This is a book I have always wanted to read. Most of you have probably already seen the eponymous film it later inspired. For those who have not, Brown was the tenth of twenty-two children (thirteen of whom survived). Back then, child mortality was very high, especially in the urban areas of Ireland. Brown was diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy and his parents were told that they should put him into an institution and forget about him because he would be a “mental defective”. From what we know now, this would have been a death sentence. This novel was published in 1954, when Brown was still just twenty two years, so most of it is set in 1930’s and 1940’s Dublin. This was a very different time and place to modern Ireland.
Brown relies on his family for all of his basic needs and his speech in his early years is intelligible to all, but his family. That is why it is such a breakthrough when they realize that he is able to communicate by writing with his left foot. At first, it is just a letter, but with perseverance especially from his mother he improves over time. His mother is the other central character in the novel. She is the one who didn’t give up on him and got him to make the most of what he had. Later Brown also uses his left foot to paint. It turns out that he is very good and this is what brings him to wider public attention in his teenage years, when he wins a competition.
In a way, he was fortunate to be from such a large family as his brothers brought him out and about them with them. However, as happens with many people with disabilities, as one grows older growing awareness of one being somewhat different leads to many isolating themselves. Alas, this is what happened to him, and it appears he rarely left the house from the age of eight or nine.
There were people who cared about his plight though. A young nurse who visited him and encouraged his writing. Then later, a doctor who believes that he can be cured by “physiotherapy”. In a way, I found this part of the book quite interesting as Brown has perhaps inadvertently given a fascinating insight into the early beginnings of Disability Support Services and treatments.
At the time, the cause of cerebral palsy was unknown. It appears that the doctors told him with the required effort, he could become “normal”. They even told him to stop using his left foot as this would hold his recovery back (thankfully, he eventually ignores them). Alas, the benefits of physio were oversold. However, it does make a difference and has benefited many people with disabilities, including myself to this day. They have to rent rooms in which to carry out their activities. There is no Central Remedial Clinic, no IWA, nothing and there wouldn’t be for another decade or so.
Browns writing is quite funny at times, despite the dark content of basically being trapped inside a body that mostly doesn’t function. He originally thought of putting “mental defective” in the title of book, to show how wrong the doctors were. Perhaps, he should have.
The film seems to include many things that are not in this book. There is no fight in a pub for a start! In fact, alcohol is not consumed at all in the book. In reality, Brown is an alcoholic. Also, there’s no mention of his sister becoming pregnant out of wedlock, like in the film, which leads him to shouting at his father to leave her alone. I learned that there is a later novel he writes, which is darker that he never admits to being autobiographical, which maybe is where these scenes came from.
Or maybe they are just pure fiction. The novel ends fairly abruptly at a ceremony to raise funds for cerebral palsy, but he’s still only 22. The film ends with news that Brown married the love of his life before choking to death at the age of 49. In reality, according to his family he married a former prostitutes who neglected him. It does seem that he loved her though, so who are we to judge?
In any event, he will always be one of my heroes. He triumphed against great adversity, and played a role in highlighting disability in the Irish mainstream. It may come as no surprise that it gets five stars out of five from me.