Review by Emily Webber
Karen DeBonis’s memoir Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived (Apprentice House, May 2023), details her challenges in finding an accurate diagnosis for her son and how this resulted in her transformation as a mother.
Early on, DeBonis knows something is wrong with her son—he goes from a hyper kid to lethargic, developing tics, disconnected, and mentally and physically unable to keep up with other kids his age. There are many doctor and therapy visits where her concerns are brushed off, or her son is misdiagnosed. DeBonis’s experience shows how frightening and confusing it can be to navigate the medical system where there are tough decisions to make quickly about treatment options, with little information or even after a diagnosis. At the story’s core is a unique perspective of a journey through chronic illness and disability with a child, but the focus is on what kind of a mother this made DeBonis and how it changed her.
The reader knows from the title what Matthew’s eventual diagnosis will be and that he will survive it. Knowing this information does not take away from the story in any way. The focus of this book isn’t on the ‘what,’ but on how they get through it and how it changes DeBonis. What keeps this memoir a page-turner is DeBonis’s natural and relatable storytelling. Every page is deeply personal, honest, and down to earth whether DeBonis is sharing her struggles with postpartum depression, her issues with speaking up for herself and her son or navigating the many medical appointments:
What do you do when you wake up on the day of your child’s brain surgery?
You go to the bathroom. Take a shower. Get dressed. Apply concealer under your eyes. Wear a sweatshirt and fat jeans, knowing it will be a long day. Hug your child with gentle fierceness. Pray in a running conversation with God.
It is heartbreaking to watch Matthew before his diagnosis being told to try harder whenever he fails a task or can’t keep up with other kids. So, I did wonder about Matthew’s perspective, only because he seemed so resilient and courageous in the face of such enormous hardship, especially for a young child not knowing what was wrong with him. Then post-diagnosis as a young adult struggling to complete college, cycling through jobs, he remains self-sufficient and retains his happiness for being alive.
I remember thinking, My college-educated son has trouble mastering the art of photocopying. Is this as far as he’ll go? He finally got the hang of this job, but his position was cut in 2013. I got all woe is me. Matt simply moved on.
But this memoir is very much DeBonis’s story—about her experiences with her son’s health challenges and eventual brain tumor diagnosis, her journey as a mother, and how these experiences forced her to transform herself. Through her experience with her son, DeBonis explores the inability to speak up for herself and others. She was raised, like many women, to be a people-pleaser.
Growing up, Mike learned to speak up to defend his domain because DeBonis Grocery, his family’s livelihood, depended on it. If a bigger, tougher kid tried to sneak out the door with a bag of potato chips behind his back, Mike wouldn’t hesitate to stop him. “Put it back,” he’d command. So simple. My mom would have looked the other way, pretending not to see the offense rather than confronting the individual. My dad would have quipped, “It’s only a bag of chips. He probably needs them more than I do.” I might have done both.
When the doctors brush off her concerns, she agrees with them even though she knows something isn’t right. Eventually, through therapy and the long road leading up to Matthew’s diagnosis, she shifts away from this learned behavior and begins to advocate for herself and her son. One of the things I really appreciated about this memoir is the acknowledgment that there’s no straight arrow of a path to change, it requires hard work, and people will always be flawed in one way or another:
Personal growth is never black-and-white. It is painful and uplifting, demoralizing and redemptive, two steps forward followed by one-and-three-quarters steps backwards. Progress is painfully slow, as it seems to be for me. But inherent in growth is the revelation of our personal truths, and that, I believe, is the path to freedom or enlightenment of fulfilling our purpose in this life.
There are also some hidden gems in this book that lurk behind the larger themes. For example, as Matthew gets older and moves out of his parent’s house, he becomes more self-sufficient, even becoming the caretaker for his parents in small ways, like driving his father to a medical procedure. It reveals that one of the hardest things to learn, especially as a mother, is that sometimes we must let go and let our loved ones flourish outside of us and what we want for them. Another is when DeBonis forgives the pediatrician who dismissed her concerns over the years. She shows how much easier it would be to give into rage and blame, but she pushes past that.
I’ll never tire of reading about motherhood or personal experiences because while there are universal feelings and themes, what propels us forward, what we learn, and how we know it is different in every story. DeBonis made me feel less guilty about some of my own actions, made me understand some better, and I contemplated ways I could change. But if this makes her memoir sound too much like self-help, it isn’t. And it isn’t just a story for parents or caretakers, but a beautiful story of love and relationships with others and oneself delivered by an inviting and warm storyteller—the added insights into my own life were just a bonus.