Mixed (Up) Reviews — III

Praising Paisley: One Family’s Struggle with Haffenstrasser’s Syndrome

Albatrice Press; 488 pp.

It will come as no surprise to attentive readers that in recent years the memoir has been dogged by criticisms, and in some rare cases even criticized by dogs. The honest among us will admit that these criticisms, however withering, have been largely legitimate. For memoir has been, at its worst, a gathering place for cheats and liars; at its best, the province of did-you-hear-about-my-childhood pansies. In self-defense, American readers have been asking about the memoir, much as an earlier generation did about polio, “Do we really need this?” And it is hard to feel that this increased scrutiny will yield anything other than a step forward.

It is against this shaky backdrop that we get “Praising Paisley,” a harrowing and deeply inspired new memoir written on condition of anonymity in case it turns out not to be true.

At the book’s center is the relationship between parent and child. (Though the author is careful not to reveal his or her gender, an early and convincing breastfeeding scene on a roller coaster may well give it away.) The author is a divorced mother, then, of an eight-year-old boy, Paisley, who suffers from Haffenstrasser’s Syndrome, and much of the book’s pathos derives from the mother’s gradual understanding that the child, her closest companion, is impossibly distant. Throughout this quiet and tender memoir the author describes her acts of superhuman patience with the child, who is at once precocious and severely limited. One memorable example is when she sits through one of Paisley’s one act plays, not commenting on the maddening lack of action, plot, or character development as the child licks the same colander for an hour and then passes out.

Halfway through the book it is discovered during a doctor’s appointment that Paisley doesn’t have Haffenstrasser’s but was merely pretending because he thought it was the only way to get into a memoir at his age. With this revelation, the book vaults from concrete detail and straightforward narrative into meta-memoir, and for the remainder of the book the author is left pondering the Big Questions.

She is puzzled by her child’s capacity for deceit, and the book concludes with a lengthy rumination on the idea of multiple selves, even probing the politically explosive question of intra-self marriage. But she is not afraid to show her lighter side, as when she presents a chase scene through downtown Minneapolis in which one of her selves, in a satisfying act of retribution, hits one of Paisley’s selves in the face with a pie.

At the end, it is revealed that the child actually does have Haffenstrasser’s: his claim not to have it was actually a symptom  of it. This breakthrough is probably “Praising Paisley’s” greatest contribution to medicine. While some will undoubtedly fault the author for exploiting her child’s illness for profit, not to mention kicking him nearly every Wednesday, it’s hard to stay mad at a book whose cover is a photo of a squirrel lounging on a tiny hammock.

Gregory Beyer is a writer living in New York. His journalism, essays and reviews of actual books have appeared in The New York Times.