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George and Rainelle Harris were 19-year-old U. of Missouri sophomores, hastily married and living in a travel trailer, when Jennifer was born in 1969--prematurely (3 1bs., 2 oz.), and with ""some problems"" that the dazed Harrises didn't ask about. The story George Harris tells of the next twelve years is in many ways typical of life with a handicapped child: the conflicting diagnoses and erratic treatment, the strains on the marriage, the resentment (""why us?"") and longing to be rid of the burden, the reluctance to give up hope. But the Harrises also--awkwardly, empathically--come of age as Jennifer's parents. To begin with, she's scrawny, sickly, slow to grow. At a few weeks she has heart surgery--and that may not be the last of it. She has an orthopedic problem. Once home, she doesn't seem to respond to noises. A first doctor pronounces her deaf--but maybe not totally; no, says a second doctor--""she just tunes out sound she doesn't want to hear."" It will be years before a consensus is reached: deaf or not, Jennifer ""acts like it""--and has to acquire some language. Meanwhile, she's uncontrollable: ceaselessly active, a poor eater and sleeper, unresponsive to toilet training--normal behavior, says still another doctor, ""for a retarded child."" (But: potty-trained via behavior mod techniques, she cannily resorts to tiny tinkles to get extra mints.) George is a hardpressed psychology grad student; Rainelle, finally set to graduate, wants to go to law school; they agree--quarreling--to place Jennifer in foster care. Then the offer is withdrawn: she isn't retarded. ""I only know,"" says George, ""it's hell living with her."" They begin to get tough, and things get better. From a loving, no-nonsense teacher, Jennifer starts learning to read; at a resident school for the deaf, she learns to sign. The Harrises separate, reunite, separate again--constrained always by Jennifer's needs. ""Her major difficulty,"" George ultimately decides, is ""the adaptation of her intelligence to social development."" She is shameless, guilt-free: when she shuts the toilet door in his face, it's cause to exult. In his last description of her, as a gangling, budding, teasing twelve-year-old, she is a potential lifelong care--and she's charming. Like any other father, he fantasizes a boyfriend for her. A grueling and winning account--for parents in similar straits, or those spared.

Pub Date: Feb. 14th, 1983
Publisher: Gallaudet College Press (Washington, DC 20002)