I just finished reading a book I would not have chosen on my own. The author, Terrell Harris Dougan, gifted members of our writing workshop with her 2009 book, That Went Well: Adventures in Caring for My Sister. Even though I know the author is a witty woman and even though I consider myself a reasonably compassionate person, I didn’t look forward to reading about caring for the mentally challenged.
I finally started the book last week because I will see Terrell at a gathering soon. I read it straight through—caught up in the story of the Harris family trying to raise their handicapped daughter, Irene, as normally as possible at a time when mental handicaps were a family disgrace–and no public programs existed in Utah to help children with special needs. Terrell’s father finally wrote a letter to the editor of the SL Tribune asking parents of other disabled children to call him if they would like to band together to form a day care center. The Harris’s phone rang off the hook with calls from parents grateful to know they were not alone and seeking help for their disabled children.
As an adult Terrell became an activist for people with special needs. She navigated the murky waters of Utah politics in the 1960s and ‘70s to achieve funding for group homes for adult disabled persons—against the opposition of a Utah County state legislator who fought diminution of funding and power from the American Fork Training School.
Terrell’s organizational skills earned her a spot on the original Sundance Film Festival Board—and her story of the first meeting with Robert Redford is worth the price of the book.
Terrell interlaces her own life, growing up in an upper-middle class family in the ‘50s, as she tells Irene’s story. The whole family takes a trip to Europe—including the grandmother who criticizes Europeans for babbling in a language she can’t understand and who can hardly wait to get home to some good food.
Like most young women of this era, Terrell drops out of college to marry. Busy with her own children, her sister, and community activism for the handicapped, Terrell resents Betty Friedan’s disparagement of housewives satisfied to stay home and make jam instead of embarking on careers. When Betty Friedan retires and discovers the pleasure of making raspberry jam, Terrell gloats.
I’m surprised that this book hasn’t become a best seller—especially in Utah. I think the cover may be the problem. It features a colorized pink and blue1950’s photo of Irene—giving the book a dated, sentimentalized look—which is totally deceptive.
Writing after the events, Terrell sees humor in ducking a packaged chicken her tantrum-throwing, middle-aged sister hurls at her in a crowded supermarket. She describes a scene where she tries to show Irene what her tantrums look like. In Irene’s apartment, which she shares with a paid companion, Terrell smacks furniture and walls with a rolled up newspaper and screams back at her raging sister—until she realizes Irene is enjoying the show. As she leaves, the landlord informs Terrell that the other tenants can handle Irene’s temper tantrums, but not hers. A staff worker at a group home where Irene is residing calls Terrell co-dependent, and Terrell responds with anger—until she recognizes some truth in the remark.
Although not a believing Mormon herself, Terrell appreciates the love and support of the LDS ward in which her sister lives and of the Special Needs Mutual program Irene attends.
I’m sending a copy to a friend with a disabled daughter whose tantrums and destruction get her expelled from group homes. Kay will value learning how other people handle caring for handicapped family members. And let’s face it—all of us have some mental, emotional, or physical handicaps which we–and others–must deal with.