by Catherine Lanser
I am a brain tumor afficionado. I am a memoir zealot. Put a memoir about someone with a brain tumor in front of me and I’ll tear through it. My latest read, Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived, by Karen DeBonis, took me only a few days to read. Yet readers don’t have to be brain tumor survivors to appreciate this memoir. It is about facing the unknown with courage, and it has an important takeaway about giving our past selves grace.
The memoir is set up like a medical mystery, though from the title we know that a brain tumor is the cause of the eye rolling that DeBonis first noticed when her son Matthew was eight. As the narrative unfolds, his challenges advance to more troubling tics, homework struggles, and memory issues. DeBonis’s language is clear, even as she delves into the complex details of Matthew’s medical case. It is also raw and truthful. DeBonis does not shy away from telling painful facts about her story. She shares both the good and bad, revealing the complicated sides of motherhood and her own struggles.
We follow DeBonis as she tries to find out what is wrong with her son over the course of three years and is often dismissed by doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and others. She blames herself for not having been strong enough to speak up, and for not pushing back against these professionals to get the answers about Matthew’s condition more quickly.
I suspect a lot of parents can relate to DeBonis. I don’t know any parent who doesn’t have a few doubts about what they did or didn’t do to intervene on behalf of their child. The greater the challenge the child faces, the bigger the potential regret. Although DeBonis faults herself for not getting to the root of Matthew’s problem sooner, and attributes the delay to her own people-pleasing tendencies, she shows incredible bravery in continually bringing attention to Matthew’s condition. She also puts some of her lowest moments on the page, showing her own struggles with disordered eating and deep depression.
Though DeBonis writes that she has let her son down, I can see how much she did for him. In fact, when I read her words, “I wish I had spoken up sooner,” I felt guilty thinking of what I did not do. In my own case, I didn’t have the courage to speak up for myself. I hid the symptoms of my own brain tumor—seizures—for eight years. I was afraid of what those seizures would say about me. I only told my parents what had been happening after my college roommate insisted on it.
Seeing DeBonis and her husband come to grips with the fact that their son has a brain tumor, I don’t see a mother who didn’t do enough. I see a loving mother who did the best she could with the information she had at the time.
Once DeBonis finds out that her son has a brain tumor, she and her husband acquire a new understanding of his behaviors. Now his forgetfulness or other behaviors are given a pass, and his parents repeat to themselves, “He has a brain tumor. He has a brain tumor.” Once they know what the cause is, they understand the actions.
We can give ourselves the same kind of grace when we look at our past selves. If, like DeBonis, we didn’t have the key information, we shouldn’t fault ourselves for not finding out what was wrong. We also shouldn’t fault ourselves for not having been the person we are now, back then.
I find myself saying the same thing about myself—the girl who hid seizures for eight years: “I had a brain tumor. I had a brain tumor.” I was an adolescent at the time. I didn’t make the best choice in hiding my symptoms. But, knowing the context, I can at least feel as much compassion for myself as I do for DeBonis.
In reading DeBonis’s memoir, I hope other readers can do the same for themselves. We all have moments that we do not handle as well as we would like. Eventually, if we are lucky, we can look back and see how we would handle those moments differently. Like the events described in DeBonis’s memoir, that is the meaning of “growth.”