Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst is a modern story, a story of today’s America and beyond. The Hammonds fall in love and marry and have a child. They name her Matilda Grace (Tillie). As time goes by, as their child grows older, they realize her brain may be wired differently (my words). She is a very bright child, but she has obsessions. Right now she is obsessed with massive monuments like that Buddha that was destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. She is also fascinated with inappropriate language, swear words. This may or may not be Tourette’s syndrome, but it sounds more willful than automatic. She has serious meltdowns over situations that seem small, insignificant, and unpredictable. No school has been able to keep her for long in spite of mainstreaming laws.
Iris Victoria, the second child, born two years after Tillie, does not have any of these issues but, of course, Tillie’s eccentricities affect Iris’s life in many ways. Family members take turns being the narrator of this story but often Iris is giving the running commentary of these key moments in the Hammond’s life when they follow Scott Bean, a seeming visionary in the treatment of children who don’t fit within the parameters of acceptable behavior in their neighborhoods or their schools. Josh and Alexandra love both of their daughters. They wend their way through modern theories which blame problems like autism or Asperger’s on things like junk food, or pollution. Alexandra says about her pregnancy, “You’ll struggle to remember details that seemed inconsequential at the time: Did you drink tap water? Did you eat any fish that might have contained high levels of mercury?”
Alexandra tells a tale that is familiar to every parent with a “special” child. She and her husband consult doctors. They consult the internet. They get an alphabet soup of diagnoses. They talk to other parents. They talk to schools every time Tillie does something a bit too violent to tolerate. They do not know what school they will enroll her in next. That is when Alexandra sees one of those flyers with the tear off telephone numbers on the bottom posted by a man named Scott Bean who seems to have insights into how to help these children. She checks him out on the internet and he seems quite legitimate. Finally the family buys into a camp that Bean is setting up for families whose children seem to be modern medical mysteries. He calls the place Camp Harmony.
This is a novel, but it straddles a line somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. Any family who has been through trying to raise a child who does not conform to the developmental expectations of our culture will probably recognize the trajectory of the Hammond’s experiences. They will nod in affirmation at the discussions of possible environmental factors that could be causing these “disorders” to occur more frequently. They will feel quite familiar with the emotional stages these parents go through, with their quest to find a “treatment” that will give their child more positive experiences out in the world. They will try medicines hoping to find one that brings their child’s behavior back within the parameters of normalcy. Will they try something as desperate as the Hammonds who sell everything and move to Camp Harmony? How did that work out anyway? Well, of course, that I cannot tell you. Carolyn Parkhurst”s novel, Harmony, for me, does not make the cut as literature, but as a cautionary tale to folks in modern societies who find themselves in a similar situation it is well done.