For Sunday News: 07/24/15:Braun:Livingston Manor, New York - Author Judy Braun at a friend's house in Livingston Manor in the Catskills. She wrote a book about leaving her Hasidic community. Photo by Helayne Seidman
Little Brown asked me to review This Is Not a Love Story: A Memoir by Judy Brown, the author of Hush. They sent me a copy last week; this is my review.
This Is Not a Love Story is a good book. It is good because it is an extraordinarily empathetic book. It is also good because the story has an imperfect resolution, one that offers realistic hope to parents and siblings of autistic children. It is a book with Jewish characters in a Chassidic setting, but it is written in such a way that it is definitely accessible to pretty much anyone. It is also good because it is a quick read written at a “young adult” level of discourse, with descriptions of autism that are vivid, relatable to youngsters, and decidedly unclinical. In other words, it is a great book for family story time. (If you don’t read books aloud as a family, now is a great time to start. It’s fun!)
Brown’s memoir focuses on the havoc that her autistic brother wrecked on her family before his diagnosis and treatment, and his journey through successful treatment. Her perspective evolves through the book, from that of her eight-year-old self to that of her thirteen-year-old-self, to her adult voice. Though the eight-year-old’s voice is interrupted by explanations of Jewish customs and Hebrew words that seem to have been inserted by an editor, it still manages to effectively evoke the perspective of an eight-year-old. It is a voice of simultaneous simplicity and keen observation, and it mostly is believable. Her adult voice is lyrical and emotional — I actually almost cried at the end of the book. It was a more convincing literary voice than her childhood voice, but nevertheless the book still works.
What I loved about Brown’s rendering of her family is the compassion and empathy that she showed to everyone (except for her bossy older sister, Rivky, whom she characterizes as a bit authoritarian). Her parents are stressed to the breaking point by her brother Nachum, whose mysterious mental problems are not diagnosed until he is around somewhere around nine-years-old himself. The narrator describes a functional, loving family who is simply overwhelmed by Nachum and his problems.
Though the story takes place before autism was widely diagnosed and understood in the Charedi world (and in the secular world, for that matter), the way that Brown describes community and family reactions to her brother are so human that her experiences are a lot more universal than limited to that of a Charedi girl. In fact, I’ve heard recent and similar stories told by non-Jewish parents of autistic children. Autism, it seems, is universally mysterious.
The book is Jewish, though. I’m not saying that its universal message in any way drowns out Brown’s depiction of the very particular world that she grew up in. As someone who lives in Chasidic Brooklyn (Crown Heights) and spent three years living in Jerusalem, I can attest that her descriptions read as familiar. From the way her teacher says “lo aleinu” to the Milk Munches she eats, it is clear that Judy Brown is writing as an insider and with accuracy.
Which leads me to the questions of faith that she experiences as a child and as a teenager. This Is Not a Love Story is overshadowed by the book jacket bio of Brown, which says that she left Chasidism. I don’t know why she left Chasidism or under what conditions, but I do appreciate that she was able to look back at her childhood and approach miracles and questions of faith openly and humanely. This is not a book about leaving Chasidism. It’s a book about the power of faith and family, and there isn’t a lot of foreshadowing that her childhood would have driven her away from the Charedi world.
The questions of faith she experiences as a child seem par-for-the-course — children naturally relate to G-d in a simple way, and are naturally curious about the world around them. To be blunt: If you are frum and you happen to be reading this review trying to decide if This Is Not a Love Story would be appropriate for your teenager to read, I think the questions of faith in the story get resolved in favor of faith and in favor of G-d, with acknowledgement of miracles from G-d.
Brown’s memoir is solid and moving. You should buy it and read it. It would be reassuring to parents and siblings of autistic children, and is especially helpful in cultivating compassion in outsiders for the families of autistic children. It would be hard to read Brown’s book and blame any autistic child’s parents for his condition. That’s her point: That G-d made Nachum the way He did, and that G-d also provided treatment.