By the time he was 13 months old, doctors knew there was something off-kilter with Randi Davenport’s son, Chase. He couldn’t wave “bye, bye.” He didn’t speak. He startled easily. He wasn’t trying to walk.
“The doctor told us it was simply not possible to say what was wrong,” Davenport writes in her memoir, “The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes.” “He told us to go home and enjoy Chase and he’d see us back in six months.”
By age three, Chase should have been able to dress himself and brush his teeth, but couldn’t.
Davenport made a list of “things that made life difficult” for Chase, including his fears – “fear of window fans, fear of loud sounds, ... fear of the Lady Sword, a figure who came to him in the dark when he tried to sleep and meant him harm.” Davenport also noted the boy’s insistence on repeating questions, the decrease in his appetite, increased energy, his inability to take no for an answer and his difficulty sleeping.
Chase was also having difficulties in day care, accusing a child of hitting him when the child was outside on the playground. He also told his teachers that other children “controlled him.”
As her child slipped further and further away, Davenport wondered if she was responsible for turning Chase into “a boy made up of lists and issues.”
“I think parents of disabled children hold themselves accountable and have a hard time reconciling the fact that nothing could have changed the outcome of their own helpless experience of being a parent to a fragile child,” she writes.
Chase wasn’t the only critical issue in Davenport’s life. Her husband, Zip, was also suffering from depression. His own darkness and inability to cope finally drove him from the family, leaving the author alone to struggle with Chase and an infant, Haley. Davenport worked as a college professor, adjusting her schedule to accommodate Chase’s increasing crises.
When Chase’s psychosis finally took over, around age 14, all of Davenport’s energy was spent trying to secure the best possible treatment. It took years and a lot of dead ends, but, at 22, Chase is “doing really well,” his mother said during a telephone interview from her home in North Carolina. Chase is now living at the Murdoch Center near Raleigh.
“Chase is a great demonstration in the way in which we shouldn’t use the notion that people who are sick are just way beyond help and hope,” Davenport said. “It’s just not true.”
For Davenport, it was always about getting Chase what he needed. She spent years navigating the mental health maze, trying to seure a diagnosis for Chase, facing down incompetent doctors, staff and facilities until she found a treatment plan that worked.
“The mental health facilities didn’t want a kid with a developmental disability and the developmental-disability places didn’t want a kid with a mental-health issue. In the state of North Carolina, you had to be one or the other; you were not allowed to be both.”
Although she’s been a writing professor for years, Davenport’s first book was not planned – or even acknowledged – as she was working on it.
“In 2004, there was a strong public debate that continues to this day about mental health care reform in North Carolina,” she explained. “I thought, ‘I’m going to write a piece as a kind of example of what families experience and hope that by sending this off [to the newspaper], I’ll enter into this public conversation.”
So, off she went, to a little cabin in the mountains to write.
“At the end of the week, I had 100 pages and I was pretty sure it wasn’t a newspaper story anymore,” she said with a laugh. “Even then, I wouldn’t tell myself it was a book, but when I got to 600 pages, it was pretty hard to ignore.”
As she was writing, the thing that was “most enduring and of greatest importance” to Davenport was telling Chase’s story “with as much truth and honesty as I possibly could. My fear was that I would get it wrong.”
Getting the book, which takes its title from Chase’s award-winning science fair project, from the mountain cabin to the printing press took about six years. Davenport credits Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill and her editor, Kathy Pories, with trimming the huge manuscript down to a manageable size.
“It wasn’t painful,” Davenport, who is now the executive director of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence, says of the editing process. “I’m telling the truth here. Kathy is some kind of magician. She had a heartfelt connection to the manuscript. I didn’t want to see Chase’s story brashly commodified. I wanted it to be handled with respect. I knew they would take really good care of it.”
Davenport’s skills as a writer are stunning. While taking nothing away from Chase’s journey, it is Davenport’s complete command of her craft that takes readers through an unpleasant, uncomfortable tunnel of despair and adroitly leads them to the light on the other side. In less capable hands, the book would have been a desolate wasteland of mental wards, hallucinations and despair.
Davenport has been warmly embraced by her readers. They flood her book tour appearances.
“They wait for the question and answer portion,” she explained. “They raise their hands and thank me for writing the book. Then, they tell their stories.”
While she is grateful for the response from the reading public, Davenport is clear when it comes to one thing. She is not a professional advocate for the mentally ill, despite pleas from people who say she has such a strong voice, a platform and, now, the book.
“I hope the book changes the world, but if it does, it’s going to do it on its own terms,” she said.
As for Davenport, she is working on a new project.
“My own dreams and aspirations were interrupted for such a long time,” she said. “Haley’s about to graduate from high school and go off to college. Chase is doing well [at the mental health care facility]. I’ll be doing a lot more writing.”
According to her sources, the book has caused “a huge stir, a big buzz” inside North Carolina’s department of health and human services, which suits Davenport just fine. She believes we have to change the way we handle mental illness. She empathizes with families who don’t have the resources to go up against the system or who are overwhelmed by what’s happening to their loved one.
“The thing that is so amazing and so remarkable – what I’d like to call attention to – we always hear that people with severe, serious mental illness are irretrievable – in a way, lost to us,” she said. “Chase is the poster child for what good services and good programming can do. The facility took a young man who was really at death’s door in so many ways and brought him back to us.”
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