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ONE FOR THE BOOKS: Normal families (or not)

By Mary Louise Ruehr, Books Editor Published: June 28, 2014 4:02 AM
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At least once in a while, many of us complain that our families are dysfunctional. But your family has nothing on these people. I thoroughly recommend all three of these books.

In “North of Normal: A Memoir of My Wilderness Childhood, My Unusual Family, and How I Survived Both,” Cea Sunrise Person relates the remarkable circumstances of her youth. 

In 1971, only 18 months after baby Cea was born, her grandparents decided they needed to get away from society and moved the whole family to the Canadian wilderness of Northern Alberta, where Cea’s grandfather convinced the chief of the local Stoney Indian tribe to let his family live on their land. 

They stayed in a teepee: “We were five adults and a toddler living in a twenty-foot circle, so to say quarters were cramped was an understatement,” writes Person. But in the beginning they had little idea how to survive. “The work involved was much more grueling than even they had expected. Our diet consisted mostly of wild game, so my grandfather spent hours each day hunting bear, moose and grouse. ... Every day there was water to haul, laundry to wash in the river, wild berries, mushrooms, onions, and edible flowers to pick, and endless amounts of wood to collect and chop for the upcoming winter.” And in the winter, “We slept beneath layers of bearskins with heated rocks in our beds, but even then, we woke up with icy ears and snot frozen to the tips of our noses.”

Marijuana played a major role in the “hippie” family dynamics, writes the author, as did inappropriate adult behavior in front of a child. After they moved into in an actual house and a kindergarten friend of Cea’s popped in to say hello, “I wasn’t sure what was worse: the fact that Mom was standing before us with a joint in her hand, or the fact that she was doing it topless.”

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At least, Cea realized the adults’ behavior was wrong, and she later found a unique way to escape to a life of her own. 


Julie Gregory’s autobiography is titled “Sickened: The Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood.” Munchausen by Proxy is a form of child abuse, “the falsification or induction of physical and/or emotional illness by a caretaker of a dependent person. In most cases, the perpetrator is a mother and the victim is her own child.” The goal is to “gain sympathy, nurturance, and control over others.”

Some of this stuff made my blood run cold. “My first memories of medical mayhem,” Gregory writes, began when she was 3. Her grandmother would give her “Cracker Jacks that taste funny, or some strange warped candy melded to its wrapper.” Her mother would offer her “suckers”: “Mom pulls out a new book of matches and carefully bends back the cover to expose two fresh red rows of the minipops she’s been giving me for as long as I can remember. My mouth waters when I see their shimmery crimson tips. The first one is always the best, and I pluck it out and get it fast on my tongue, waiting for the metallic zolt to rush my taste buds.”

Her mother would give her inappropriate medication, invent symptoms for her, and drag her to doctors again and again. “She reads late into the night, long after we’ve all gone to sleep, keeping an eye out for our symptoms so she can suggest the right tests and meds to the doctor.” When one doctor prescribed a special diet for little Julie, her mother went out and bought every single thing on the forbidden list. “I never stop feeling sick and I never get better,” she writes.

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Her parents moved little Julie and her brother to a trailer in “a backwoods patch” where no one would bother them. They took in elderly veterans and foster children, for the money, “and sooner or later, each of those foster kids seemed to develop a medical mystery of their own.”

When the adult Gregory learned about MBP, all the mysteries of her past clicked into place. She now wants to spread the word about its dangers: “Doctors are the unwitting accomplices in MBP, conditioned to have blind faith in what they are told by patients and families.”


Normal Family” by  Don Trowden is a novel that reads like a memoir. But this one — because it’s fiction — is funny, and made me laugh out loud.

“All I ever wanted was a normal family — whatever that might be — free from the constant insanity and fighting, to be raised in a supportive environment along the lines of what I saw in other respectable homes,” young Henry, our protagonist, tells us. “Why was my family so bizarre? Had I been secretly adopted? Was I being punished for the sins of some previous life?”

Henry’s grandfather had a bomb shelter next to his New England home, “a subterranean hideout where he frequently slipped away for solitude and gin.” His mother suffered from depression, but each person in the family had quirks. “My mother, brother and grandfather were similar in one significant way — each had little use for other people. Each had an investigative mind, the scientist’s mind. Input from others was always wrong; no one could possibly do anything as well as they could.”

The book has tender moments surrounded by hilarity, along with some wonderful one-liners: “Albert (his brother) had drolly remarked our mother was someone who preferred to burn her bridges before she got on them”; “Grandpa swerved up the lawn looking like Frankenstein in search of unsuspecting villagers.”

Copyright © 2014 by Mary Louise Ruehr


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