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by Paul Karasik and Judy Karasik
Washington Square Press, 2003
Review by Kevin M. Purday on Jan 20th 2005

The Ride Together

There are conventional books and unusual books. This one definitely comes in the second category. There has also been a rash of books about what it is like living with someone in the family who has autism. This one stands out for its imaginative approach.

The authors, brother and sister, have joined forces to describe nearly fifty years of living with an older autistic brother -- David. A fourth sibling, Michael, also appears in the story. The authors have chosen an episodic approach, homing in on various incidents in the family's life especially turning points in David's care. These episodes are either written up by Judy or they are illustrated by chapters consisting entirely of cartoon strips drawn by Paul. Along the way, not only do they chart the major changes in David's life but they also paint a vivid picture of the life of a very caring family over the span of three generations. There is the maternal grandfather, one of the top surgeons of his day, facing old age and increasing ill health with great dignity; there is the aunt, profoundly retarded and physically handicapped from birth; later in the book the father too suffers from failing health. At the end of the book only the mother, a saintly character, and the four children are left alive although a new generation has been born about whom we learn a little. We also learn about some of their friends and neighbors who seem to be as caring as the Karasiks. As a contrast we also have a cameo of a very uncaring night nurse.

Autism comes in a spectrum of forms. David is capable of being more sociable than some autistic people but he shares the trait of living vividly in a world of his own. Some people would label him as being low in intelligence but in his own way he is very clever with a prodigious memory and a capacity for re-enacting films and television programs. His emotional development has been affected by his condition: he can be quite affable but when he gets frustrated he can also become violent and is difficult to restrain. The most informative parts of the book, at least informative concerning David's care, are the sections about his placement in various schemes. Some of these were day programs while others were long-term residential placements such as his nine-month stay at a fairy tale place in the countryside called Camphill. David finally failed to fit into this almost idyllic establishment because his own rigid pattern of behavior, driven by his internal world, would not allow him to align his routine with Camphill's routine. This led to monthly violent confrontations and eventually his enforced departure. The saddest episode, however, is his stay at a place called Brook Farm that at first also seemed idyllic until the injuries started. Eventually Brook Farm was closed down after a spate of physical and sexual abuse cases hit the headlines, five staff were arrested and it was discovered that the owners had been papering over the cracks and doing nothing about the problem for a long time. Happily, the book ends with David in a successful placement within a programmed designed only for people with autism.

This biography of a family and especially the autistic brother is a moving and imaginative piece of writing covering almost half a century and drawing the reader into their innermost feelings. The combination of written and cartoon chapters works well in quite an unexpected way. This book gives a poignant insight into a very ordinary problem as experienced by an extraordinary family and their friends. This book should be on the reading list of anyone wanting to understand how a family can cope with having an autistic sufferer in its midst.

 

© 2005 Kevin M. Purday

 

 

Kevin M. Purday is Head of the Cambridge International High School in Jordan and recently completed the Philosophy & Ethics of Mental Health course in the Philosophy Dept. at the University of Warwick.