Terrell Harris Dougan had a perfectly normal life. And then her sister Irene was born.
That Went Well details Dougan’s true-life adventures and mishaps in living with a mentally disabled sibling. Her sharp wit and humorous perspective quickly pulls her readers into life with Irene — broken windows, baby dolls and all. Intertwined with stories of Irene’s tantrums and love for Diet Coke and M&Ms, That Went Well provides a window into life with a mentally disabled family member and the challenges presented by trying to integrate them into the community.
Dougan led a charmed life until March 1946, when the young 6-year-old who was mesmerized by her Catholic neighbors and dreamed of owning a horse suddenly had to learn to explain for the rest of her life why her little sister asked you to talk to her doll.
With an IQ of around 57, an emotional age of three, and the inability ever to read or write, Irene is filled with love and temper tantrums. Choosing to go against the norm and not institutionalize their young daughter, Dougan’s parents take it upon themselves to care for Irene, a responsibility later reserved for Dougan.
Dougan paints the picture of her life with humor, from joining the Gene Autry Riding Club to having a part in the beginning of the Sundance Film Festival and meeting Robert Redford, mixing in her attempts at normalcy with the story of codependency with Irene. With a tenderness only a big sister can have, Dougan enables readers to laugh with the Harris family struggles, not at them. The humor interspersed among the book’s painful moments, such as the five years Irene spent at the Devereaux School in Goleta, Calif., keeps readers from becoming weary as Dougan unleashes exasperating story after exasperating story toward the end of the book.
Throughout the book Dougan recounts a sort of metamorphosis — from trying initially to lead a normal life to accepting that normalcy is the last thing she will ever find. Dougan easily could have become bitter and resentful toward her sister, but a genuine love and tenderness shines through, breaking one’s heart and instilling a call to action at the same time.
Dougan served eight years as president of the Utah Association of Retarded Citizens and on the board of the National Association for Retarded Citizens for two terms. From helping her father create the Salt Lake County Association for Retarded Citizens, to opening the Columbus Community Center, a sheltered workshop for adults and teens with mental disabilities, Dougan not only learned to live with Irene’s disabilities, she’s lived to fix them and the stereotypes that surround them, as evident in the memoir.
“You are trying with all the tools you have, and sometimes your toolbox is just plain out of tools, as is mine,” Dougan writes to her sister in one of the memoir’s most poignant moments. “The thing we have to remember is that we’re doing the best we can each day.”
Whether painting Irene’s bedroom Baker-Miller pink, cheering her on at the Special Olympics or paying extra for Happy Meal toys from McDonald’s minus the Happy Meal, Dougan allows readers to see the best she has provided to Irene over the years as well as her failures, a humbling aspect to the book. Dougan never claims to be perfect, and readers will be able to identify with her brutal honesty. She may not be the expert on the mentally disabled, but she has the battle wounds to prove she has the experience.
At times frustrating for readers to digest, one can only imagine being in Dougan’s shoes. Experienced with mentally disabled persons or not, it’s easy to identify with Dougan’s struggles and her mantra for life, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Her your plans.”
Anything but a how-to book on caring for mentally disabled persons, That Went Well gives readers the opportunity to sit back and dwell on the struggles of someone else for a change. And Irene, in her own special way, reminds us of one of the most important things in life — love. Once you meet Irene, there’s no going back.
Hardcover, 224 pages