A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courageby Beth Kephart
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Named a Best Book of the Year by Salon magazine and The Philadelphia Inquirer, A Slant of Sun was praised for its incandescent prose about the experience of loving a child who brings tremendous frustration and incalculable rewards and for its extraordinary resonance. Like Operating Instructions and The Liars' Club, A Slant of Sun is a contemporary classic. Nearly one in five children grow up facing a developmental or behavioral challenge, and like them, Beth Kephart's son, Jeremy, showed early signs of being different: language eluded him, he preferred playing alone to an afternoon on the jungle gym. Doctors diagnosed Jeremy with a mild form of autism called Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified. A Slant of Sun is a passionate memoir about how Kephart, guided by the twin tools of intuition and imagination, helped lead her son toward wholeness. Pulsing with the questions, "Is normal possible? Definable?" A Slant of Sun speaks to everyone-not just parents-of the redemptive power of love.
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In the fall of 1991, Jeremy, our two-and-a-half year old son, was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, a complex condition that manifested itself in Jeremy with atypical speech, impaired social interactions, a range of perseverative and compulsive behaviors, and, at times, the sorts of exceptional talents not exhibited by the ordinary child.
In truth, Jeremy's diagnosis carried the weight of the inevitable. For those keyed into the cues, Jeremy had always shown signs of being different. Music, paintings, the moon impressed him; rattles, bottles, the typical baby gear did not. He felt safe with his father, myself, and his grandparents, but he allowed few others into his world. He was not a child who went readily from knee to knee, and by the time other children his age were waving hello, he was hiding beneath his hat or inside my skirts or far away, inside his room.
Jeremy's stance on life became even more exaggerated during his second year. If a person could survive on juice or milk alone, he would have; most solid foods were so displeasing to him that he refused to learn the basic science of a spoon. His strong personal code of likes and dislikes devolved into what, looking back, could only be fairly classified as obsessionsa violently strong passion first for trains and cars, then for hats, then knights, then planes, then trucks, the obsession with cars persisting throughout and above all the others. Though Jeremy danced with the grace of a dove and demonstrated an acute sense of balance, he was never adept at balls or tricycles, at the act of jumping or skipping, at the simplest execution of arts and crafts. And while Jeremyacquired language at a youngish age, he did not use his words as others do, did not string them together to inquire or declare. Instead Jeremy's words were deployed as epithets, affixed to those things deigned worthy of his notice.
Reflecting back, it is all too easy to identify the early warning signs, to organize them on this page. At the time, however, my vision failed me. I focused far more strenuously on my own weaknesses as a parent than on the cranks and creaks in Jeremy's development. I was a stay-at-home mother who earned my income in solitude at night by writing articles for corporations and magazines, and I was a person with a quiet lifea member of no play groups, aunt to no nieces or nephews, a personal calendar absurdly stark and bare. I had, in other words, little to compare my son against, and so I assumed that his struggles were caused by the environment I created, my lack of expertise in the rules of mothering, and my inability to locate the proper key to his world. For a long, long time, I drew no conclusions about my son.
It took an insult from a neighborhood baby-sitter to get the message through. It took my husband, my mother, a conversation with old college friends in a motel miles from home to shatter my delusions and force me into action, into meeting with a doctor and submitting to the exams. And though it should have been helpful to have a name for the thing that was so deeply troubling Jeremy, a diagnosis is far from a cure. The fix for children like Jeremy is, I have discovered, an elusive admixture of trial and error. There is, you are told, no time to loseneural pathways are settling in, lifelong habits are forming, behavioral tics are taking overand so you push and push for the right concoction of language therapy, occupational therapy, play therapy, social therapy without ever having a firm sense of ultimate boundaries or goals. What, in the end, are you fighting for: Normal? Is normal possible? Can it be defined? Is it best achieved by holing up in the offices of therapists, in special classrooms, in isolated exercises, in simulating living, while everyday "normal" happens casually on the other side of the wall? And is normal superior to what the child inherently is, to what he aspires to, fights to become, every second of his day?
My husband is an artist and I am a writer, and Jeremy is the child we created. In him we saw so many aspects of ourselvescompulsivity, aloofness, strong-mindedness, anxietiesand yet the challenge we faced was to free him of our genetic code, our habits. We made up our own rules as we went alongconsulting with the therapists who "felt" right, implementing our own idea of appropriateness at home, divining highly personalized theories about progress. It was a lonely business. It pushed us to our extremes. It required more of me than I actually had to give, and at the end of it all, it was Jeremy himself who provided the light and the wisdom that moved us forward.
This is a book about a little boy and his mother. It is about a child who against all odds is learning to live in this world, to even, incredibly, make it better. It is about shame, prejudice, fear, solitude, and their natural counterparts. About reaching out and holding on.
Today Jeremy, our only child, is a successful second grader at a country Quaker school. He is reading difficult books with dramatic emphasis, designing mazes for his father, whizzing around in adult computer programs, asking grown-up questions on class field trips, writing fiction in a daring hand on an oversized notepad, Rollerblading with a vengeance, shooting fourteen baskets into the hoop during gym. He goes to the parties of his Quaker classmates, and he tells me the stories of their lives: James is a musician, Eliza has a new baby sister, Meghan knows how to spell all the words in the world, Will will be an inventor, when he grows up. Lately Jeremy has even been learning how to do recess, discovering games like hide and seek, let's-play-house, and store. And though social cues still sometimes elude him, though speech catches in his throat, though there are habits that still need overcoming, Jeremy, in my book, has won the battle against his genes. In the process, he has made me who I am todaygentler, more patient, more honest, more faithful, so deeply in awe of the courage of young hearts.
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Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of a memoir trilogy. She has written about writing and the imagination for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and Parenting. She lives in Devon, Pennsylvania.
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