Review. A Normal Family by Henry Norman & Angela Pell

Posted by Sue Leonard on Tuesday 19th June 2018

There have been many books about autism published over the years – heartrending accounts of the struggles – the fights for services – and occasionally tales of triumph over adversity – but A Normal Family is somewhat different.

For one thing, the authors are writers. Henry Normal is a poet, comedian, broadcaster and film and TV producer who co -wrote The Royale Family, and won a special BAFTA Award. His wife, Angela Pell, also writes for film and TV – and both have explored their son’s autism in their writing.

All the grief the couple felt on hearing Johnny’s diagnosis is here; all the therapies they tried are mentioned. Angela admits that, at first, the couple were desperate to cure their son, but then they realised that a wish to get rid of his autism, was, in effect, a desire to banish him.

Their account is searingly honest. There were moments when Angela felt like killing her son; but only, she confides, because the thought of what will become of him when she and Henry are dead is simply too painful to contemplate.

Overall this is inspiring book, lifted by sometimes laugh out loud humour. Henry’s poems are threaded through the text, and the writing is both engaging and accessible. Most important of all, though, is the love that suffuses these pages. Loving each other with a passion, Henry and Angela simply idolise their son. They’d do anything for him, and celebrate every small improvement. Angela’s parents, who are always willing to help out, are equally besotted with Johnny.

At 19, Johnny makes more sense of the world that he once did. Henry says that he is fully connected to his parents for half the time, reachable by them for a further thirty per cent of the time, and only completely in a world of his own for twenty per cent. Realising Johnny needs that time out, Henry is content with those statistics.

The couple are keen to stress that every child with autism is different, and that the things that worked for them may not work for others. They connected well with the Son Rise system, and spent three years totally dedicated to Johnny, working every day inside one room.

Attending a lecture by Ros Blackburn, an adult who is on the spectrum, they asked her did she love her parents. Her reply? “They were very useful,” made them realise, they must aim to be useful to Johnny. And they have been.

When the authorities wanted him to attend a school where a dog visited, they fought for him, tooth and nail, because, along with the noise of screaming children, dogs remain a source of terror to Johnny. All too aware that Christmas, with all the changes in routine was fraught for their son, they simply cancelled it – and spent every year abroad, on a sun holiday instead.

The book isn’t all about Johnny. We learn of the couple’s early life; of the troubles Henry encountered when Baby Cow Productions – the company he set up with Steve Coogan – was in danger of going belly up. There’s an anecdote about Angela’s inauspicious meeting with Hugh Grant, and another about Seamus Heeney, who, arriving at a festival fresh from his Nobel Win with a cheque for almost a million in his pocket, asked for his fee in cash, because he hadn’t any.

There’s random humour. I loved Henry’s description of his faith, or lack of it.

‘I’m C of E,’ he writes, ‘whish is not a religion, it’s more of a dating agency for Henry V111.

This book, whilst useful for anyone affected by autism, is an inspiring read for everyone, however, ‘normal.’ The two main messages I’ve taken on board are, You own your own feelings, and live in the moment.

A Normal Family by Henry Normal and Angela Pell

Published by Two Roads: €19.50.  Kindle: €12.

Published in The Irish Examiner on 16th June

© Sue Leonard. 2018 

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