Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Hazard, by Margaret Combs

Margaret Combs's life was drastically changed when her little brother Roddy was born.  This is true for most older siblings, but for Combs's family, the change was more pronounced.  Her brother was different.  Some labelled him retarded.  At least one doctor diagnosed cerebral palsy.  But few people knew the term by which his condition came to be known: autism.  In the 1950s and 1960s, when Combs was growing up, ignorance reigned.  She and her family got by as best they could, but struggled with fitting Roddy into their lives and community.  Combs tells her story in Hazard: A Sister's Flight from Family and a Broken Boy.

Because of the ignorance of the time, teachers and doctors didn't really know what to do with Roddy.  At one point, he went half a school year in a class for deaf students before Combs's mother figured it out.  Combs writes, "my brother was a small but clear dot on one extreme end of the autism spectrum, the opposite end of high-functioning so-called Asperger's.  None of us knew the: not my parents, not even Roddy's teachers at the Wallace School for the Handicapped."

Combs captures her mother's depression and helplessness.  Parents of disabled children, even with the knowledge and support systems that are available today, often feel isolated, judged, and rejected.  Even more so a generation or two ago, when awareness and compassion were future hopes, and stigma and exclusion dominated.  In Combs's case, her parents were from Appalachia, "where belief prevailed that the kind of people who bred retarded children were low and uneducated, whose bad behavior and foul natures led to illness and plague, who were careless and unscrupulous, whose children were ignorant and soiled."  On a visit to Combs's parents' hometown, they encountered a severely disabled teenager, accompanied by his family who appeared to fit the above description to a T.  Combs's mother "was a born-again, devoutly Christian, clean, educated woman and, still, she had birthed a retarded child, just like this behemoth of a woman with her piteous boy."

This faith struggle defines Combs's understanding, as well as her mother's.  The difference is that her mother seems to come to grips with it, while Margaret completely rejects it.  I had hoped to hear more of a theological reflection from Combs, but she never gets beyond her childish faith, where she "believed what my parents had taught me: Jesus held the tickets to everlasting life and now that I was baptized, I had one in my hand."  That's a pretty accurate description of many young Christians' experience in Baptist churches.  But that's not the end of the Christian life; faith must become one's own.  In a church that emphasizes discipleship and Christian growth, childhood faith blossoms into mature adult faith.  But for Combs, Christian faith never became her own, and she "jettisoned Baptist dogma and, along with it, the idea of souls dwelling anywhere after death."

It makes me sad to hear stories of people leaving their faith like she did.  Certainly her parents had their weakness and cultural shortcomings, but I couldn't help but wonder if their shared faith and consistent church involvement played a role in the stability of their marriage, which lasted at least until the writing of this book.  Combs, on the other hand, left her faith behind, and married and divorced two different men of another faith.  Perhaps if she had internalized the fact that Easter was more than "celebrating the tortured death of a prophet" and celebrated that fact that Jesus' resurrection gives hope for all of us, her adult life and marital happiness would have turned out better.  (I am not judging her, simply recognizing the fact that couples who are involved in church together have lower divorce rates than the general population.)

Given the ostensible purpose of the book, I was also a bit disappointed in the limited amount of insight into disability.  I was hoping for a memoir about growing up with a sibling who had a disability.  Hazard is a memoir about a woman growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, with occasional references to her brother who has an intellectual disability.  At several points I lost interest as Combs's "writer's" pen took over her "storyteller's" pen, resulting in some nicely written passages or whole chapters that did little to advance the overall point of the memoir.  But I guess that's what memoirs tend to do.

On having someone with a disability in the family, there were a few thought-provoking and challenging statements.  As she observes her brother in middle age, she writes, "The truth about disability is that it lasts.  And it doesn't get better; it grows worse and more complicated with age."  Many families who have a disabled family member can relate to her statement that "Growing up with a disabled boy in a time of ignorance had wracked my family, crippling our rhythms and feeding our sense of shame."

Combs doesn't offer a lot of solace for parents and siblings of people with disabilities.  She does offer a point of reference for people to relate to, but if readers are seeking inspiration, guidance, or hope, they should keep looking.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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