Friday, May 3, 2013

The Story of Beautiful Girl

The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon

This was our second Book Club book. It seemed interesting we had two books in a row on Mental Health Institutions but I found this one captivating not only in its story but also in the way the the Institutions in America  have changed over the years.
For our family have also seen the changes in these in the Waikato, from Tokanui to The Henry Bennett Centre.

Lynnie, a young white woman with a developmental disability, and Homan, an African American deaf-mute man, are locked away in an institution, the Pennsylvania State School for the Incurable and Feebleminded, and have been left to languish, forgotten. While this school and many others like it have been closed, as a people we still have much to do to show compassion towards others that are different from each of us.

The year is 1968, and most Americans (and possibly most of the word) are convinced that institutionalization, rather than education, social services, or humaneness, is the only reasonable response to individuals like Lynnie and Homan. Deeply in love, they escape, and find refuge in the farmhouse of Martha, a retired schoolteacher and widow.
But what an institution they've fled --- a place that's unimaginably filthy and corrupt, where residents are routinely restrained, punished and terrorized by the guards, where friendship and compassion are all too hard to find.
Lynnie a beautiful young woman who has voluntarily stopped speaking and Homan (known to Lynnie as Buddy, but to most only as Number 42), have escaped from the school. They harbor a dangerous secret --- Lynnie is pregnant and it is imperative to the two that the baby not be born under those circumstances.
The story begins with the night the baby girl is born as they run from the school. It’s windy and rainy and the two stumble upon the farmhouse of Martha Zimmer. Martha, an older woman, opens her door to two bedraggled wanderers. Both are wrapped in makeshift blankets composed of old signs, and neither one can speak. While Martha is not sure how or why they chose her door, what is obvious to her is the affection they have for each other, and that they are seeking refuge. As Lynnie (known only as Beautiful Girl to Homan) removes her wet outer clothes, she unwraps a just-born baby girl. Hiding in her attic where they had felt safe, they are discovered when a little later that night, there is a second knock on the door, and it is the authorities from School looking for two escaped inmates. Desperate to find a better life for her baby, Lynnie throws herself on Martha's mercy, whispers two words to Martha: "Hide her”, as she leaves her daughter with this quiet, trustworthy woman.  But, the authorities only find Lynnie, as Homan has escaped into the dark undetected and the baby is left behind in the hopes that Martha will look after her.
Lynnie is hoping that she will not be isolated when she is returned to the school, as how else will Homan find her again. While escaping Homan is thinking on how to get back to the school to rescue Lynnie, and Martha needs to decide whether she will honor Lynnie's request.
When Lynnie is returned to the school, we learn of the horrors, and the mistreatment she and others had to endure. Homan continues his escape, but the two --- neither of whom can tell their story --- remain separated for nearly 40 years.

And so begins the epic journey of Lynnie, Homan, Martha, and baby Julia- lives divided by seemingly insurmountable obstacles, yet drawn together by a secret pact and extraordinary love. Over the course of the next 30 years we share their ups and their downs, their worries and their happiness. Lynnie never gives up her love of Homan and knows one day he will return for her. Life returns to normal for no one in this thought-provoking book. Martha, whose telephone rings only on December 24, when her former students call to arrange a visit on Christmas day, finds her life changed as she cares for baby Julia. Martha spends the remaining years in a constant state of fear that the secret will be found out and the baby will be removed from her care. Enlisting her past students, each of them plays a role in hiding Martha and the baby until the day that Lynnie or Homan return. The child draws people into Martha's life and gives her newfound purpose. Homan travels about the country with no way of knowing where to find Lynnie, he doesn't even know her name, but as fate would have it, he is lead to the one place they shared in common, Lynnie's love of lighthouses.
As their lives continue in parallel, as their memories of that stolen time together and their hopes for their absent daughter continue to flourish, Homan and Lynnie prove to the world --- and to themselves --- exactly what they're capable of.

Beth and Rachel
In her bestselling 2002 memoir, RIDING THE BUS WITH MY SISTER, Rachel Simon introduced readers to the challenges, heartaches and rewards of having a family member with a developmental disability. The memoir chronicles the year Ms. Simon spent accompanying her sister Beth, who is afflicted with an intellectual disability, on joyful bus rides through a city in Pennsylvania. Though this experience, the author gleaned an understanding of the inner life of the developmentally disabled as well as interviews with people who had been wrongfully
institutionalized and professionals who staff group homes. Haunted for years by the story of an unidentified, deaf African American man found wandering the streets in Chicago, Ms. Simons captures the essence of both in the novel THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL GIRL, she says, "Burst out of me like nothing before." At the same time, she showed us the complexity and often misunderstood nature of disability, factors that may be unfamiliar to the general public but are well known to Ms. Simon.
THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL GIRL has a personal angle and a political agenda, to be sure --- just one glimpse at the descriptions of the so-called School and a glance at the author's note, and readers will grow outraged by the atrocities that actually happened not so very long ago. Even more important, however, is the way in which Simon utilizes the inner monologues of Lynnie and Homan to enhance their humanity in a much-needed and too-rare way. Seeing inside their heads, coming to know them as thinking and hurting and loving people, comes far closer to knowing the disabled and empathizing with them than most readers ever would on their own.
The book's dedication reads, "For those who were put away." Although Ms. Simon's awareness of the institutional life forms a backbone for the book, it is her insight into the indomitable spirit of the human soul that infuses The Story of Beautiful Girl with brilliance and honesty.

Rachel Simon is the award-winning author of six books and an American nationally-recognized public speaker on issues related to diversity and disability. Her titles include the bestsellers, The Story of Beautiful Girl and she is best known for her critically acclaimed, bestselling memoir Riding The Bus with My Sister. Both books are frequent selections of book clubs and school reading programs around the country. Riding The Bus with My Sister has been adapted for theater and Hallmark Hall of Fame, whose adaptation starred Rosie O' Donnell and Andie McDowell, and was directed by Anjelica Huston.

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