This goes on the record as one of the BEST books I’ve read this year. 2016 has started out with some truly great books, but this one sticks with me. It is Judy Brown’s memories of growing up in a Chassidic jewish family in New York City. She and I have a lot in common, not really, but sort of. Growing up in a religious household and fairly religious community is an interesting thing. The way a child processes difficult concepts like Faith, Sacrifice, Duty can sometimes miss the mark. Brown had the additional challenge of growing up with an autistic brother. Having grown up with my own brother who developmental disabilities, I found her attitudes towards her family fascinating. But I am skipping ahead.
Brown starts out through the mind of a child. She begins the story as a child would, right in the middle. She talks of her crazy brother Nachum and her deals she makes with God to fast for forty days and nights so he’ll make a miracle an Nachum will no longer be crazy. She also speaks of the family curse. It seems her parents fell in love, or at least that is the rumor, THAT is why Nachum is crazy. Her parents’ love flies in the face that God decides matches and love is in submitting your will to His. It is all very complex and Brown understands this doctrine as a child would understand. Her turns of phrase are also jarring in that innocent childlike way of telling the truth. Brown speaks of when her brother was “given away” instead of writing that he was taken to Israel to live with an aunt who only had two children who were older as opposed to six children. She also speaks of Nachum’s return with the heartlessness of a child. As an adult, the family torment is made clear. A mother who will not give up hope and refuses to accept that Nachum is incapable of living any kind of life, or institutionalizing him. A father who is incapable of ‘fixing’ the problem but who loves his family fiercely. A religious community that will not understand or accept Nachum.
Brown’s memoir is tender and truthful. The title is also clever, because in the end it IS a love story, of brother and sister, mother and son, family and community. Brown’s writing is clear and understandable but also beautiful. She isn’t over florid, but the words she uses are almost lyrical at times. When she describes seeing her brother again after a long separation, I lost it. Tears upon tears. I could almost hear the hopefulness in Nachum’s voice as he calls her “sister” over and over again. The relationships within this book are so well written. I was slightly shocked and somewhat horrified at the horrible way she treats Nachum. I could not relate to Brown’s disdain to the point of revulsion that she feels for her cursed brother. For my own brother I always felt the role of protector instinctively. Before my brother could speak (he said his first word at the age of seven) he would have terrible rages because he wanted so much to communicate and would violently bang his head against the wall. I remember just wanting to help him, which is the exact opposite feeling that Brown describes.
In the end, the honesty is a type of redemption as Brown learns more about autism and how Nachum sees the world around him. Brown’s relationship with her parents also matures as she begins to understand certain choices that were made and that most decisions, especially those involving love, are never black and white. There are many people who could get something from this book. Anyone who comes from religious or orthodox backgrounds will find things to relate to. Those who have an interest in feminist literature will be interested that Brown’s first book Hush (published under a pseudonym) details the horrors of sexual abuse within a religious community. Those who study autism, or special education would also find much to value in this firsthand account of what it is like to be a sibling in that situation. I really can’t say enough about the profound affect this book had on me. It is one of those books that stays long after you’ve finished reading it.