Randi Davenport’s harrowing new memoir is the kind of book to which the only appropriate response is sympathy. The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes begins, ordinarily enough, with a picnic. But from the first pages, it’s clear that something isn’t right. Davenport’s teenage son, Chase, refuses to walk across a bridge, eat outside with the other picnickers, play Frisbee or sing songs, and his mother is not surprised: “Despite my high hopes, and I had many, there was never any possibility of staying with the others,” for Chase is not capable of it. Since toddlerhood, he has been diagnosed with a long list of conditions, including ADHD, Tourette’s syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism and epilepsy, among many others. Though it might seem as if Chase’s condition could get no worse, the next day he suffers a psychotic break which leaves him obsessed with terrifying enemies he calls “nailers” and executioners, convinced he is a rock star, unable to recognize his mother and eventually confined to a psychiatric ward.

The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes alternates between the story of Chase’s life up to this moment and his subsequent months in the hospital. Davenport describes how she missed signs of possible mental illness in her ex-husband, Chase’s father, and tried to believe that Chase would be OK, until it was clear that he wouldn’t. She recounts the toll Chase’s illness has taken on his younger sister, Haley, and her efforts to make it up to her, knowing that she can’t. At the same time, she describes Chase’s deteriorating condition, his doctors’ failures to diagnose and treat him effectively and her own desperate attempts to find an appropriate placement for him, after her insurance company refuses to pay for his hospitalization any longer.

Davenport writes in sometimes excruciating detail about the pain that disability and mental illness wreak on entire families. She is a strong advocate, both for her son and for the disabled and mentally ill, arguing that “Our profound unwillingness to care for those among us who cannot care for themselves: that’s the problem.” One hopes this book has helped to alleviate her own pain.

Rebecca Steinitz is a writer in Arlington, Massachusetts.

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