Crosby, Anne. Paul Dry Books. Philadelphia, 2006. ISBN 1-58988-026-9
In a world where childhood education isn’t compulsory, where developmentally disabled children are referred to as “mongols,” where families are encouraged to discard burdensome children for the good of the healthy ones, Anne Crosby gave birth to a son. The year was 1964, and Matthew Crosby came into the world with a weak heart, blue skin, and the telltale signs of Down syndrome. Shocked, surprised and despairing, his mother first wishes to destroy his life. Yet once the little boy “started living,” as his mother described it, she became his greatest friend and advocate.
Anne Crosby’s prose is artistic, beautiful, and compelling. Her narration is detailed and does not seek to hide. I can’t say that I have ever encountered an author who “says it like it is” as Crosby does. And her memory is precise, both for physical details and for Matthew’s unique way of expressing himself. No author is more exacting in her description, mature in her observation, intimate in her understanding, and respectful in her treatment of their topic than Crosby.
Crosby paints a picture of Matthew in a way that only a mother can. Yet you can’t help but close this book and feel that you too knew him, that you walked and talked with him. Her portrayal of her son is brutally honest but completely endearing. Yet nowhere in the text does this mother hint that her son is less than human because of his condition.
The book is full of humorous and heartbreaking situations. Matthew is a charmer, willing to walk up to anyone and talk to them. Once, while in a pub, he joins two women at their booth, sits down, and eats from their plates though he does not know them. His joy when his art is displayed at a nearby car factory is contagious. However, Matthew doesn’t understand his limitations and he is frustrated by the fact that he can’t have the things he wants: a car, a wife, an office. His pain is tangible when he repeatedly asks for a car for his birthday, and again when his attempt to drive a forklift at work while no one is watching ends in disaster.
Crosby is very candid in her descriptions of her decision to place Matthew in an institution - the normative action for the era- and focus on the “whole child,” her daughter Dido, -as social pressures dictated. However, she is equally as blunt in describing her decision to remove her son from the Normansfield Hospital, an institution founded by Dr. Langdon Down for the care of people with developmental disabilities. In her letter explaining why she was withdrawing her son from their care, she explained quite directly the brutal and inhumane conditions residents at the facility experienced.
Eventually, Crosby and her husband create a network and are instrumental in founding the MacIntyre School, a system of schools that is still in existence today. As a student and resident of the MacIntyre School, Matthew grows and prospers, though he is kept away from his own family. In essence, though Matthew and his mother were very close, Matthew spent his entire life at boarding school. Yet at boarding school, Matthew makes friends, takes on responsibilities, and learns new things. He particularly enjoys art class and its teacher, an understanding young man named Jeff.
One of the most beautiful aspects of this memoir is how Crosby allows the reader to see the world with the lenses Matthew and his family and friends do. Matthew hated the change of seasons, and he never understood Spring and Fall. “Make up your mind, Mister Weather, summer ‘r winter,” he said. He hated rain and once tried to talk the weather into behaving well. “You be good sky, I be good chap.”
You can't help but smile when Matthew sees a maple tree shiver and lose its leaves all at once.”Look at lovely tree. S’gone bare.” Running over to the tree, he picked up handfuls of leaves and shouted “Come on, Mum, help put ‘em back.”
Matthew is truly a delight. His sense of humor and his sense of empathy are also quite endearing. He was able to perceive the needs of the youngest children at his school and take care of them, helping them to dress or eat. Yet as a young man, he longed to truly be a man as he struggled with the pain of a failing heart and refused opiates because they clouded his mind. In all of his ups and downs, his first love, first job, regaining his best friend, being sodomized by a roommate, and becoming a man among men -albeit a dying man among dying men- in the hospital, Matthew’s daily struggles, unique perceptions, and heartfelt desires are compelling and incredibly human.
Though the dust jacket warns that Matthew dies at 25, no reader will be prepared for his death. Upon closing the book, you will inevitably feel that Matthew’s death robs you of a chance to get to know him more. Yet the beauty of his death is an inspiration. I’m not much of one to cry, but I sobbed as I finished this book.
“Matthew” is an absolutely amazing tale. I picked it by no chance other than that it was featured on a shelf at the library when I was searching for something else. But it is one of the best chance reads I’ll ever encounter. The book changed my life. Though there is nothing inherently religious about it, upon finishing you can’t help but understand deeply why the Catholic Church teaches that all human life has value and the teaching will mean much more than a cluttered series of verbiage thrown around in political debates.