilarious anecdotes that reveal his energetic, impulsive, disorganized, misunderstood, disobedient self. In addition to setting fires at the table, he also admits to touching a T-Rex at the natural history museum and experimenting with volcano-making when his parents were sleeping. He describes his distracted mind as a “television with the channel changing uncontrollably” (p.15) and the pain of loud, sharp noises as “needles piercing my eardrums” (p.109). This quick, accessible book is perfect for teens with ADHD.
Terri Cheney’s autobiography The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar is a tribute to her courage and tenacity in taming what she called the Black Beast. She writes eloquently about her troubled childhood, her first attempt at suicide at age seven, and her violent behavior in an effort to pinpoint the beginnings of her bipolar symptoms. Cheney has connected with many bipolar sufferers happy to know they are not alone.
Parents of autistic children will gain insight from Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism. Joel Yanofsky relates with self-deprecating humor exactly what it’s like to have an autistic child: how he learned to prevent or diminish tantrums using Rolling Stones songs like “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and to help his son externalize his feelings by labeling them as monsters (the Temper Monster, the Grumpy Monster, p32). The author admits that at first all he could manage was “sighing and muttering” to himself and then later describes the behavioral system he and his wife maintain with their son now.
If we are lucky, during our lifetimes we will meet not only many people who are “individuals,” but some who are average and a few who are different. More important than identifying the difference is understanding the person. Reading memoirs is a good start.