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The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes

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Randi Davenport’s story is a testament to human fortitude, to hope, and to a mother’s uncompromising love for her children. 

She had always worked hard to provide her family with a sense of stability and strength, despite the challenges of having a son with autism and a husband whose erratic behavior sometimes puzzled and confused her.

But eventually, Randi’s husband slipped into his own world and permanently out of her family’s. And at ...

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The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes

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Overview


Randi Davenport’s story is a testament to human fortitude, to hope, and to a mother’s uncompromising love for her children. 

She had always worked hard to provide her family with a sense of stability and strength, despite the challenges of having a son with autism and a husband whose erratic behavior sometimes puzzled and confused her.

But eventually, Randi’s husband slipped into his own world and permanently out of her family’s. And at fifteen, her son Chase entered an unremitting psychosis—pursued by terrifying images, unable to recognize his own mother, unwilling to eat or even talk—becoming ever more tortured and unreachable.

Beautifully written and profoundly moving, this is the heartbreaking yet triumphant story of how Randi Davenport navigated the byzantine and broken health care system and managed not just to save her son from the brink of suicide but to bring him back to her again, and make her family whole.  In The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes, she gives voice to the experiences of countless families whose struggles with mental illness are likewise invisible to the larger world.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"An unforgettable memoir of a shattered family, a mother's abiding love, and the frightening permutations of the human mind." --Elle

"A gripping memoir of motherly love and absolute devotion." --Kirkus

"This is her gripping account of that unrelenting battle. It isn't a medical thriller that climaxes with an 11th-hour cure. The light of its happy ending burns low, but in this courageous mother's eyes it shines as bright as the sun." --Boston Globe

Elle Magazine
"An unforgettable memoir of a shattered family, a mother's abiding love, and the frightening permutations of the human mind." --Elle
Kirkus Reviews
"A gripping memoir of motherly love and absolute devotion." --Kirkus
Boston Globe
"This is her gripping account of that unrelenting battle. It isn't a medical thriller that climaxes with an 11th-hour cure. The light of its happy ending burns low, but in this courageous mother's eyes it shines as bright as the sun." —Boston Globe
Publishers Weekly
An academic and writer at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, offers a dense, achingly inconclusive tale about her developmentally challenged son, whose difficulties remain elusively untreatable and largely undiagnosed. Davenport writes poignantly about her increasing sense of helplessness over the years as her son, Chase, moving into his teens, grows harder and harder to manage, from his inability to focus and sit still, to his paranoia and obsession with morbid thoughts, his seizures, to his eruptive agitation and truculence that eventually warranted long-term hospitalization. What was wrong with him? Davenport lists the dozens of doctors’ suggestions over the years, from autism and severe ADHD to seizure disorder, psychosis, and schizophrenia. Yet, stubbornly, Chase’s diagnosis remains unnamable, and a plethora of drugs often fail him, such as Clozaril, which checked his psychosis but left him vegetative. Chase’s indefinable state proves problematic for insurance providers, who cut off his hospital coverage though no long-term care facility will take him. As a result, Chase has to spend a frightening stint at the state mental hospital. Davenport’s memoir is intensely thorough and affecting. (Mar.)
Kirkus Reviews
The chronicle of a mother's increasingly desperate fight to preserve her son's sanity. Only a year after his difficult birth, Chase was diagnosed with global developmental delay. Davenport, the executive director of the University of North Carolina's center for undergraduate excellence, writes movingly of her search for a diagnosis and cure. Newly married to an up-and-coming local rock star and struggling to become a novelist, her life had seemed happily on track. But following the diagnosis of global developmental delay, Chase was also diagnosed with severe ADHD and eventually autism. Two years later, he had his first grand mal seizure. Davenport's marriage ended when her husband, whose rock band had dissolved, began to drink heavily and physically abuse Chase. (Years later she realized that even before this, her husband had showed signs of "the fluttering wing of paranoia.") By age 15, Chase was in the grips of severe paranoia, convinced that he was being stalked by nailers, men who "nail you to the chair and kill you." Even though he was highly medicated for epilepsy and psychosis, he was losing his fragile contact with reality and becoming so difficult to manage-he often threatened suicide-that he was hospitalized in a short-term residential-treatment facility. With the increasing doses of anti-psychotics, his condition continued to deteriorate. When he became violent and no longer recognized Davenport, she was informed that his prognosis was poor, and she needed to transfer him. After a harrowing search-and denial of further insurance coverage-she was forced to place him in a state mental hospital where he was drugged to the point of stupor. Finally, Chase was admitted to a smallfacility for young men with serious developmental disabilities; he slowly tapered off drugs and his condition steadily improved. Still, the author clearly understands that the battle is far from over. "I stopped seeing Chase as a child I just had to get back on track and saw him as he was," she writes, "tall and painfully thin and unable to care for himself, unable to communicate, beset with the unseen, the unknown, the unnamable, but arrived into himself completely, as if all of this had been hardwired, preordained from the start."A gripping memoir of motherly love and absolute devotion. Agent: Julie Barer/Barer Literary
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565126114
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • Publication date: 3/30/2010
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author


Randi Davenport received her MA in creative writing from Syracuse University as well as a PhD in literature. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in publications like the Washington Post, the Ontario Review, the Alaska Review, and Film/Literature Quarterly. She is the executive director of the James M. Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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First Chapter

THE BOY WHO LOVED TORNADOES

A Mother's Story
By Randi Davenport

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Copyright © 2010 Randi Davenport
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-56512-611-4


Chapter One

There was no possibility of staying with the others so Chase and Haley and I walked down the hill away from the picnic and along the creek until we came to a concrete footbridge. Haley ran ahead of us but Chase stopped at the edge of the bridge and stared intently at the trail leading into the woods. There were deep shadows under the branches and dark places where the pine needles gave way to mud and soft fluttering ferns of a bright green color. Everything moved a little in the breeze. Over our heads, pale yellow leaves shifted against dark green loblolly pine and blue sky; in front of us, the trail led up to a ridge, where the November sky opened over us like a bell.

"Chase," I said. "Come on."

"No," he said. "No."

On the other side, Haley walked backward up the hill so she could watch what we were doing while she moved away from us.

"Come on, Chase," I said. "It's okay."

He looked hard at the path behind me. His head listed a little to one side, as if his neck were a mast on a boat that had heeled over too far in deep water.

I could hear Haley scuffling through the leaves. She was nearly at the top of the hill and in another moment would follow the trail out of sight.

"All right," I said tightly. "Let's go see the waterfall."

Chase relaxed as we started back to the picnic buildings; this way, the path was out in the open and led down to the creek by a gazebo and you could see people playing softball on the next field. The park allowed you to bring in a horse to ride and a big bay with a tiny red-shirted rider delicately picked its way across the creek where the water flattened out into swampy pools. There were dogs wearing bandannas and couples with toddlers. A family dressed in identical tight shorts jostled past us just as we got to the bridge by the gazebo.

The Haw River Assembly held the picnic every year to recruit volunteers for the annual Haw River Festival, when fourth graders came from schools all over the state to go on nature walks and learn about ecology. I'd come to the picnic because I wanted us to be like other families and pictured us camped in tents at a river site for a week in the spring. I told Chase we'd paddle canoes like Indians and maybe he'd see a milk snake hanging like thick rope from a tree limb. In the evening, Haley would dance to the sound of drums by a big fire and we'd go to sleep while owls called out in the trees.

Chase refused to eat with the others, who sat outside in the bright sunshine, so we ate by ourselves in the dim living-room area of the recreation center. He kept his head down and crammed bites into his mouth until food fell from his spoon onto his lap, his legs, his little acre of floor. He didn't look up or speak to us.

Haley complained about having to eat inside and I made my usual pleading sounds: It's not that bad, Chase has trouble outside, this is just fine, we'll sit with everyone else when he's finished eating.

She ate her meal in silence and looked away from me. Afterward, Chase did not want to sit in a circle with the others. He did not want to go down to the creek to do some stream watching, did not want to toss a Frisbee with the other kids, did not want to bird-watch, touch a raccoon pelt, sing a song about the river. He stood at the back of the room instead and paced and muttered to himself while Haley tried to appear small and unnoticeable in the chair beside me.

Chase was fourteen that day, and Haley was ten. Despite my high hopes, and I had many, there was never any possibility of staying with the others. The cant of Chase's head, the soft slur of his words, the pitch and lean of his walk, his tendency to fall to staring or into convulsions, his preternatural interest in things morbid and otherwordly, his obsessions and monologues, his endless pacing and agitating, his body that served like a drain and took all of the air out of the room, all of the air and all of the energy, and all of the focus and all of the attention - these things made a wall between us and everyone else. It was as if we were on one side of a thick plate-glass window, through which we could clearly see the normal world, forever out of reach.

Having a disability in the family locks you in a space whose borders the rest of the world cannot see, and which you yourself cannot see until you run smack into its limits. Then there is nothing to do but to fall back to the center of the world. Others look in at you and wonder why you can't do anything differently and you share their sentiments. If you are me, you think that all you have to do is keep trying, keep moving, and you can overcome anything. And some days, perhaps, you feel as if you have. But on most days, you know that the only thing that has been overcome is you. For many years, I didn't realize that you can't run away from the physical fact of disability. Once it lies in the roadway behind you, even if it causes doctors to shake their heads and experts to frown, even if it cannot be named, it lies forever on the roadway in front of you.

* * *

We followed the trail down to the rocks where the creek spilled over into a waterfall. Haley immediately began pitching stones into the foam but Chase stood a few feet away from me. His eyes cut from the waterfall to a couple sitting on the rocks in front of us. He began to pace and swing his arms.

I'd kept up a hopeful commentary, as if I could stave off this storm, as if I could by hope and will alone cause Chase to veer in another direction. "Look what a nice day it is," I'd said. "Look how pretty the trees look. Don't you just love the color of the sky? A horse! How great! Haley, look at the horse!"

Now I offered Chase a handful of stones. He didn't look at me or shake his head. He just stalked up and down the rocks and cut his eyes from this to that. I became aware that he was talking in a low voice but I couldn't understand what he was saying or if he was talking to me or to his sister or to himself. I tossed a few stones into the creek. "If your father was here, he'd be able to make these stones skip," I said to Chase, but he looked away from me as if he hadn't heard me and stared hard at the tumbling water.

The two people on the rocks in front of us were young, maybe late teens, and sat side by side, facing the creek. The boy had his arm snugly around the girl's waist; her long red hair spread over his shoulder as she nuzzled his neck. Haley told me she wanted to go out farther on the rocks, jump down to a flat rock that was halfway across the water. I said no. She stopped and said, "Can I go up there?" There was a leg of the trail up above us where some of the family in tight shorts were noisily expressing enthusiasm about the view.

"Okay," I said.

I watched her climb. She leaned into the hill and when the incline became too steep, she put her hands down in the dry leaves and scrambled doggy-style up to the trail.

"Good job," I called, and she grinned at me and jumped up and down. But then Chase was at my elbow, patting my arm over and over. When I turned to him, his eyes were wide and dark.

"Mom, Mom," he said. "Those are profilers. That's the FBI. They're profilers."

"Who?" I said.

"Him and her," he said and gestured at the couple on the rocks. He turned away so they would not overhear him and spoke in a low voice. "They're profilers. They're after me."

"No," I said. "No. Chase. That's just a guy and a girl."

"They're profilers," he said.

"Chase," I said. "That's not true."

He said something I couldn't understand and then he turned and strode away from me, moving fast. I called to Haley and she yelled back and I said, "Now."

She slid and bumped through the leaves and roots and down the slope and ran up to me and we followed Chase. He didn't slow but kept taking long strides until he reached our car. I hadn't seen him move that fast in a couple of years. The picnic was still going on and I thought about going back to let someone know that we were in trouble. But Chase was in the car banging the flat of his hand against the dashboard, saying, "Let's go, let's go," and I had been on my own with whatever it was Chase was going to bring our way for years now. There didn't seem to be anyone to tell. Chase's voice pitched up and he said, "Come on, come on. We have to get out of here."

So I started the car and put it in gear and we were on the move again. This was my answer to everything: keep moving, stay moving, keep pushing, move, move, move. I didn't know what else to do. As we headed for the park entrance, Chase kept a lookout for the things that were after us. Haley gazed out the window. In the rearview mirror, I could see her. Her face was small and blank.

Our family once had four people: a father, a mother, a boy, a girl. The father and mother fell in love, just like most people do, and they began with a dream of a family, just like everyone begins with a dream of a life, without knowing exactly how that life will turn out, without knowing what their family will be like. They had a son, whom they named Chase, and then they had a daughter, whom they named Haley. The father's name was James but he'd taken other names in his life as if he were constantly avoiding the truth of being one person and one person alone. I knew him as Zip but after we were married, we began to get mail for someone named Art Byrd. He lived like a man in the witness protection program and watched over his shoulder as if he thought something was gaining on him. He'd been a working rock-androll musician and then, when that left him, a music-store manager, and then, when we left that, a house husband, and then, when he had to get a job, a man who worked on the loading dock at a big-box store. By the end of our marriage, he rarely spoke but sat on the back steps of our house and smoked Salem menthols and watched the street with a thousand-yard stare. Eventually, I came to understand that the same thing that would take Chase had taken him.

I drove slowly out of the park, along a road that ran straight past ball fields and picnic tables and an old farm until it dumped us out on a country highway. The sun had gone behind the clouds and Chase was quieter now, although he still looked around fearfully, and occasionally glanced back over his shoulder as best as he could. His ability to turn was incomplete because his neck had been fused and no longer turned like an ordinary neck. Once he asked Haley to look and see if there was anyone behind us. Once he looked at me as if he had no idea who I was. I tried hopelessly to talk him out of his conviction that we were being followed. Haley sat quietly in the back but once she said, in a very exasperated voice, "It was just a guy and a girl on a rock, jeez." I heard myself in her voice, as if she'd picked up from me what was right to say to her brother.

Chase's ability to be stuck on something, a subject, an idea, a thing of minor relevance that was made large in his mind, wasn't new. At various times in his life he'd been obsessed with window fans, of which he was deathly afraid, and with dinosaurs, trains, railroad-crossing signs, vampires, ghosts, church steeples, tornadoes, severe weather - he watched the Weather Channel in a state of hypervigilance, so we would always be prepared - Crips, action figures, comic books, and music. His interests evolved as he grew so he wasn't stuck on all of these at the same time, and he wasn't stuck on all of them with equivalent attention, and as soon as he'd moved from one thing to the next, he left the first thing behind with utter finality.

Often, it was very hard to tell what was real for Chase and what was his idiosyncratic interpretation of what was real. He called 9-1-1 because he was convinced someone was trying to kidnap his sister. He told me that Crips followed him home from school, threatening to kill him before he could get inside. But pretty soon I realized that Chase's conviction that Crips existed in our mild suburban-style neighborhood was created by his placement in a class with behaviorally impaired children who felt utterly thwarted in their own power and talked a lot about their connections to West Coast gangs as a way to demonstrate their place in the world.

These things weren't right, they weren't true, but they were loosely associated with things that were real, and became markers not of what was real but what was real to Chase. And until he was almost fifteen, he was willing to entertain the idea that explanations other than his own might be valid. He allowed the cop to explain how important it was to see someone actually try to kidnap your sister before you report that your sister has been kidnapped. He agreed that it was pretty unlikely that LeMarcus and Gabriel were hardened Crips who also happened to have been enrolled in the seventh grade at McDougle Middle School. But he didn't let go of these ideas altogether and every so often he would tell me again about the day his sister was almost kidnapped.

When I heard these things, my guts twisted and I wanted to shake him and say, "Stop it, Chase! Stop it now!" But I didn't. I just looked at him and said, in as neutral a tone as I could muster, "You know that didn't happen, Chase." And then I set about trying to figure out what had caused this particular eruption, as if I could lay my hands on Chase's fears, his half-understood truths, and wrest them from him once and for all, as if in this act we would come together in an ancient ritual where I was asked not to sacrifice my son but instead was given a way to save him.

On Monday I'd call his therapist, his psychiatrist, his teacher at school. Maybe he needed a medication change. Maybe something had gone off-kilter in the classroom. Maybe his therapist could shed some light on what FBI profilers meant to Chase. We could put our heads together and work it out. We could change the error of his thinking. We could change the error of our ways.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from THE BOY WHO LOVED TORNADOES by Randi Davenport Copyright © 2010 by Randi Davenport. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Average Rating 3.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 13, 2010

    Heartbreaking yet Heartwarming at the same time....a must read

    Everyone has a story to tell or so the saying goes, but none like the story that Randi Davenport tells in her new book, The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes. This author's journey through life as a wife and mother of two children who is forced to face the devastating impact of mental illness in her own family when her husband abandons them due to his own mental incapacities and leaves her alone to raise and care for a daughter and son who has debilitating mental health issues of his own. This beautifully written story is a true testament, in the face of almost insurmountable obstacles, of perseverance, persistence, and positive possibilities for the future. Readers will ride a tidal wave of emotion ranging from love and optimism, to anger and despair, back to triumph and hope for our society. Mental illness can no longer be kept behind closed doors nor can it be the responsibility of the parent alone to care for their family members or maneuver through our health care system. If this book does one thing it reinforces that every child is truly a gift in their own unique way. Each child offers value and worth to the human experience.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted May 23, 2011

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