Tag Archives: autobiography

Review of Eye Can Write by Jonathan Bryan #Brainfluffbookreview #EyeCanWritebookreview


This is a book my mother sent me after seeing twelve-year-old Jonathan interviewed on TV and looking up his story.

Can you imagine not being able to speak or communicate? The silence, the loneliness, the pain. But, inside you disappear to magical places, and even meet your best friend there. However, most of the time you remain imprisoned within the isolation. Waiting, longing, hoping. Until someone realises your potential and discovers your key, so your unlocking can begin. Now you are free, flying like a wild bird in the open sky. A voice for the voiceless.

Jonathan Bryan has severe cerebral palsy, a condition that makes him incapable of speech or voluntary movement. He was locked inside his own mind, aware of the outside world but unable to fully communicate with it until he found a way by using his eyes to laboriously choose individual letters, and through this make his thoughts known.

I knew this was a special book, but was unprepared for the emotional impact. It is a book of two halves – the first part is written by Jonathan’s mother and charts the events leading up to the accident that caused Jonathan’s problems. The list of life-threatening difficulties he has endured is shockingly long, as is the number of medical interventions and trips to hospital he had needed. His gritted courage and determination were evident in the fact that he simply hung on in there and refused to die when the odds were stacked against him, time and time again.

But what for me was a source of heartbreak and intense frustration was his treatment at the special school where he was simply being warehoused. It brought back far too many unhappy memories of another bright boy whose education was severely compromised because expectations about his ability were set far too low. This book is a testament to Jonathan’s own intelligence and passion, as well as a tribute to a mother who refused to listen to the experts and was guided instead by her own instincts about her son. She taught him to read and over time, they found a way to allow him to express himself, even though it is laborious.

Jonathan’s own feelings about being trapped within his body without any way to express himself, while forced to watch the same TV programme designed for developing infants should be a wake-up call for everyone in Special Needs education. I very much hope the politicians he has met will take note of what he is saying and realise that while he is remarkable, there are probably many other children and adults with active, creative minds also trapped by their bodies. I’d like to think as a country we will take on board Jonathan’s plea that everyone should be taught to read and write, using all the technology available, unless it becomes apparent that it isn’t appropriate, which is not the case now.

In the meantime, go and track this book down. It is an emotional read, but also very uplifting. Jonathan’s poetry will stay with me for a long time…

Review of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson


This is an autobiography about Jeanette Winterson’s unusual and destructive childhood that was partly covered in her fictional version, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. She was adopted by the Winterson’s, who were Pentecostalists. That could still, of course, worked out just fine – except that Mrs Winterson was very disappointed with Jeanette almost from the start when she proved to be baby that cried a lot… And from there it slid away into disaster. Mostly because you wouldn’t want to let Mrs Winterson near any breathing being – and the thought of having the small child depicted on the cover of the book at her mercy makes me feel queasy.

When Jeanette finally left home at sixteen, because she was in love with a woman, Mrs Winterson asked her, ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’

This book is the story of a life’s work to find happiness. It is a book full of stories about a girl locked out of home, sitting on the whybehappydoorstep all night; about a tyrant in the place of a mother, who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the duster drawer, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in a northern industrial town now changed beyond recognition, part of a community now vanished; about the Universe as a Cosmic Dustbin. It is the story of how the painted past Jeanette Winterson thought she had written over and repainted returned to haunt her later life, and sent her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her real mother. It is also a book about other people’s stories, showing how fiction and poetry can form a string of guiding lights, a life raft which supports us when we are sinking.

The blurb makes some big claims for this book – which, after all, isn’t terribly long – only 229 pages, and not particularly densely printed at that. However, Jeanette Winterson’s sharp, vitally intelligent and considered account is all of the above and more… There is the chippy resolve not to be annihilated that comes across so strongly in Oranges, along with the flashes of humour. However, this is a darker reality than the fictionalised version. Jeanette was far more isolated and bitterly aware of being unlovable and while some of Mrs Winterson’s more extreme behaviour tips into apparent farce, I was more shaken than inclined to laugh.

What this book isn’t, though, is one of the misery memoirs that hit the shelves a few years back. Jeanette Winterson would rather rip her tongue out by the roots than have her readers pity her – mostly because whatever else she did, she didn’t go around pitying herself. She was far too busy questing for books and finding ways to survive Mrs Winterson’s depressive and self-destructive attitude to Life. Indeed, she appeared to not only survive, but outright thrive once she fought free of Accrington. After getting herself into an Oxford college – a feat in itself back at a time when Oxbridge weren’t so scaldingly aware of the damaging faultlines in providing a first class education to only the privileged few – she produced a best-selling, award-winning book at a time when many of her contemporaries were still trying to learn how to survive on their own.

However, this isn’t a fairy story. This is reality – and the hard fact is that being told, ‘The Devil lead me to the wrong crib,’ leaves wounds. And while Jeanette managed to use reading and later, writing, to keep herself from sinking, the time finally came when the damage caught up with her. She describes her descent into madness (her word for it) with her customary honesty, as well as the gritted effort and the role of writing a children’s book in helping her find a way out. She also describes her search for her real mother – and once more, we are aware that this is not the soft-focused, effusively emotional business we are used to seeing on tv programmes.

However, don’t take my word for it – this is a book that has so much packed into it, it deserves being read at least once by anyone who’s had a bumpy childhood. You’ll come away feeling empowered and admiring.