Thursday, January 22, 2009

a review of That Went Well

That Went Well: Adventures in Caring for My Sister By Terrell Harris Dougan

When Terrell was about six years old, her younger sister Irene was born and a major change was going to take place in the household of the Harris family of Salt Lake City. From the beginning it was clear that little Irene was 'slow'. Slow to sit, slow to stand, slow to walk, slow to talk. But it was not until she entered kindergarten that the severity of her handicap was realized, when at the suggestion of the teacher, she was taken to the University of Utah for testing. The results and recommendations were difficult to accept. Most like due to oxygen deprivation during a difficult birth, she was brain damaged, with an IQ of about 57. According to the experts, she would never learn to read or write, she would never have the emotional maturity to empathize with people, her explosive temper outbursts had less to do with being spoiled than with the wiring of her brain. While she was outgoing and likely to have many friends she would never have the maturity to marry. She could not attend 'normal' schools and the only option available was the program at the state institution.
Much of what they said proved true, except the last fact.
Having visited the state institution, and at the time, with no other options, the Harris's decided that Irene would stay at home with them. Terrell, her mom, herself suffering from severe arthritis, her advertising executive father and her maternal grandmother, Bammy would try to do their best for Irene. and the rest of the family as well.

The book details the story of Irene and her family over the next 60 or so years, until the present. An important part of that story is how the government of Utah, and other states at the same time, were finding themselves forced, often thought legal challenges, often through the work of family members like Terrell and her father, to offer alternatives to the mentality disabled. Sheltered workshops, group homes and a variety of programs...none of which worked very well for Irene. Finally, toward the end of the book, Terrell, who assumed the responsibility for overseeing her sister's care after the death of her parents, seems to have come to some sort of peace about her relationship with her sister and her expectations about her.

The last part of the book, the last 60 pages or so, is very good. But oddly, until that point, I realized the book was a great deal more about Terrell and her life than about her sister and I had little idea until that point about who Irene was as a person. We follow the author and her childhood experiences, her journey off to college, meeting the man who she would marry, having children. Terrell tells us about her career as a columnist, her interest in acting, some experiences in politics, her involvement in the start of the Sundance Film Festival and a number of famous people she has worked with. The number of times she uses the pronoun "I" starts to be overwhelming. We learn a good deal about her grandmother and her parents, who sound like wonderful people, but for much of the book, we seem not to know much about Irene, certainly very little of a positive nature.

Finally, the focus changes and the book becomes much more interesting. It seems, at some point, the author realized that Irene is always going to be Irene, with the good and bad that includes, and perhaps what can actually change are her expectations for her sister. Sometimes Irene is, without question, very, very difficult. She doesn't like the things her sister thinks she should, or act the way her sister would like. She lies to get her way. She can act out violently. She loves to dress in shorts and Mickey Mouse socks, even in cold weather. She will talk to strangers, or customers in stores or homeless people, often asking if they would like to talk to her ever present dolls.

Terrell finds it embarrassing, but, she realized, these people actually like Irene. A telling story...In order to entice Irene to get some exercise and at the same time allow her to 'earn' some money to have in her pocket, which Irene loves, Terrell went to a neighboring firehouse and talked to the firefighters, getting them to agree to give Irene $1 when she walked the several blocks to vist them and gave them a stack of dollar bills. Some period of time later, Irene told her sister that she was going to have a lemonade stand in front of the house where she lives with her caretakers. Terrell, afraid her sister, a grown woman, would look silly and no one would stop at the stand, drove over to the house, amazed to find that the firemen had driven two trucks over to her sale, making her the hero of the neighborhood kids that got to climb on the trucks and drink lemonade with all those firemen, Irene's friends.

As she wrote in a letter to her sister at the end of the book,
“When you look at the cashier in the checkout line and ask 'How's your day?', she glances up gratefully, smiles, looks into your eyes and tells you. Bus drivers love you. Bank tellers love you...Homeless people all rush to help you. You take a waitress's hand and introduce yourself. I keep trying to make you be more appropriate, but it turn out that they see who you are, way deep down, and they love it....You have no boundaries, and it works for you. I try daily to establish boundaries so that I can be more 'normal'! How come your world is so full of love? How can you just twinkle at people and share each moment as it comes? When I grow up, maybe I can be more like you.”
Of course, she also realizes that when she reads this to her sister, instead of sharing a tender loving moment, Irene will just want to go get a Diet Coke and a pack of crackers from the machine at a nearby gas station, one of her favorite things. And finally she seems able to accept that and just do what she thinks is best for Irene and what she is comfortable with. The problems will continue and new ones will appear and she will just do her best.
“I really don't worry a lot anymore....Because trust me, you siblings or parents: nothing is going to be all right. Sorry. But along the way, we've discovered things to be funny and healing and loving anyway, so that's all right.”
When Irene is at the center of the book it is interesting and eyeopening and at times moving. It makes you pause and wonder what is "normal". The book would have benefited if that had been the focus throughout but the last sections are good enough to give a recommendation.

Available From Amazon


  1. I'm looking forward to reading this one.

  2. Had to stop by and check out your review after your comment on mine! I don't disagree with your assessment -- it was a lot of Terrell's story instead of Irene's but that didn't really bother me. I guess she presented what was her life and she wasn't "responsible" for Irene until her parents passed. I kind of enjoyed reading about Terrell's life so it didn't quite hit me the same way it did you. Actually, one of the things I like most was how it felt like the author was just talking about herself and her family and telling stories. Anyway, just wanted to stop by and check it out. I'm sorry I didn't see it before or I would have linked to it. I'll go back and add in the link so if anyone reads it, they can get your view too!


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