Recently I reread
My Left Foot by Christy Brown. I first read his autobiography in the mid-1990s.
Christy's autobiography shouldn't be overlooked because it was written nearly 60 years ago, or because it was published when he was only 22. The book is still interesting and relevant because he faced some of the same issues people with a disability face today.
Christy lived at a time when disabilities were called handicaps or afflictions. People were described as suffering from a disability. And people with an intellectual disability were called imbeciles.
Christy Brown was born into a large, poor family in Dublin in 1932. Both he and his mother nearly died during his birth. In his first year, his mother noticed that Christy wasn't developing as her other babies had. He seemed to have no control over his limbs.
His parents started taking him to hospitals and clinics when he was one. Many doctors said Christy was
mentally defective and labelled him a hopeless case. The doctors were sure that nothing could be done for him.
Mrs Brown wouldn't believe that Christy was an
imbecile as the doctors told her. It was a belief she couldn't explain but was rather just something she knew. She flatly refused to put Christy into an institution, which was common practice at the time.
At an early age Christy showed a curious interest in his toes. His left foot was the only part of his body that he could control.
Christy's only education was his mum reading to him and teaching him the alphabet. At the age of five he wrote the letter
A by holding some chalk between his toes. He taught himself to read and to use a pencil and paintbrush with his toes. He now had a way to speak and express his feelings. He also enjoyed painting.
Apart from going out with his brothers, Christy mostly stayed at home. His brother would push him around the streets in an old go-cart. After it broke his mother bought him a wheelchair. But Christy no longer wanted to go out. He'd discovered he was different to everyone else and became self-conscious. He started having feelings of despair, hopelessness and depression.
Christy writes a lot about knowing that he was different and being accepted. He writes,
What good was it saying I was remarkable? I didn't want to be remarkable – I only wanted to be ordinary, like everyone else.
In the book he frequently talks about feeling like there was a glass wall between him and others.
They say you don't miss what you've never had. Well I disagree. Christy definitely missed what he didn't have and what he couldn't do. He wanted what his brothers had, which was working as bricklayers and going on dates.
Meaning and acceptance
Christy really needed to find meaning and a purpose in his life. His painting wasn't enough for him. He needed something more. As a teenager his depression, despair and frustration became severe. He considered committing suicide by jumping from the upstairs window. It was only thoughts of Katriona Delahunt that made him climb back inside the house. She was his
dream girl who'd encouraged him in his painting and life.
Until the age of 18, Christy hadn't met anyone else with a disability. This was to change when he went on his pilgrimage to Lourdes, France. It was believed that bathing in the waters at Lourdes could cure anything. Christy was struck by how many people he met who were patient and accepting of their disabilities.
Christy wasn't diagnosed with cerebral palsy until he was 18. He was offered the opportunity to have intensive therapy to learn to use his other muscles. But to do this, Christy had to make a major sacrifice. He would need to stop using his left foot. But how could he give up his only way to talk and be creative?
Christy decided to stop using his left foot, which was the most difficult thing he'd ever done. He also made another difficult life-changing decision.
If I could never be like other people, then at least I would be like myself and make the best of it.