Judy Brown wrote the controversial novel Hush—a finalist for the 2011 Sydney Taylor Award for outstanding book on the Jewish experience — under a pseudonym because of feared backlash from the Chassidic world. Brown’s identity has since been revealed and she has left Chassidism. Her new book, This is Not a Love Story, is now available. She is blogging here today for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
My agent told this to me — the very first thing he said when reading my manuscript about my autistic brother. Alright, he said it somewhat more tactfully, something like — ‘your ideal readers will have very strong feelings about these issues,’ droning on about ‘how and when to use the word ‘crazy’ ” which sounded like gibberish to me because my brother was definitely crazy.
When I was eight years old my mother told me the same. “Stop calling your brother retarded,” she said, after I’d asked her when my retarded brother would stop being retarded. She winced at my casual use. But for me it wasn’t an insult. It was simply a fact, a way to describe the strange and unsolvable mystery that was my younger sibling; a boy who could not speak, who flailed his arms like a frantic chicken if you got too close to his face.
And now they were at it again; editors and agent telling my eight-year-old narrative voice what I could and could not call my own brother.
So we compromised. I would call my brother crazy as often as I’d want, but cut down on the word retarded, replacing it, at least some of the time, with the more elegant (diplomatic?) ‘strange,’ or ‘odd,’ and other such adjectives to make people I didn’t know or care for, feel better. Yeah whatever. My brother was nuts.
It’s funny. Because he and I laugh about it today, all those years and so many changes later.
“Nuu,’ he says chuckling, when insisting on a particular way of doing things,” — what is there to do? I am your crazy brother…”
So we agree. We are all a little crazy — the bus driver talking to himself when he thinks no one’s looking, the man dancing down the street like there’s no tomorrow, the people who spend fifteen million on a house. It’s a crazy, crazy world, and here we are scared to call it just that.
But you can’t tell an eight-year-old how to talk, how to put pretty little lies on everyone else’s thoughts as they move cautiously away on the bus or at the pizza shop, trying not to stare at that-retarded-boy.
It was hurtful as a child, listening to the counselors in summer day camp laugh at his strange behavior, watching a family friend shoo him away as if he were a cat, while I could never do the same. There was nowhere to hide, not when we were bound tight by the eternal and impossible cords of family. Because this was my own flesh-and-blood brother, so strange, so mad, so crazy, and nobody was gonna tell me how to call it, not then, not now.
I remember my daughter coming off the bus at age nine, and telling me about a new and separate class which just opened up in her school for different-kind-of girls. The teachers had each gathered their students around them, explaining that they must be extra nice to these other girls.
“What kind of different-kind-of-girls,” I asked.
“… retarded girls,” she said, then quickly changed her mind. “I mean, I mean, not retarded — just diff — .” She stopped, trying to remember. Then remembered. “Different.”
“Different?” I asked, as if I couldn’t understand. “What, like they have peach hair?”
“No, no,” she said. “Different like dumb. I mean, I mean, not dumb, just — slow.” Again, she stopped, thinking. “Slow-er…?”
She looked up at me, a big and worried question on her face. Or not?
I laughed watching her stumble over the instructions given by her teacher, labels laid out like delicate pieces of porcelain, slowly, cautiously on the table: this is how you say it. Careful, or it will shatter.
But not for me as that child. Porcelain words mean nothing when right behind them were the thoughts laid out across their eyes — pity, curiosity, unease, revulsion. We all know your brother is retarded.
So let the rest of the world dance and stumble over how and what to say of their own fears, as I tell the story of one crazy brother, just the way it happened.
Judy Brown has been profiled in The New York Times Magazine and has written for the Huffington Post and the Jewish Daily Forward. She holds a master’s in creative writing and lives in New York City.
Judy Brown wrote the controversial novel Hush — a finalist for the 2011 Sydney Taylor Award for outstanding books on the Jewish experience — under a pseudonym Eishes Chayil. She has been profiled in The New York Times Magazine and on Rock Center with Brian Williams, and has written for The Huffington Post and The Jewish Forward. She holds a Master’s in creative writing and lives in New York City.