A Boy Named Misunderstood
by Richard F. Miniter
Bantam Books, 1998
It's difficult to review a book based upon an author's actual experiences without feeling as if one is passing judgment on another person's life. There is a temptation to glorify the author's noblest efforts or vilify each deficiency. And when a storyteller has taken a grievously abused and horrifically troubled adolescent boy as a foster child, it's almost simpler to perceive them as merely heroic and the book that tells the tale a piece of noble literature.
In the case of the Richard F. Miniter, bold enough not only to be a foster parent but also to share the experience in a journal-like account, The Things I Want Most (Bantam Books), the quality of the writing is exceeded only by the merit of the endeavor. The story he tells is disquieting and poignant, written in a straightforward narrative that chronicles the first year Mike lived with his family. Miniter lays bare his own flaws in a book driven by a story demanding to be told.
And so vivid is Miniter's account of how they came to take Mike into their home and the struggle that ensued, it is impossible not to marvel at the family's tenacity. How could they stand the daily battle to get him out of bed each day? The foul language? The thefts? Wasn't going for weeks, even months, without one positive sign from the child more discouragement than they could bear?
Sue Miniter, in response to her frustration with the needs of children worldwide, drags her husband Richard to a program called Harbour in upstate New York that seeks to provide therapeutic foster care to profoundly troubled children. Parents of five children, the youngest in high school, the Miniter's are carefully screened, counseled, trained, and finally classified as "professional parents." Still, Richard is unsure that he and his family are ready and able to take on so daunting a task. Reluctantly, he agrees to review the case file of boy named Mike.
So damning is the communication from social workers, psychiatrists, institutions, and other foster families, they prepare to scrap the entire concept: " . . . one word kept tramping back and forth in my thoughts with heavy boots--sociopath, sociopath, sociopath," Miniter recalls. Then, from a thick file, jam-packed with typewritten reports, written in a barely legible child's scrawl, Richard and Sue Miniter find the following buried in the case file:
THE THINGS I WANT MOST
1. A family
2. A fishing pole
3. A family
Unable to resist a child's desperate plea, the Miniter's invite Mike to lunch. Fully briefed on the boy's history of severe abuse and neglect, his violent tendencies, his diagnosed retardation and his suicide attempts, they ask him to be a part of their family. The tale of their first year together, as chronicled in this engaging book, is exceptional, as is the courage of this family to so honestly share the story.
Here, because it is real life, families are fallible. The difficulties surrounding the Miniter children's response to the boy's arrival and outbursts as well as Sue and Richard's often overwhelming discouragement are as much a part of the story as Mike himself. He and his wife are not perfect parents, he illustrates, nor are they beyond second guessing their decisions with any of their children, including Mike. Each family member faces one difficulty or another over the course of the year, and somehow the tales of these individual journeys winding around one another makes even ordinary events seem extraordinary.
Miniter, working from the daily diaries and paperwork required by social services, tells an unadulterated story--warts, toilet paper, and all. He does not paint a stagnant picture of a saintly couple taking in a poor unfortunate, but rather the story of what it means to be a family, flawed and glorious. For anyone considering such a commitment, this book should be required reading.
In explaining their philosophy of child rearing, Miniter is sometimes long winded and a touch defensive. But in telling a tale that leaves him so open to scrutiny and criticism, perhaps that is understandable. Overall, it is a very gratifying story; almost as touching, difficult, and complex as Mike himself. Richard and Sue, like parents everywhere, have brilliant insights, misjudge situations, make adjustments, and alter their plans. Their children, family, and friends learn how to restructure their picture of the world to include Mike. In the end, it is this young boy that we know least well. And perhaps, as what is contained in the heart and mind of this child is so horrific, that is best.
While it is sometimes difficult to understand what drew the Miniter's to him, it is not hard to see how love can grow in the most surprising ways.
Sally Russell is a frequent contributor to Minnesota Parent.
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