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Review of "Children with Emerald Eyes"

By Mira Rothenberg
North Atlantic Books, 2003
Review by Kevin M. Purday on Oct 25th 2004
Children with Emerald Eyes

A reviewer does not lightly admit to being reduced to tears by a book but I have to confess to having shed a tear or two at several points during the reading of this one. The author is a clinical psychologist who in her long career has specialized in working with severely disturbed children and especially those diagnosed as autistic or schizophrenic. She is perhaps best known as the co-founder and clinical director of Blueberry Treatment Centres which started off as a source of day-time therapy for autistic and schizophrenic children and ended up as a residential village offering a protected environment for them.

The book is a beautifully written account in detail about six of the children she helped while, in chapters dealing with groups of boys or girls, we are given less detailed accounts of many more children. The detailed accounts are of children called Jonny, Anthony, Chaim, Sara, Danny and Peter. Not all of the stories have happy endings; this is not a feel-good book. Rather, the stories of these boys and girls are intended to make us the readers aware that in every highly disturbed child there is a fellow human being crying out to us for help. Sometimes we find a way of extending a helping hand; sometimes, despite years of heartbreaking attempts, we fail. The story of Danny is one such story of failure. Danny was diagnosed as autistic after a sudden personality change at the age of four. His father's job as a test pilot, the death of a much loved grandfather, being lost for two days in a forest and possibly witnessing the death of a friend were all listed as possible factors in the child's development of an autistic disorder. Whatever the cause or causes, Danny became violent and uncontrollable. Mira, over a long period of time, worked wonders with the child. When the time came for him to move up a class and leave Mira, he totally regressed and in the end he was sent away to a state hospital unit. The author's last word in this chapter is 'Forgive!' On the other hand, the story of Anthony is an encouraging tale where a most unprepossessing boy, who was an ardent fan of Adolph Hitler, who was covered in swastikas from head to toe and who was extremely physically violent towards both children and adults, came first for a few hours day and finally as a resident in Mira's home. After years of support and several reversals, Anthony, who came from an ardent Roman Catholic background, matures into an almost unbelievably well-balanced young man and the chapter ends with his marriage to a Jewish girl, a musician, and the birth of their first child. The last words of this chapter are 'Anthony is somebody.'

Chaim was the son of concentration camp survivors. Although he was born after they moved to the U.S.A. and although he was normal for the first four and a half years of his life, he suddenly changed and became the living embodiment of his mother's nightmares, of the terrors she had lived through and of the hell on earth that she could not forget. Peter was diagnosed as schizophrenic and as an 'idiot-savant'. He had an unerring memory for facts and figures and was one of those people who could instantly tell you the day of the week for any date a thousand years ago or a thousand years in the future. Jonny was a deeply disturbed little boy who seems to have been traumatized by three and a half months in an incubator having been born prematurely weighing only one and a half pounds. Sara was a very strange little girl who blossomed into a beautiful young lady who was nicknamed Blueberry and after whom Mira's camp and residential village were named.

The stories of groups of children are equally moving and sometimes very funny as well. One such is the story of how Mira took a group of girls, Carla, Annie, Mary, Patty, Sally, Bonny, Cybelle and Molly, who between them contained murderesses, prostitutes and a great deal more, on an outing to a restaurant two or three miles from the center. Mira must have been quite young herself at the time because the police thought that the group of nine young women had absconded, threw them into the back of a paddy wagon and booked them. I won't spoil the story for you by telling you the ending. The story of two groups of boys, a younger group and an older, a story called 'The Hamster', is also funny at times but on reflection it is more poignant than anything else and its ending is far from humorous.

This is a book to tug at your heartstrings. From a psychological point of view, it is a much-needed reminder of the essential humanity that lies at the core of all of us, even the most disturbed. It is subtitled 'Histories of Extraordinary Boys & Girls' and this is most certainly true. However, it is also a series of snapshots from the life of an extraordinary woman. I thoroughly recommend this book to you but make sure that you have a box of tissues nearby when you read it.

© 2004 Kevin 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.

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