Books and Culture

Stefan Kanfer
Autism, Non-Hollywood Version
Karl Greenfeld’s painful, eloquent memoir lays bare the disease’s toll.
26 June 2009

Boy Alone: A Brother’s Memoir, by Karl Greenfeld (Harper, 368 pp., $25.99)

In the 1988 film Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman plays an autistic adult named Raymond Babbitt, a role for which he received an Academy Award. Hoffman’s performance has another distinction: 21 years later, it remains the phoniest portrayal of autism ever put on screen.

Those who suffer from that affliction, unlike Raymond, aren’t all cuteness and intuition. Their rages don’t last three picturesque minutes; they can go on for days. In infancy, those stricken most severely retreat into themselves, never to emerge. Others suffer poor coordination and speak only with great difficulty. Even those with less pronounced symptoms have difficulty relating to family members, schoolmates, and, if they’re lucky enough to find a job, coworkers. They can exasperate those closest to them on a daily basis: tantrums are frequent, confusion constant. From their earliest years, autistic people are mysteries, as bewildering to themselves as they are to doctors. Their situation can sometimes be palliated, but not cured.

No one knows this better than the parents and siblings of severely autistic children. Few have described their experiences, and none have produced a memoir as precise and poignant as Karl Greenfeld’s Boy Alone. A former editor of Sports Illustrated, Greenfeld is also a widely published short-story writer. Here he displays the accuracy of a Leica and the sensitivity of a light meter as he recalls the complicated relationship with his younger brother Noah over four decades.

The two men are the sons of scenarist Josh Greenfeld (Harry and Tonto) and his wife Foumi, a Japanese artist. In the beginning, Karl was delighted to have a younger brother with the same attractive Eurasian look and the same cheerful disposition. In a short time, however, Noah stopped speaking and became unresponsive. Was there a short circuit in his brain? Had there been some sort of psychological trauma? No one knew. The family consulted dozens of doctors. The authority on autism at the time was Bruno Bettelheim, whose book, The Empty Fortress, was a sixties bestseller. A self-promoting “expert” whose theories have since been disproved, Bettelheim urged parents to go into therapy, thereby intensifying their feelings of guilt. At the same time, the children were to be boarded at Bettelheim’s Orthogenic School. There, the young victims were given almost unlimited freedom, which supposedly would help them emerge from the “state of fear” that their “refrigerator mothers” had engendered.

The method only made things worse; the early years are when parents’ efforts to reach the child are most crucial. “It is hard to quantify the damage that Bettelheim did to a generation of autistic children,” Greenfield writes. With cold fury, he charts the precious years lost adhering to a form of treatment devoid of scientific grounding. Yet the treatment so pervaded the medical establishment that “the parents of autistic children found themselves on the defensive whenever they sought treatment for their kids.”

The guilt-ridden Greenfeld family pulled up stakes in New York and settled in southern California, where a series of more enlightened specialists worked with their younger son. There was no dramatic breakthrough, but they kept Noah at home, feeding him, cleaning him, and devoting days, months, and years to his care. Karl wrestled with resentment because his younger brother got more attention. One memory of adolescence might have come from the imaginings of Jorge Luis Borges: the narrator constructs his own imaginary empires (Karl, Noah, Foumi, Josh), which continually make and break alliances and embark on wars of conquest. “Karl began, strangely enough, as a colony of Noah. It took not one but three wars of independence for Karl to break the cruel reign of the Noah tyranny, and in the last war, the counteroffensive went all the way from Karl (my room) into Noah (his room), ending forever the threat posed by Noah to Karl.”

Confused and bitter, Karl did poorly in school, got lost in a world of drugs, and finally escaped the California scene by heading east to college. Even so, he never stopped caring for, and about, the strange boy with whom he had grown up. Noah is now institutionalized, and Karl has become a husband and the father of two girls. His strongest love is, understandably, directed toward the family he heads. Even so, the example of his parents’ long devotion and sacrifice is too powerful to resist. He knows that when they are gone, he will look after his brother assiduously. “There is nothing to be gained from loving Noah,” he writes. “Ultimately, I tell myself, my best chance at happiness is turn my back and walk away” from this impassive figure who shares the same genes and little else.

“But I can’t.”

It’s estimated that one out of every 150 children born in the U.S. has some form of autism. The parents of the other 149 will also profit from reading this luminous account of true brotherhood, lived and written in an age of indulgence and self-pity.

Stefan Kanfer, a contributing editor of City Journal and a former editor of Time, is the author, most recently, of a biography of Marlon Brando, Somebody.

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