The Withering Child (Autographed Copies Available)
Told from a father’s perspective, The Withering Child is the story of a young boy’s profound reaction to the disruptive forces of change. John A. Gould’s artful narrative of a domestic crisis aptly gauges the subjective undercurrents of contemporary family life. Indeed, parents who read it will confront facets of their own – and their children’s – expectations and apprehensions.
In August 1990, Gould, his wife Jane, and their two children, fire-and-a-half-year-old Gardner and sixteen-month-old Sam, left their home in Massachusetts for a yearlong stay in England. For the Goulds (he, a teacher and scholar, and she, an Episcopal priest) it was to have been a long-awaited, working sabbatical. Ten harrowing weeks later, they left England. In so short a time, Gardner had developed anorexia and had lost a third of his body weight. The Goulds came home, essentially, to save his life.
Gardner had always been a “handful” – capable and caring, but often willful, inattentive, and overly energetic. When the Goulds departed for England, the child relinquished the familiar people, places, and things that had afforded stability and comfort. The losses overwhelmed him. Once in England, Gardner’s emotional fuse shortened steadily, and his typical enthusiasm waned. Worse still, as soon as he entered his new school, the boy fell into a pattern of fasting and vomiting. Weakened further by sleeplessness and cramps, Gardner appeared to wither before his parent’s eyes.
Gould writes of their dogged adherence to family routines as he and his wife sought help for their troubled son. Fighting off misgivings that they were being manipulated by a selfish child, they often escaped into their work and all but welcomed preoccupation by lesser problems. In this mélange of evasion and confrontation, guilty acquiescence engendered bitter standoffs. Then, late one afternoon, in what evoked a deathbed bequeathal, the exhausted child stirred from a nap to hand a favorite toy to his father and ask him to give it to a playmate. In a matter of days, Gardner, his brother, and his mother were on a plane bound for home; his father followed a week later.
In the epilogue, Gould tells of his son’s happy recovery under professional care. Discussing the causes and complications of Gardner’s ordeal, Gould also speaks candidly of its effects on what he calls “the ecology of our family – that fine balance of give and take between the various members.” He urges readers to profit from what he learned, to remember what they should already know: that children are not pliant creatures “we can mold into perfect images that reflect our perfect selves.” They have – and are entitled to have – their own identities, their own natural rhythms, and their own pace at which they grow and develop.
Published in 1993 by University of Georgia Press and condensed by Reader’s Digest in Best Nonfiction of 1993, The Withering Child is available from johnagould.com. Copies can be inscribed by the author, if desired.
“In telling Gardner’s story, which is also the story of his brother and his parents, John Gould has built a masterpiece of narrative wisdom that should serve for years as a complex, generous and useful lesson.” Reynolds Price, USA Today
“… an unusually powerful story of a family in crisis.” Kirkus Reviews
“With this unsentimental, unsensationalized profile, Gould makes an eloquent plea that guardians should see children as individuals with their own rhythms and developmental timetables, and that they understand that children can have problems that are not due to faulty parenting.” Publisher’s Weekly