Matthew, the author’s son, and the subject of this memoir, had Downs Syndrome, but I should state at once that the book is much more than a guide for parents, or carers, of such children. It stands on its own as a work of literature and should win the PEN/Ackerley prize for memoir and autobiography.
The author, in her poised, sometimes old-fashioned prose, beguiles the reader. As a little girl, she befriended a neighbour’s child whom she first saw through the hedge:
Large and silent … she wore a bow in her hair and usually carried a doll in her arms. Her smile melted my heart, and though I could not understand the reason for this, it sometimes brought tears to my eyes.
Later, married, but still childless — her first baby died — Crosby is similarly touched by the son of a Hammersmith vegetable vendor whom she sees collecting coins, calling: ‘Money for mongols like me. Money for mongols’ place please.’ The ‘mongols’ place’ was the nearby Normansfield Hospital, founded in 1868 ‘to study and care for a particular kind of inmate’, by a Dr Norman Langdon Down, hence the term ‘Down’s Syndrome’.
Crosby puts her own son in there when he is three, and removes him less than two years later, after a strongly worded letter to the grandson of the founder, stating: ‘Most of your patients spend their lives doing nothing at all’.
Crosby is a painter, and has a memory for visual detail. However, she also has the ability to reproduce dialogue and, in particular, her son’s idiosyncratic remarks. In a lift, Matthew says nervously: ‘This horrid room got bad floor, make my legs go shorter,’ and, in a rocking train: ‘Got be brave walking in train …. Careful, Mum, train too ’cited.’
I have a son with Asperger’s Syndrome, now 25, the age Matthew was when he died. Crosby describes well the gratitude and awe which one feels for certain characters who appear in one’s child’s life, and who willingly share the burden.
One such, Gladys Strong, is ‘a small birdlike woman with bright eyes set in a sallow, starved-in-childhood face’. A local foster mother, Strong appears on Crosby’s doorstep during Matthew’s first week at home and offers to take the baby for the afternoon, addressing him: ‘Too blue-blooded for our street, are you?’ (Crosby writes tenderly of her husband’s first sighting of ‘his little blue shadow of a son.’)
Crosby also recounts visits to ‘experts’, one being the celebrated paediatrician and psychotherapist, Dr Donald Winnicott, who, after staging a ‘play therapy’ session with Matthew’s older sister, Dido, and a disabled doll, advises Crosby to put Matthew into an institution and concentrate on her ‘whole’ child.
Matthew’s father does not want him at home, and Matthew’s mother constantly worries about his quality of life. After Normansfield, she returns him to Gladys Strong’s care. Then, with the help of her husband and others, she manages to found the MacIntyre School, the first of several such places. Crosby is helped by the exceptional Dr MacSorley, female paediatrician and refugee from Nazi Germany, who succeeds in getting British law changed so that ‘regardless of his or her potential, every child in the land was granted the right to be schooled’.
Princess Anne visits MacIntyre. Crosby escorts her and her lady-in-waiting upstairs:
We stood contemplating the most miniscule lavatories I had ever seen; there were no doors across their partitions. …. ‘Needs must,’ called the Princess.
Crosby lacks self-pity. Her distant mother, on seeing Matthew, revealed that she too gave birth to a ‘mongoloid’, placed an ad in the Times, and had her permanently fostered by a war widow. At 12, Dido is mortally ill with arthritis and, after Crosby and her undemonstrative husband part, Crosby’s new male friend has to undergo chemotherapy. In the senior MacIntyre School, Matthew is repeatedly sodomised by a fellow inmate and, during Crosby’s holiday with him in Tunisia, a local man, after teasing Matthew, remarks: ‘I am sorry, little mother, in our country we keep such sons within the house.’ These setbacks are not dwelt on. Crosby remains unbitter, even when staff at the school fail to notice that Matthew is seriously ill and, due to his mother’s ‘interfering’, he is rushed to hospital with a failing heart. Matthew is kept at the centre of the story and, through his mother’s telling, emerges as sweet, funny and gallant.
His last days in Hammersmith Hospital are moving, even colourful. Other patients, Mr Abrams, and Giovanni, a chef who resembles a Chicago Mafia member, take him under their wing.
I do not cry easily, but tears ran down my cheeks for half an hour after I finished this brave and magnificent book.