Best Boy, Eli Gottlieb, author; Bronson Pinchot, narrator
This is a very moving story about a boy, now grown into a man, who has spent the last 40 years of his life, since the age of eleven, in some special facility equipped to handle those with special needs and brain injuries. Todd Aaron is autistic, but, with a bit of assistance, he can function somewhat independently. Although he is unable to process certain situations, thoughts and feelings comfortably, he seems unusually gentle and thoughtful, possessing more common sense than many of those around him who are in positions of authority and who are supposed to have healthy minds and/or professional training. He doesn’t lie; he tries hard to follow instructions and obeys the rules. He tries not to offend anyone and is polite and courteous. He takes his medications regularly and works very hard to control what he calls the “volts”, the times when he wants to explode because the world begins to spin out of control. Todd’s parents are both deceased, and his brother Nate is responsible for his care. Nate is married to Beth and they have two sons. Nate wonders if genetics is at play in his own family when he thinks about their behavior and the behavior of some older relatives. He should also wonder about his own behavior which leaves something to be desired.
Todd is known as the “best boy”. He is a model resident. Todd wants to go back home. He has always wanted to go back home. He reminds his brother, often, that he really wants to return to see his family home once more. Sadly, his brother keeps making excuses to explain why he cannot, blaming his wife and a past disruptive incident when they were all together. His brother often complains to Todd about his own difficult life and struggles.
It is sad to see how, in general, these people with special needs are abandoned by their families, sometimes because they are ill equipped to handle them and sometimes because they simply don’t want to be bothered. It is easy for an unscrupulous person to take advantage of a “damaged” individual. What is revealed in this book is that the family can harm the residents as well as the people who often work in these institutions who are transient and sometimes not well vetted. Evil people can manipulate them easily if they fall through the cracks and background checks. So, too, can some of the residents if they are left to their own devices and are poorly supervised. They can sometimes be more harmful to these needy residents than one would think and can cause them great harm.
The contrast between Todd’s honesty and that of some of the people closest to him is stark. Although he is the one with special needs, he seems to have a greater sense of ethics than those around him. There were times when I simply wanted to jump up and shout at some of the family members, employees, medical workers and law enforcement officers. I was surprised when I realized that even some of the residents were capable of inflicting harm to another because of their disorder. The art of pairing them up in living quarters required the utmost care.
The novel felt like it could be real, not fiction, like the characters could step from the page and be living someplace nearby in a group residence, struggling with their disability, struggling to find a place for themselves where they could fit in and feel comfortable and safe, a place where fingers didn’t point at them, a place where they could relax, a place called home.