As a novel, Susan’s Brother is both shocking and delightful at the same time. On the one hand, it is the true story of the appalling treatment of a troubled child, and on the other the incredible resilience of a human being. It is a story of hope and success in overcoming a severely troubled early life.
Susan’s Brother was unloved by his mother – there was no physical affection, few toys, little conversation and the added burden at times of her outright lies and deception. Consigned to mental health institutions, special education and even an experimental school he experiences so little emotional support that he turns inwards to protect himself in a hurtful, confusing world. He never received pocket money from his mother and birthday cards were not sent to where he was living (institutions and boarding schools). Before he died, his father drilled into him that “Boys don’t cry,” and it became a mantra. “Boys don’t cry.” His father also decreed ”Boys don’t have teddy bears” and abused Ted (second hand, one-eyed, thrown out by a neighbor) beating him against a wall. Much of the story is explained by Ted in conversation with Susan’s Brother. Ted was the only “person” he could trust, could cuddle and draw comfort from. Other adults in his life lied to him too, sometimes as a joke, leading him to not trust adults at all. Home as a concept meant nothing to him; it was where he was identified by his sister, not in his own right, hence the title of the book.
Susan herself ignored him. She had the soft toys, physical affection, pocket-money and seemingly everything she wanted. She hardly spoke to him, didn’t play with him and became outright nasty. She started with “You are fat and clumsy, you can’t read or write, no one will ever want you and you’ll never get anywhere in life.” In time she got “religion” and burned into his brain a new mantra “I don’t know why God is punishing me so. All I ever wanted was a good-looking brother who had a decent job, who could give me money and introduce me to nice boys; and look what I’ve got!” As he grew and started to overcome his problems he gets to live at home and she says “Well now you’re home, I suppose I shall have to tell all the neighbors that you are mentally ill. My friends too.”
He was emotionally disturbed, deeply depressed. ”Unable to cry, climb up and out of the dark pit into a normal boyhood.” In time he starts an upward journey from being probably the youngest person sectioned in the UK (for attempting suicide at age 9) he learns enough to understand the need to protect himself from, for example, his sister. This led him, unfortunately, to be admitted to the horrors of the Adult Unit of a mental institution (St Augustine’s) when his school closed for two weeks over the summer. Why we will never fully understand. Surely no normal mother would have contemplated an adult unit “where the advanced treatment means that they (medical professionals) could build their careers cooking the brains of patients (with electroconvulsive therapy). Fortunately, he was not treated so but Susan’s Brother witnessed it happening, every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. That is how he knew which day of the week it was.
Despite the institutions, the prognosis, the emotional neglect, the bullying and the struggles to learn hampered by dyslexia, Susan’s brother begins to climb up out of the pit. The structure and routine of the institutions and schools gave him a degree of security and stability. There were glimmers of hope. Small acts of kindness that added together became significant and reached deep down inside him. He became fascinated with radios which led him to improve his reading and electronics knowledge from hobby magazines. He learned to assert himself by not going home, staying away from Susan and beating up the main bully. His resilience grows. He gains a radio ham receiver license. He progresses out of the institutions into a mainstream state school living at home. He begins to develop friendly and meaningful relationships with neighbors, particularly the Tolhursts, of whom he says without them he would not be here. He develops an interest in motorbikes and in time cars, passing his driving license test on the first attempt. On leaving the school he gets a job and lodgings to live independently.
Throughout the book, there are interesting additions to what the law, guidelines or definitions were in terms of the care and education of children with special needs, back when Susan’s Brother was growing up. We can be grateful that times have changed and systems and standards of care and treatment have improved significantly. What Susan’s Brother experienced growing up would not be condoned today.
Interestingly, I have met Susan’s Brother, Chris, and would never have deduced such an early childhood from the gentle, polite, generous man he has become if I had not read this book. He knows his limits and has lived a successful life overcoming the early limits and challenges. Chris is an example of hope and resilience and a great example of the success that determination brings. If Chris can overcome despite the treatment he received there is hope for emotionally disturbed, maladjusted, special needs children today.
Your copy of Susan’s Brother is available here.