March 09, 2006


A Special Education: One Family’s Journey through the Maze of Learning Disabilities. By Dana Buchman. Da Capo. $21.95.

     What happens when a highly driven, highly successful woman encounters something she does not fully understand – something that affects the basic fabric of her life and her family?  If the woman is fashion designer Dana Buchman, she finds out everything she can about the situation, learns how to handle it, copes as well as she possibly can, and then writes a book about the experience.

     A Special Education is the book, and lest anyone think it somehow exploits the learning disabilities of Buchman’s daughter, Charlotte Faber, Buchman has promised to donate her proceeds from the book to the National Center for Leaning Disabilities.  This takes some of the sting out of what could otherwise seem a work of self-aggrandizement.  That is all to the good, but readers should be forewarned that the book is as much a story of Buchman’s own self-proclaimed triumphs as of Charlotte’s.

     As a toddler, Charlotte was diagnosed with learning, spatial and motor-skill disabilities.  What did her mother do when the diagnosis was inescapable?  “I didn’t sob and scream because that’s not my way.  I’m way too controlled for that.”  Buchman is “angry that [Charlotte] had to bear the burden of her LD.  She had to fail so publicly, so often.”  And Buchman had to take her for all sorts of testing and analysis: “I often had to drag her around town. …It would be hard to shift gears from work to LD and back to work.  Actually, it was always easy to be in work mode; it was hard to shift out of it toward this new thing that I couldn’t fully understand and that brought up floods of uncomfortable feelings for me.”

     Buchman’s style, with its relentless focus on “I’ and “me,” will be off-putting for those looking for a greater focus on Charlotte.  Buchman seems to lack awareness of the extent to which she found Charlotte an impingement on her own increasing success.  Yet it cannot be denied that Buchman – who, after all, could afford the best treatments for Charlotte – devoted a great deal of time, energy and money to her daughter’s special needs.  Unfortunately, Buchman seems oblivious to ways in which her lifestyle might be unmatchable by people whose children have similar problems: “The winter of Charlotte’s senior year [in high school], we took the girls on vacation in Cozumel, Mexico.  Tom [husband Tom Farber] came up with a brilliant plan that would help us all work off our fajitas and piňa coladas…”

     Thanks to a great deal of medical and educational attention, and a variety of physical and emotional approaches to learning disability, Charlotte does better and better over time, eventually graduating from high school and receiving a special award for citizenship, leadership and contributions to the school.  Buchman’s reaction: “This award meant so much to me, to Charlotte, to all of us.  It made me so proud, but that’s not all.  It made me feel confident in my daughter in a way I hadn’t before.”  Here at Charlotte’s super-proud moment, as throughout the book, Buchman always looks first to herself – a source of stylistic irritation that, one suspects, is a key to the inner strength that helped Buchman help her daughter succeed.  But Buchman’s book would have been more successful with a touch of humility and a sentence structure focusing first on her daughter and only afterwards on herself.

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