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Susan's Brother Paperback – 30 Jun 2012
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Susan’s Brother was unloved by his mother – there was no physical affection, few toys, little conversation and the added burden at times of her outright lies and deception. Consigned to mental health institutions, special education and even an experimental school he experiences so little emotional support that he turns inwards to protect himself in a hurtful, confusing world. He never received pocket money from his mother and birthday cards were not sent to where he was living (institutions and boarding schools). Before he died, his father drilled into him that “Boys don’t cry,” and it became a mantra. “Boys don’t cry.” His father also decreed ”Boys don’t have teddy bears” and abused Ted (second hand, one eyed, thrown out by a neighbour) beating him against a wall. Much of the story is explained by Ted in conversation with Susan’s Brother. Ted was the only “person” he could trust, could cuddle and draw comfort from. Other adults in his life lied to him too, sometimes as a joke, leading him to not trust adults at all. Home as a concept meant nothing to him; it was where he was identified by his sister, not in his own right, hence the title of the book.
Susan herself ignored him. She had the soft toys, physical affection, pocket-money and seemingly everything she wanted. She hardly spoke to him, didn’t play with him and became outright nasty. She started with “You are fat and clumsy, you can’t read or write, no one will ever want you and you’ll never get anywhere in life.” In time she got “religion” and burned into his brain a new mantra “I don’t know why God is punishing me so. All I ever wanted was a good-looking brother who had a decent job, who could give me money and introduce me to nice boys; and look what I’ve got!” As he grew and started to overcome his problems he gets to live at home and she says “Well now you’re home, I suppose I shall have to tell all the neighbours that you are mentally ill. My friends too.”
He was emotionally disturbed, deeply depressed. ”Unable to cry, climb up and out of the dark pit into a normal boyhood.” In time he starts an upward journey from being probably the youngest person sectioned in the UK (for attempting suicide at age 9) he learns enough to understand the need to protect himself from, for example, his sister. This led him unfortunately to be admitted to the horrors of the Adult Unit of a mental institution (St Augustine’s) when his school closed for two weeks over the summer. Why, we will never fully understand. Surely no normal mother would have contemplated an adult unit “where the advanced treatment means that they (medical professionals) could build their careers cooking the brains of patients (with electroconvulsive therapy). Fortunately he was not treated so but Susan’s Brother witnessed it happening, every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. That is how he knew which day in the week it was.
Despite the institutions, the prognosis, the emotional neglect, the bullying and the struggles to learn hampered by dyslexia, Susan’s brother begins to climb up out of the pit. The structure and routine of the institutions and schools gave him a degree of security and stability. There were glimmers of hope. Small acts of kindness that added together became significant and reached deeply down inside him. He became fascinated with radios which led him to improving his reading and electronics knowledge from hobby magazines. He learned to assert himself by not going home, staying away from Susan and beating up the main bully. His resilience grows. He gains a radio ham receiver licence. He progresses out of the institutions into a main stream state school living at home. He begins to develop friendly and meaningful relationships with neighbours, particularly the Tolhursts, of whom he says without them he would not be here. He develops an interest in motorbikes and in time cars, passing his driving licence test on the first attempt. On leaving school he gets a job and lodgings to live independently.
Throughout the book there are interesting additions of what the law, guidelines or definitions were in terms of the care and education of children with special needs, back when Susan’s Brother was growing up. We can be grateful that times have changed and systems and standards of care and treatment have improved significantly. What Susan’s Brother experienced growing up would not be condoned today.
Interestingly, I have met Susan’s Brother, Chris, and would never have deduced such an early childhood from the gentle, polite, generous man he has become, if I had not read this book. He knows his limits and has lived a successful life overcoming the early limits and challenges. Chris is an example of hope and resilience and a great example of the success that determination brings. If Chris can overcome despite the treatment he received there is hope for emotionally disturbed, maladjusted, special needs children today.
It doesn't matter how well educated your child is, they don't have the language to be able to tell you what's going wrong in their lives. When something goes wrong, they may think it's their fault, they may have been told it's their fault, or they may think you'll be annoyed with them, if they tell you. I think the majority of children that end up in a bad place, do so simply because no one understands them. Understanding a child is the key to helping them have a good and fulfilled life, helps them overcome difficulties. That's what Bob Tolhurst did for me. If he hadn't said 'Yes; your family do treat you badly' I would of thought the way I was treated was normal and I would always be treated that way. If Briony hadn't been like a sister to me, talk to me, do things with me, encourage me, write the odd letter for me, I would of thought all girls were like my sister. I may never of left mental care. Certainly, no psychiatrist thought I would ever leave the mental hospital when I was sectioned there. So I say God bless Bob Tolhurst and the Tolhurst family. Chris Robinson - Lyndhurst.
There is a real glimpse into the way that society not only casts blame on the child for the failings of the parent but also how mental institutions victimise those who are already deeply disturbed. Susan’s Brother narrowly escapes institutionalisation due to his intellect and the kindness and interest of others. Ultimately this book is shocking in the way that a young child - who should be full of the wonder of exploring what life is – is dulled, desensitised and traumatised. And yet, this young man finds fulfilled joy in later years. There is a real sense of the history of the decade that readers will find stirs memories of their own growing up years - the years before television!
This is a valid, worthy subject for disclosure and readers are in a privileged position to hear his story. It will be interesting to read what James Marinero produces in the future.
For grown-ups who like bikes, cars, numbers, social history, and particularly radios!”