Living with autism is a hugely weighty subject and any book about it could easily risk being hard to digest. Ideally, you’d need to be in the hands of a writer with a flair for finding the poetry and humour among the difficulties and the heartaches. Thankfully, Henry Normal is just the man for the job, as he’s a poet who knows plenty about comedy as well as moving detail.
A Normal Family is an account by Normal and his wife, Angela Pell, of their experience bringing up their autistic son Johnny. Now 19, Johnny has become something of a gifted artist, with his work currently forming an exhibition at the Phoenix in Brighton. On the other hand, his parents have no idea if Johnny will ever be able to leave home or hold down a job or a relationship, and on present showing it does seem unlikely. Somehow, though, this book might not be quite what you’re expecting. It’s by no means an exercise in hard-wringing. It’s not angling for the reader’s sympathy or even trying to instruct them about how best to raise an autistic child in the manner of a manual. Instead it’s just the tale of family life as Johnny, Henry and Angela have lived it, and while it’s candid rather than candied, it stands as a celebration of what they’ve experienced together. It might be unconventional and idiosyncratic, but then again, which family isn’t?
The book has an impressionistic, collage effect, not unlike a scrapbook, constructed as it is from alternating chapters by Normal and Pell, family photographs and poems by Normal which have been written in response to the photos. It makes no attempt to tell their story chronologically, with individual chapters leaping between different themes or issues, offering up observations, anecdotes and mini-meditations. There are points when it’s a little repetitive or rambling, but the cumulative effect becomes intimate, insightful and casual, at times reading like an unassuming blog or even a book-length family Christmas letter.
Although raising Johnny is obviously the focal point here, there’s also plenty of tangential autobiographical material from Normal and Pell, about their childhoods, their relationship and their successful careers (Pell is a working screenwriter whereas Normal put his poetry writing on hold for 20 years to run the UK comedy production company Baby Cow with Steve Coogan). Johnny always makes his presence felt, though, and emerges as a fascinating figure even if, sadly, he couldn’t contribute directly. The love that exists between the three family members burns from the page.
Normal and Pell are at pains to make plain that this book has no intention of trying to be the last word on the subject of autism. Those whose lives are touched by it will have wildly different experiences and this is simply their attempt to describe theirs.
Understanding Johnny, comprehending his mindset and trying to make life as happy and fulfilling as possible for him, seems to be their only objective. For anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation, though, it could provide a lifeline complete with gentle wisdom and a positive, philosophical perspective. For all other readers, it’s an enlightening insight into an undoubtedly tough and demanding but often remarkable world.
A Normal Family by Henry Normal and Angela Pell is available now from Two Roads Books.
To read Henry Normal’s latest article for Northern Soul, click here.