My Left Foot is the tale of Christy Brown: born in 1930s Dublin, one of 17 children, living in cramped conditions and not much to go around. Perhaps an unlikely candidate to write a successful autobiography in his early 20s. Perhaps even more so, given that Brown was born with cerebral palsy and given little hope of life outside an institution.
Yet Brown manages something truly amazing. He learns to write with his left foot, then going on to write more sophisticated sentences and phrases, leading, finally, to his career as a poet and novelist.
The story starts, well, at the start. Brown was born in 1932, a ‘difficult birth’ requiring extra care and recuperation. At around four months, his mother notices something wrong with Brown’s muscle tone, unable to hold his head up and communicate as her other children had. These muscle and speech difficulties continues into infancy; Brown at five years old describes himself as a ‘little bundle of crooked muscles and twisted nerves’.
Yet with much persistence and determination, as well as unwavering support from his mother, he begins to communicate via foot-writing at around age five, using chalk between his toes to spell out words.
As he grows and matures, Brown also begins to explore his local community, thus opening his world, just a little. He carefully weaves in some heart-warming tales of ‘little outings’ with his older sisters and brothers, exploring the local area (in a home-build go-cart), including going to the cinema and even swimming.
He also, so honestly, tells of the emotional pain of feeling trapped in his body, of the growing awareness of how is life was so different, and restricted, compared to other young people around him. ‘I was now ten, a boy who couldn’t walk, talk, feed or dress himself…’. (p50), and also later, of his thoughts of suicide.
It was also during this time (aged 11 onward) that he meets with some phenomenal professionals, such as Miss Delahunt who motivates and supports Brown’s development at home (including his painting and writing). He also receives regular visits from Dr Robert Collis, who established a cerebral palsy clinic in Dublin, one of the first of it’s kind (see link below for more information about the man called the ‘Irish Schindler’.
Brown’s story is one of struggle and persistence
culminating in successes that Brown had never imagined – being a best selling writer, with his story known across the world, being asked to publicly appear along side the likes of Burl Ives.
But Brown’s story is also one of melancholy, of yearning for a ‘normal’ life, where he could have a ‘dream-girl’ or be able to join is brothers and sisters living life outside the confines of his crowded Dublin house.
It is this balance, combined with incredible insight into his own development as a writer, that makes this book so readable. Brown gives space in My Left Foot to examine his inspiration to write, to narrate his progress as an emerging writer with intense and unashamed honesty. As a reader, I loved hearing about which authors inspired him to write more and refine his craft – greats such as Dickens, Caesar and Shaw, and the influence they had on his early work.
For anyone that loves a tale of triumph over adversity. Probably a good one for young adult readers – easy to follow, a introducing into some complex moral issues (disability and self-determination for example.)
My edition: Mandarin Paperbacks, 1989 ISBN: 7493 0101 5