May 16, 2013
(++++) FAMILY MATTERS
Someone Could Get Hurt: A Memoir of Twenty-First-Century Parenthood. By Drew Magary. Gotham Books. $25.
Learning to Listen: A Life Caring for Children. By T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. Da Capo. $24.99.
Read the title of this article two ways. The second word could be a plural noun; hence “family issues.” Or it could be a verb; hence “family is important.” And thus it helps to read these two books in very different ways as well. Both are first-person, experiential works, but Drew Magary’s is designed primarily descriptively and with a great deal of humor, while T. Berry Brazelton’s is far more prescriptive and serious.
Magary writes in a punchy, tell-it-all style that never varies, whether he is making notes about drunk driving and a child urinating in a hot tub or discussing a life-or-death situation in a hospital. Magary thinks four-letter words are cool, and he uses them incessantly. So one has to admire the comparatively mild bonding-with-his-daughter scene in which the two exchange “butt” jokes at bath time rather than ones using stronger language. In fact, his agreeing to stop those jokes – at his wife’s insistence – shows more maturity, even if unwillingly, than most of the rest of what he writes about. Magary overdoes pretty much everything: when his wife is sound asleep, he says, “She was down like a gunshot victim” – just one of many tasteless and inappropriate remarks in Someone Could Get Hurt. Yet the book is often a pleasure to read, if only because Magary seems so clueless about just how clueless he is, or was. “You’re supposed to leave a baby in a crib alone, with no other accoutrements around, because it can roll into things like pillows and suffocate. If I propped her up on a pillow, she might die. Then again, I was very, very tired. I propped her up on a pillow.” Magary is very much into pop culture – in fact, most of his writing is for publications and Web sites that promote pop culture as if it means something – so he is given to such comments as, “All the little girls grabbed at the dresses like [sic] it was the first night of eliminations on The Bachelor, and my daughter followed suit.” He also has a kneejerk anti-corporate bias, except of course when he desperately needs something made by a corporation, and he often manages to combine tastelessness with a rant within a page or so, as when there is a possible issue of flat head syndrome involving his son: “I kept running my hands along the boy’s head, checking for imperfections as if I were a Third Reich phrenologist. …When your child is in danger of having a flat head, you quickly learn that the money-grubbing executives at Big Helmet have gone to great lengths to make baby helmets seem like a normal, even fashionable thing.” But then, as if accidentally slipping into sensitivity, he actually comes up with an occasional touch of insight: “We live in an age of remarkable sensitivity, where other parents go to great lengths to appear tolerant and accepting of ALL children, not merely their own. But deep down, we’re just as judgmental and catty a species as we were decades ago. The patina of niceness almost makes it worse.” This nearly inadvertent thoughtfulness is displayed to its greatest and most affecting extent at the end of the book, when Magary’s third child is born and is at risk of dying – and is placed in the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. This chapter, which immediately follows one filled with slapstick about making a “masterpizza” at home, finally shows that Magary is a real human being who is not always putting on a “how cool I am” act. “I cried and I could see the tears dripping down onto the plastic [of the isolette], obscuring my view. That’s all you can do when your baby is in the NICU. You cry and you cry and you don’t stop crying until the child is finally home. …I knew he had to be in the NICU for a long time – weeks, months, perhaps even half a year. He would die otherwise. Still, I wanted him out of this horrible place. If I could just get him home to his crib, to his mother and brother and sister, then everything would be fine. I knew it.” Magary’s honesty here, which keeps reemerging even when he dons his “coolness” again in his dealings with the doctors and nurses, makes up for a very great deal of the superficiality in which he wallows elsewhere. The result is that Someone Could Get Hurt becomes, at the end, a real, affecting and memorable narrative that overcomes much of the snarkiness of earlier chapters by showing that even in the 21st century, real families with real emotions and real crises – and real love – find ways to bond and grow together.
If Magary is hyperkinetic, Brazelton is sober, even staid. Readers of Brazelton’s previous books will be somewhat taken aback by Learning to Listen, because it is not a book giving advice about children, except indirectly. It is, instead, an autobiography, and a suitably modest and outwardly focused one, at that. Brazelton’s plainspoken style is as much a part of this book as it is of all his others, starting on the very first page when he talks about the “three distinct social classes” in Waco, Texas, when he was born there in 1918: “White people owned and ran everything. Black people did all of the domestic work, and Mexican Americans did the rest.” Most of the book is about the child-related discoveries that Brazelton has made throughout his life, largely by keeping his eyes and ears open and by not getting locked into traditional ways of thinking. To the extent that personal pride is expressed in Learning to Listen, it comes in Brazelton’s repeated comments on the ways in which he was an outsider: a subhead in one chapter called “Troublemaking in the Delivery Room,” for example, and an entire chapter called “Bucking the System.” Brazelton comes across as a knowledge sponge, learning everywhere he goes and from everything he sees. A fascinating chapter called “Listening to Other Cultures,” for instance, includes a dramatic scene highlighting a difficult birth among Mayans in southern Mexico – in which Brazelton’s recommendations were not effective, but the actions of a native midwife were. Rather than bemoan the situation as primitive and risk-filled, which it certainly was, Brazelton modestly remarks on his own failure and the midwife’s success: “It seemed a miracle of psychosomatic medicine and of the role of belief in their culture. My suggestions had no effect. It was another lesson in respecting different cultural beliefs and practices.” Yet Brazelton is no wide-eyed innocent about this – he is a very keen observer. In the same section, for example, he discusses counting the number of breast feedings of babies he observed in southern Mexico – 80 to 90 a day. “In the United States, mothers generally wait until the baby’s crying activity rouses him thoroughly. Then, she feeds him – reinforcing him for his own active participation. The goal of the Mayan mother was that of having a quiet, docile baby. She was protecting his low motor activity and high degree of sensitivity to stimuli from the first. These goals are completely different.” This is fascinating material, if not as directly instructive as readers have come to expect Brazelton’s books to be. Yet there is a great deal of useful information in Learning to Listen, as Brazelton describes the evolution in the 1970s of his famous Touchpoints “map of behavioral and emotional development” and explains that the map “is designed to reassure parents that regressions lead to predictable spurts in development and that they can navigate them with the resources they can find within themselves, their communities, and their cultures.” Brazelton’s stories of his experiences outside the United States – not only in Mexico but also in Caracas, New Delhi, South Africa, Sydney, Hong Kong and elsewhere – show that his Touchpoints and other discoveries and approaches are not unique to one country or culture but have applicability worldwide. By the end of Learning to Listen, readers will realize that there are two equally valid ways to read the book’s subtitle: A Life Caring for Children as in “a life taking care of children” and, equally correctly, as in “a life caring about children.” The two ways together sum up a great deal of what is special about T. Berry Brazelton.