I just finished listening to the audio book of Beautiful Child by Torey Hayden. Torey is a well known author in the area of special education/ psychology. Her books consist of mostly nonfiction around classes she teaches. There is one book Twilight children of her working in a psychiatric clinic. There are a couple of fiction books.
I have read I believe all of her books but haven’t reviewed them so will have to reread.
Beautiful Child centers around a seven year old girl named Venus. Torey first notices Venus on the first day of school. She is sitting on a large wall on the playground. Very still and not disturbed by anything around her, she has a mysteriouslook to her. She proves to be a huge mystery for the better part of the year Torey works with her. This is very new to Torey. Venus comes into the class unable to interact with anyone or seeming to notice anyone at all. She doesn’t respond to anything to the point Torey thinks Venus might be deaf or so developmentally delayed it affects her ability to process information so she can’t respond. At first, Torey thinks her problem is elective mutism. When a child has the ability to speak but is psychologically unable to. She had had great success in the past with these children. Her method deceptively simple: to develop a relationship right away where she insists the child talk and very quickly poses a question or statement to them and keeps at it not allowing silence to interfere. In this way surprisingly many children are able to speak. It seems strange to me because it seems like anyone could do that, and you would think there would be more to getting a child truly terrified of speaking to speak than just insisting on it.
Anyway she is initially very optimistic about getting Venus to talk using this method. Unfortunately it is useless because unlike other children who though they may be silent, are engaged with her, Venus doesn’t seem to even appear to know Torey or the other children are there. Venus comes from a family in intense poverty. Where everyone seems to have emotional or developmental disabilities including Wanda. Venus’s “sister” (it’s been put out there that Wanda is actually Venu’s bio mom), takes sole care of Venus. Wanda calls her Beautiful Child and nothing else hence the title of the book.
In the middle of trying to figure out Venus Torey is faced with the most aggressive group of boys she’s ever come across. It takes them months and months to form a group identity that isn’t based on all out physical fighting. Many many ideas are tried and fail in this process. The children have ADHD, fetal alchol syndrome, and are just plain aggressive. No one has ever reinforced solid boundaries with them. So it’s quite a challenge. In this mix is Julie. Julie is the id that Torey has in the afternoons. Seemingly young and inexperienced in this area Torey is hopeful to develop a kind of mentoryship relationship with her. In spite of surface looks Julie is steadfastly firm on always acting one hundred percent patiently, and compassionately to whatever the children throw at her. To her it’s not right to try to shape their behavior. These “poor children” go through enough. How do we know what behavior is appropriate based on culture or disability ETC ETC. Julie is truly out of touch with things and actually in what she’s doing quite condescending with no expectations of the children at all. This sparks many arguments between she and Torey and even the principal has to step in. But it raises many ethical discussions on what Julie presents. For the most part I felt Julie was a good person but incredibly misguided.
All along Torey tries her hardest to reach Venus. This is as hard as trying to talk to the doll Wanda carries around and also calls beautiful child. The other mysterious and dangerous aspect to Venus is that though in most circumstances she does not respond at all, if she’s bumped on the playground she emediately transforms into a raging out of control child. This change lasts for however long her tantrum does. She as also very physically q quick and knows the woods and how to get home very quickly. At times she simply runs off school property. Many times Torey Julie and the principal have to restrain venus. Which again puts Julie in a position of saying how wrong that is. Even with the obvious harm to self and others going on. After these tantrums she closes completely down to her statue like appearance.
Throughout the story Torey does not give up on Venus. She finds surprising ways to inch by inch get venus to open up. This is not steady progress at all, one reason being that she has more absances than being in school. This is due to Wanda being the one in charge of getting her to school. Torey visits the family many times and is met by the intimidating and “creepy” mom’s BF of the moment Danny. Who obviously controls what happens in the house and when. It is said that social services are “up to their neck in this family” Sadly it is not said or known by the school what exactly is being done and things are incredibly bleak in this department. Why neglect alone wasn’t enough to send Venus and the kids into care I don’t know.
In spite of that as long as Venus is there Torey tries to inch Venus out of her shell. There are gains and it is shown that Venus can speak if persisted to long enough. However it is discovered eventually that Venus indured horrific abuse. The magnitude of which shocks torey to the core. There is an ending for this girl that is happy considering the circumstances.
What the book brings up for me is how child abuse can be ignored so long because the signs just aren’t there. And how children unable to communicate/ interact in the ways that people expect/ need them to are totally lost. They have no way of reaching out, or to have anyone reach out to them. Torey tried her absolute best. It wasn’t one person’s fault. The whole system failed Venus for a very long time as it probably still does other children.
I do highly recommend this book for anyone who loves psychology, or wants to take a peek in a special ed classroom. But I’ll always remember Venus and Torey and how Venus was it seems Torey’s most challenging case. And how I wish things would have been discovered much sooner in order to free venus from her psychological prison.