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A Mother's Faith in Her Handicapped Son Leads to His First Book—or Is It Hers?

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All my blood ran cold at first, leaving me a brain-damaged, all paralysed pauper, appearing to foolish, ignorant people as “heaven’s reject.”

from Dam-Burst of Dreams

Admirers of the book have found echoes of Yeats and Joyce among its pages. University dons have marveled at the cosmic reach of its poetry and the darkly furrowed landscape of its prose. When a new anthology titled Dam-Burst of Dreams arrives in British bookstores this month, few readers are apt to find fault with the originality of its writing. What may kindle controversy, however, is its purported authorship by a 15-year-old Irish schoolboy named Christy Nolan.

To his believers, Nolan’s first book marks more than a triumph of youth. Asphyxiated at birth after he was trans-versed in the womb, Nolan was left a brain-damaged spastic with no control over his bodily movements. Only his sight, hearing and the purely intellectual processes of his mind remained unimpaired. Strapped into wheelchairs since early childhood, he pecked out the book on a typewriter letter by letter, according to his mother, Bernadette, using a unicorn-like stick strapped to his head while his mother cradled his unsteady chin in her hands.

Since the pair work only in private, skeptics have suggested that Bernadette may have been more his ghostwriter than simply his support. Even the most dubious, however, concede that the book represents a remarkable fusion of mother and son that began with the troubled cesarean delivery of the nine-pound 14-ounce baby. As an infant, “All the muscles of his lips, tongue and throat were paralyzed, he couldn’t suck, and he had difficulty swallowing,” Bernadette recalls. “Because he was always hungry, he cried constantly.” Doctors concluded that Christy was severely retarded, “but I was absolutely convinced that he had normal intelligence,” Bernadette says. “We eventually developed a system of communication through flicks of his eyes, nods, facial expressions and gutteral, slurred words. Over the years his every movement has taken on a whole range of meanings.”

When Christy turned 4, his devoutly Catholic father, Joseph, took him to Lourdes in hope of a miracle. Two years later the family moved from their 25-acre farm near Mullingar into Dublin, where Christy was enrolled in the Central Remedial Clinic, a 160-pupil school for the physically handicapped. Educational psychologists seemed to confirm Bernadette’s belief; by the time he was 7, Christy’s knowledge was judged equivalent to that of a 14-year-old, and later testing put him into the near-genius range. “Christy’s disability was physical,” asserts the clinic’s medical director, Dr. Ciaran Barry, “and it doesn’t impair his thought processes as would be the case with most cerebral palsy victims.”

Shortly before Christy’s 12th birthday, Dr. Barry began administering trial doses of Lioresal, a sometimes hallucinogenic drug he hoped would curb the boy’s worsening spasms. Bernadette, meanwhile, had doggedly persisted in trying to teach Christy to type. In August 1977, with his lurching head steadied in her hands, he slowly pecked out his first message. “My eyes filled with tears out of a sense of awe and fear,” Bernadette recalls. “I rushed out to show a neighbor. When I got back to Christy, I could hear the noise of his heart thumping. ‘Has it really happened? Does she really understand?’ Once he realized I did, he went out of his mind with delight.”

An appeal in Britain’s Sunday Times last summer brought forth $86,000 in contributions to the fledgling writer, including a gift of a $4,700 electronic word processor that allows a lighter touch than his old electric typewriter and makes corrections easier. (The unused donations went into a Christopher Nolan Trust to help other handicapped children.) Christy’s use of the machine still requires Bernadette’s steadying hands, however, and in conversation she translates his gurgles, yelps and head jerks into long, intricately worded monologues. “The ease with which she interprets what Christy says is almost uncanny,” concedes Sally Mapstone, Christy’s editor at the publishing house of Weidenfeld & Nicolson. “It’s quite true that you cannot say where he ends and she begins. But where to draw the line is a bit of a moot point. The whole relationship with his mother is crucial to what he writes.”

The young Bernadette, seventh of eight children born to an Irish dairy farmer, was a voracious reader whose formal education stopped at 17 when she graduated from convent school. While working as a bookkeeper for a Dublin firm of wholesale seed merchants, she met Joseph Nolan, a part-time farmer and psychiatric nurse. She married him in 1962 and the following year gave birth to their first child, Yvonne, now 17 and a university student in Dublin. After Christy, their second child, she lost three infants to premature deliveries.

Those who have witnessed the family’s struggle through the years are reluctant to voice skepticism about Christy’s achievements. Kathleen Devaney, a schoolteacher who is Bernadette’s eldest sister, says there was always “a spiritual quality” about Bernadette. “Loving literature the way she does, she can see immediately what Christy means no matter how obscure his meanings might seem to be. She sees it in a flash. It’s miraculous.” Philip Odor, a member of the Christopher Nolan Trust and a senior research fellow at the University of Edinburgh who has experimented with computer programs to aid Christy’s writing, acknowledges the “symbiotic relationship” between mother and son but scoffs at those who doubt Christy’s authorship. “I can believe it, and I try to help,” he states. “And even if I didn’t believe it, I’d still want to help so that he can communicate.”

Publicity about Christy’s writing has made the boy a focal point for fund-raising efforts in behalf of the handicapped (to whom 20 percent of the Dam-Burst royalties will be donated), and Bernadette has thus become a much-sought speaker for the cause. Each day she visits the conventional state-run school Christy has attended for the past three years to tend to his physical needs (his fellow students wheel him to classes and wipe the saliva from his chin). At Bernadette’s urging, he had previously been allowed to skip two grades. “He doesn’t take regular exams,” she notes. “He proves what he’s learned through his writing.”

Despite his apparent literacy, Christy seldom reads and spends much of his spare time watching TV favorites like Dallas and Charlie’s Angels. “He can read, but he doesn’t like to because he’ll lose his place when his head rolls,” Bernadette explains. “With television, he depends more on his ears than his eyes. His interest in sound comes out strong in his writing.” Both parents anticipate a wealth of that writing now that Christy apparently has breached the communication barrier, and they have converted their Dublin garage into a 7-by-14-foot study for his use. “When we realized what fate had thrust upon us, we felt we just had to deal with it to the best of our ability,” says Bernadette. “We rescued that creativity from oblivion and prevented him from going insane by giving him an outlet for it. If we hadn’t, we’d have missed out on the greatest joy that life could have given to any parents.”