This autobiography is set in Dublin, Ireland, and almost the entire story takes place in the house where Christy Brown grew up. Aside from some play with his brothers, Brown almost never left his home as a child and teenager, and so the house dominates his autobiography. It becomes a metaphor for the disabled body in which Christy Brown lived: a body which sustained his able mind but did not allow him free movement.
It must have been a crowded house, with two parents and thirteen children. It cannot have been a large one, as when Brown (at eighteen years old) was doing exercises in the kitchen he would bang his leg on the fire-grate or his head on a chair. It was, however, a house that made him welcome. From his early childhood where he lay in the kitchen or garden, through the years where he crawled about and chalked on the floor or painted on papers tacked to the floor, till his family built him a large room of his own, this house was always a loving home but also a de facto prison with all the world outside.
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It is clear from the first lines of this book that Christy Brown read and admired the works of Charles Dickens. From line to line his writing shifts from a formal, structured style with sophisticated vocabulary to a more relaxed use of a spoken-word style that shows his working-class origins. These shifts are not jarring, but rather, they make clear how much time there must be for self-analysis when a writer can speak or write only with great concentration.
The result is a book which is accessible for young people in their teens, as Brown was when he began to write. Though the actions and motivations of the characters are straightforward, the tone of the writing varies so that the reader must pay more than casual attention to the story being told.
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This book is a wonderful presentation of life as a differently-abled person, from Brown's own perspective. As a young child, though frustrated by his inability to communicate or control his movements, he was almost unaware of the extent of his differences until his go-car broke down and he could not go out with his brothers for some weeks. As a teenager, Brown felt the frustration and depression that is common among many adolescents, though usually for far less cause. It took becoming part of a community of other people besides his loving family, and of disabled people in particular, for Brown to realize his own nature. Not only did he see his flaws and strengths more accurately on an absolute scale of suffering, he also was more able to evaluate them in comparison with other people.
The incoherent frustration that constrained him is described eloquently and usually in simple and straightforward terms. It will be well understood by any young reader who has envied athletes their strengths or celebrities their graces. It will inspire in most readers slinking embarrassment at their own personal grumpiness.
Brown does not mention in this book how disabling frustration or depression can be for an able-bodied person, that perspective can be sought in other books. My Left Foot is the story of a child and adolescent, told from the perspective of a very young man. Young readers can take a lesson from Brown to "look at other people, but get on...
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Topics for Discussion
1. What difference did physical therapy make for Christy Brown? He did not learn to walk and earn his living as a bricklayer with his brothers, so what value did therapy have in his life?
2. How did Christy Brown benefit from being part of a large family? What were the positive aspects he found of living with many siblings? What were the positive aspects for his siblings of living with young Christy?
3. Describe a typical day's activities for Mrs. Brown, during the years she had several children at home. What leisure could she enjoy?
4. Why did so many of Christy's brothers become bricklayers, like their father? How did this affect their education, job prospects and local community development?
5. Several young women made deep impressions on Christy. What are some traits these women had in common? Is it surprising to learn that Christy eventually married a nurse?
6. At the time Christy was born, families often sent their disabled children to live in care homes, or kept them shut away in a back room. Why did Mr. and Mrs. Brown make Christy an active part of their family?
7. What effect did his pilgrimage to Lourdes have on Christy? Was it a success or a failure? He did not gain an immediate and complete physical healing, nor an instant and lasting peace of mind. What then did he gain?
8. Was Christy's interest in young women a natural sign of wellness and health, or a delusion which...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. What health care options are available for differently abled children now in your community or country? What difference does this care make for these children? What were the health care options in your community or country for severely physically handicapped children before the 1930's? What health care is available at present for these children in other countries?
2. What in general are the benefits of having a large family? Is a close genetic relationship necessary for these benefits? What are the disadvantages of having a large family? Do the benefits outweigh the disadvantages? What can families do to incorporate as many of the benefits as possible while minimizing the disadvantages? Is there a role for the extended family and the community in this goal?
3. What is the role of the nurse in Community Health Care Services? What training and accreditation do nurses need? Are there employment options for nurses, besides acute-care hospitals, in your community? What differences in nursing are necessary when one compares urban communities with rural and isolated areas?
4. Describe row housing in working-class Dublin in the 1930's and 1940's. What was the population density? How well serviced were the neighborhoods? What options did people living in these neighborhoods have for health care and recreation?
5. Draw a floor plan of a typical house in row housing in working-class Dublin in the 1930's. How large were the...
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Readers looking for autobiographical writings by persons living with disabilities could start with The Story of My Life by Helen Keller and pick out other titles from the same shelf in the public library. Books by parents of differently abled children may also be of interest, such as Karen and With Love from Karen by Marie Killilea. This author in particular describes home life with all her children, not just Karen.
A tendency may be noticed in these books for the differently abled person to be an intellectual genius. It can take the powers of a genius to communicate in spite of speech and motor impediments, but this is not always so. Some of the books written since 1990 have been written by people who are of average or moderate intelligence; some have been written by the parents of children who are mentally disabled or have never been able to communicate. For those who are intrigued by the fact that Brown often felt more impaired by his speech difficulties than by his physical disabilities, there is the viewpoint to consider of a young woman who had impaired communication and perception. Donna Williams wrote Nobody Nowhere: The Extraordinary Autobiography of an Autistic and an equally astonishing sequel, Somebody Somewhere: Breaking Free from the World of Autism.
My Left Foot is an accessible book for young people, in part because Christy Brown was so young when he wrote it. It would be worthy to...
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For Further Reference
Donnelly, Cathleen. "Christy Brown." In Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 14: British Novelists Since 1960. Edited by Jay L. Halio. Detroit: Gale, 1982, pp. 147-50. Includes biographical and critical information about Brown and his work.
Kauffmann, Stanley. The New Republic (November 27, 1989). Review of the movie My Left Foot.
Lavery, David. "The Strange Text of My Left Foot." Literature-Film Quarterly (July 1993): 194-96. An unfavorable comparison of Brown's book to the film version, directed by Jim Sheridan.
Obituary of Christy Brown. Newsweek (September 21,1981): 79.
Profile of Christy Brown. Contemporary Authors, New Revisions...
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