My Left Foot is best known now for the film version. Daniel Day-Lewis played Christy Brown, famously staying in role as the adolescent and young adult with cerebral palsy even during breaks in filming.
But originally My Left Foot was Christy Brown’s first published book, to be followed later by Down All The Days, and other novels and poetry. Although it concerns the struggle of a child to find means of communication and then expression, despite the difficulties imposed by an athetoid cerebral palsy, this is much more than an encounter with a neurological condition, an ‘illness narrative’. It is the story of a writer’s development, as he experiments with every means he can find to engage with his family and the wider world, first through chalk writing using his left foot, then watercolour painting, and then writing.
My Left Foot is also a vivid picture of growing up in materially-straightened social circumstances: there wasn’t much spare cash when you were one of 23 children to a Dublin bricklayer and his wife. For example, instead of a prescribed wheelchair, Christy’s first transport was an old go-cart called Henry, in which his brothers used to career him around with them – until the disastrous day when it finally was no longer repairable, and Christy began to realise his dependence on others. Socially, his early life was far from straitened, being in the loving company of his parents and siblings. His mother is one of several heroines in the story, a loving and continually encouraging presence, despite all the initial encouragement from her wider family to abandon Christy to a home. Other guardian angels come and go, like Katrina Delahunt, an encouraging presence in his teenage years, significant in his early attempts at drawing and writing. And he also falls for the female doctors and physiotherapists at the clinic he finally gets to attend in his late teens. (Although some female encounters in the film My Left Foot were imported from Down All The Days.)
In some ways My Left Foot sounds similar emotional notes to those sounded in many ‘illness narratives’. In particular, Christy expresses a growing realisation that his condition imposes restrictions, and creates walls between him and his siblings despite their family closeness. As a child he sometimes felt a despair and uncertainty about his future that seems still very raw years later during the writing. His anxieties about relationships are familiar for many teenagers, and still more so for those with disabilities: the yearning need for a love that is founded on mutual respect and attraction rather than on a (often female) desire to help or mother. Most of all there emerges a vivid picture of someone with problems of expression, due to speech or motor impediments.
Stories by the apparently inarticulate are not uncommon – I think of The Reason I Jump, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, Under The Eye of the Clock, The Finch In My Brain, Ghost Boy and many more… Perhaps people who have been unable to communicate feel an immense drive to tell their story, or perhaps the intense struggle to express the story communicates to readers with greater weight and emotional impact. My Left Foot is a wonderful account of childhood and adolescent development, in which the author’s athetoid cerebral palsy and inability to talk are details that make a very rich tapestry even more vivid.
Brown, Christy (first pub. 1954, 1998) My Left Foot, London, Vintage
Audiobook is available, narrated by Conor Mullen, Chivers Audio Books, 2003.
Audiosample here: http://christybrown.info/page36/page27/index.html