BY SUSAN ESTRICH
You expect some people to write a book. You see their name when you’re scrolling titles or actually looking at books, and you say, of course he or she would write a book.
That was not my reaction when I saw that Quinn Bradlee has a new book out.
Quinn Bradlee? I remember a little boy who was always sick and very hard to understand. How many Quinn Bradlees could there be?
The one who wrote A Different Life: Growing Up Learning Disabled and Other Adventures describes a childhood in which he was always sick and his parents’ friends struggled to understand him. Same one.
Quinn is by birth a prince of publishing, as close to Washington royalty as there was until the Obamas moved to town. Quinn’s father is legendary Washington Post former Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, and his mother is the equally legendary writer, critic and professional party-giver Sally Quinn. For Quinn, growing up, Washington was a small town in which, if he got lost, someone would surely point the way for Ben and Sally’s son.
The title of Quinn’s book is a play on his father’s autobiography, A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures. Ben suffered from polio as a child, so it’s not as if he always had it easy. But as he is the first to admit, he had a great run.
“I think a lot about the fact that I’m 60 years older than he is,” he says in an interview in his son’s book. “Ultimately, I want him to be safe, and I want him to find a way to become a productive member of society without us. … I don’t know where he will end up. I’ve had a wonderful run in my life, but there isn’t much more I can do. I love him with all my heart.”
Quinn grew up rich and privileged, but as his heartbreaking, life-affirming memoir makes clear, being rich and privileged doesn’t protect you from the polite stares of the adults who can’t understand you or the kids who are angry and jealous. Quinn writes of going to boarding school for learning-disabled boys and, lonely and scared, bragging about his famous family, only to be hazed about it for all the years he was there. He writes about always being alone, never having a friend, and his parents trying that old trick of inviting him to bring a “friend” on family vacations.
Quinn was born with a hole in his heart. Then there were the seizures and the speech problems and the learning issues. No one knew what was wrong with him until he was 14, when Sally finally found a doctor in New York who gave a name to what Quinn has: velocardiofacial syndrome [VCFS], a disorder that ranks second only to Down syndrome in terms of the frequency of its incidence. Giving it a name, of course, didn’t make it go away.
I remember Sally once telling me that because Quinn was her only child, she didn’t have anyone else to constantly be comparing him to, no fixed idea of how a child of a certain age “should be.” Maybe that made it easier, she thought, for both Quinn and her, since he wasn’t forced to confront a sibling who could do things he couldn’t. Maybe. But the truth is, it wasn’t easy for either of them. In between the lines of Quinn’s story is his parents’, and it is, in its way, just as touching.
There is Sally, as tough a fighter as I’ve met in life, fighting the one battle that matters most, the one she can never totally win, no matter. She fights doctors and schools and bullies, but she also, God knows how, pushes her son to go away to school, to find adventure, to live next door with his friends and not in his bedroom upstairs.
The funniest story in the book may be the one about Quinn losing his virginity in a brothel in St. Martin, and then going back there the next day with his mother, who insisted the woman be tested for HIV. [Ben’s reaction was to ask if it felt good. As my friend Rose would say, a father is not a mother.]
In the final chapter of his book, Quinn “adopts” four new godparents, recognizing that two of the original four – Ed Williams and Art Buchwald – are gone, and that he may need help when his parents are gone. But the real “ending” is better.
Tuesday morning, newspapers reported Quinn Bradlee’s engagement to his girlfriend, Pary Williamson. The ring is said to be a family heirloom.
– Susan Estrich’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer