A child’s perspective on a family’s ordeal.
In her revealing nonfiction debut, Brown, who published a young adult novel, Hush (2010), under the pseudonym Eishes Chayil, recounts growing up Hassidic in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1980s and ’90s. Vividly capturing the voice of her younger self, she portrays an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community marked by piety, prejudice, and superstition and her loving family roiled by the mystifying, often terrifying, affliction of her younger brother, Nachum. “When I tried to share with him, he blinked, flailed his hands, and sometimes gave a piercing shriek,” Brown recalls, “and I didn’t want to play with him anymore.” The author wasn’t satisfied when adults told her that everything—including Nachum’s madness—was part of “God’s Grand Master Plan”; or that Nachum was crazy because her mother didn’t nurse him; or he must have been dropped on his head. Talmudic lore held that an angel, after imbuing an unborn child’s soul with holy knowledge, strikes him on the upper lip to erase that memory. “But sometimes,” Brown was told, “the angel strikes the upper lip too hard,” making it impossible for the child to remember anything, “even how to speak, how to say simple words. Such a child is born mad, like my brother.” The author felt cursed by her brother’s existence—not only the havoc he wreaked in the family, but because she believed that having a defective brother lessened a matchmaker’s chances of finding her a husband. Only her mother was convinced that Nachum could be helped. She took him to Israel, going from doctor to doctor in search of a diagnosis. The results were no more satisfying than the story of the angel: ADHD, psychosis, and chemical imbalance. Finally, one doctor diagnosed autism. Nachum improved dramatically after a few years in a special school, becoming, at last, the brother whom Brown could love.
A tender story gently told.