When getting ready to start her own family, Priscilla Gilman envisioned a charmed life and looked forward to the pleasures and discoveries that motherhood would bring. Her father had held children in high regard while she was growing up, and she had always been encouraged to express herself creatively whenever possible. As a Wordsworth scholar, her work provided her with plenty of romantic images of what childhood entailed. Everything seemed perfect: she and her husband were both doctoral candidates at Yale, and both were determined to put family ahead of everything, even if it meant making sacrifices in their fledgling careers in academia.
When their son Benjamin was born, he began to immediately challenge the romanticized vision Gilman had always dreamed of. There were some obvious behaviors — like the fact that he hated to be held, therefore making bonding a lot harder — but he seemed normal enough that his parents brushed off their unease. Even so, Gilman always had a nagging suspicion that there was something different about Benjamin that she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
As Benjamin got a little older, it became apparent just how different he was. By the time he was a year old, he could recognize letters on the television screen. By the time he was two, he could read entire books and recite poetry; he also showed a talent with numbers and shapes. Still, however amazed his parents were, they seemed to accept Benjamin’s gifts in stride. Gilman writes:
With an English professor and an English PhD candidate for parents, and an extended family that was exceedingly arts, Benjamin’s attraction to books, his reciting of poems, seemed only natural, if a bit extreme in its precocity and intensity…we simply accepted that we had an odd, unconventional, and possibly brilliant little boy on our hands.
What Benjamin’s parents didn’t realize until later was that his gifts were a sign of a developmental disorder called hyperlexia, and that his extraordinary abilities had inadvertently managed to cover up some serious developmental delays that required immediate, intense therapies.
Naturally, the discovery was devastating to Gilman and her husband. The romantic image Gilman had envisioned for Benjamin crumbled. Instead, she now found herself agonizing over a completely opposite reality: Would Benjamin ever be able to have a relationship and experience profound love? Would he every be able to function and find a job he loved, or go to school and experience a full, emotional life? Would he every be able to bond with her?
But as she lets go of her romantic visions, she accepts the lessons that her amazing little anti-romantic child teaches her; her notion of motherhood — and childhood — expands to mean so much more. Using passages from Wordsworth’s poems to supplement her writing (sometimes to a fault), Gilman’s memoir is a moving tribute to her unique child. And though it’s mostly about the dynamic of one family, I also think the book would provide an important perspective for anyone who works with young children in any capacity.
The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy was initially released on hardcover by Harper Books in April 2011. It was released on paperback on April 24, 2012 by Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins. This book is on tour right now, so check out what other bloggers are saying about it.