A Slant Of Sun: One Child's Courage

Katherine Wolff reviews 'A Slant of Sun' by Beth Kephart.

By Katherine Wolff

Published November 16, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

The parental imperative weighs heavily in the post-Dr. Spock world;
anxieties about child-rearing have spawned countless how-to books that offer
detailed -- and often conflicting -- data. But who speaks for a more
intuitive approach to family life? Enter Beth Kephart's quiet yet
passionate memoir of motherhood. In page after page of intimate, searching
prose, Kephart tells the story of her only child, Jeremy, who at age 2
was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), a condition
sometimes linked to autism. As she learns to work around -- and through --
her son's disability, the author reveals a modest philosophy of
child-rearing that is both universal and particular.

Understandably, Kephart struggles to come to terms with the PDD diagnosis.
She (a writer) and her husband (an artist) are relatively asocial. So when
Jeremy exhibits isolationist behavior, symptoms of echolalia, narrow
interests and abnormal motor skills, Kephart blames herself. After reading
about the condition, she patiently searches out sensitive caregivers, play
settings and specialists. Painful cycles of professional testing and school
interviews follow as we trace Jeremy's progress from preschool to second

What lifts this memoir above mere domestic drama are the author's
beautifully haunting vignettes. Kephart shares her own insecurity and
neediness -- but also her determination to understand her son: "'Sleep
bores me,' Jeremy repeats, air between each word. He turns his head and
stares appreciatively through the window. He loses his grip on the spoon,
and it falls: a metal kerplunk amid the abandoned cereal on the floor ...
'I sleep with my eyes open,' he reveals. 'That way I know when it's

Kephart reveals her feelings of entrapment as she realizes that Jeremy will
demand more from her than she has to give. Admissions like these heighten
the ordinary experience of mothering to a poetic pitch. While Kephart knows
Jeremy's childhood is unusual -- his speech is highly patterned with
sophisticated wordplay, and he favors "The History of Chivalry and Armor"
over "Pat the Bunny" -- she also knows where his humanity intersects with
everyone else's. Like all children, he explodes the term "normal" with his
idiosyncratic brilliance. Neither his parents nor his doctors can predict
how Jeremy's behavioral disorder will affect his future. From the outside,
he's an able, dark-haired boy prone to obsessive pacing and hard stares. He
might well succeed in a field that requires little awareness of social
nuance (computer science, for example), but his remote, elaborately coded
interior life will always confound friends and family.

Subtitled "One Child's Courage," the book displays Kephart's courage just
as prominently. Her writing grows stronger, even tentatively triumphant, as
the book swells to its conclusion. A spiritual subtext emerges toward the
end, when his mother uncovers Jeremy's buried empathy. Offering much more
than a clichid lesson about the redemptive power of love, "A Slant of Sun"
reminds us of the significance of making friends, telling the truth,
exercising the imagination -- in sum, of being human. This brave book
serves as a parenting guide stripped to its essentials, a testament to the
open heart of one mother and solid proof that, contrary to the theory du
parents do matter.

Katherine Wolff

Katherine Wolff is a freelance writer and editor living in Boston.

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