“Jonathan Bryan has severe cerebral palsy, a condition that makes him incapable of voluntary movement or speech. He was locked inside his own mind, aware of the outside world but unable to fully communicate with it, until he found a way by using his eyes to laboriously choose individual letters, and through this make his thoughts known.”
“In Eye Can Write, we read of 12-year-old Jonathan’s intense passion for life, his mischievous sense of fun, his hopes, his fears and what it’s like to be him. This is a powerful memoir from an incredible young author whose writing ability defies age or physical disability – a truly inspirational figure. Eye Can Write is not only a stunning human achievement but a beautiful piece of writing that will inspire you to find the joy in every moment.”
The preceding two paragraphs form part of the dust cover’s introduction to the book and set the scene for the emotionally-charged narrative that follows.
The foreword is by Sir Michael Morpurgo who, some years before meeting Jonathan, had written a book called Cool! In which he tried to imagine how it might be to be a child locked inside a world of his own, aware of the world outside, but utterly incapable of communicating with it. Little did he know that one day he would meet such a boy and join him in his journey, so that the lonely boy was not alone any more.
The long introduction was written by Chantal Bryan, Jonathan’s mother, and it begins with the harrowing sentence: “Before Jonathan was born, Christopher and I had a feeling that something was wrong. The heaviness of that feeling deepened as the feeling became stronger and more solid.”
Three weeks before Chantal’s due date, the family was in a serious car accident that resulted in the emergency caesarean section birth of Jonathan. If the birth itself was not traumatic enough, life afterwards was one long trauma of emergencies, setbacks, and difficulties that it is really impossible to imagine.
Through a friend, Chantel met Sarah, a primary school teacher with two small children, and Sarah agreed to help with Jonathan’s home education. What happened next amazed them all.
Jonathan takes up his own story in chapter one and tells of the real frustration and pain of living behind the labels that were attached by the medical world to his dysfunctional body:
Severe cerebral palsy
Profound and multiple learning difficulties
Chronic lung disease
Jonathan writes of what it was like to be defined by labels, and to have expectations founded on his outward appearance. Jonathan writes of the silence that oppressed him – a suffocating silence that prevented any communication to the outside world, and especially to his own loving family.
Jonathan’s complex health needs mean that he is never alone, and yet he was very alone in his locked-in world that had a window on the outside world, but no way to communicate with that outside world.
We learn of Will – Jonathan’s best friend at Special School – and the deep and wonderful communication that regularly took place between them as their eyes met. We learn of Jonathan’s frustration at being subjected to mindless activity in the classroom where Farmer Duck was the regular reading, and the massive contrast there was with the invaluable education hour at home.
In chapter three Jonathan tells us about a beautiful field of long grass, where He was next to Jonathan. They were soaking up the sun and listening to insects. He tells us of that special world being interrupted by medical emergencies and the inevitable questions that followed about Jonathan’s ability to pull through medically. Was Jonathan dying as the beautiful field suddenly became his enemy, but Jesus’ strong and reassuring presence was with Jonathan. Nevertheless, medically speaking, everything was hanging in the balance once again.
Jonathan loves Christmas. He loves Christmas because he is part of his family that nourishes him, but he also loves Christmas because he is part of a worldwide family that transcends age, gender, ability and disability.
Painstakingly slow progress in communicating with the outside world was dotted with little victories, with little joys that made carrying on worthwhile. Then there came the amazing breakthrough at counting and the huge impact that made upon the family as they discovered that Jonathan had abilities that had previously been hidden from view.
All of this was followed by the revelation that Jonathan’s writing ability was far more sophisticated than anyone would have believed. Mummy realised that Jonathan could spell everything he wanted to write, and he could also spell everything he wanted to say.
In this chapter written by Chantal, Jonathan tells us what is important to him: Mummy, Jesus, Susannah, Jemima, Daddy, sisters. “Jesus?” Chantal asked Jonathan. In reply, Jonathan spelled out “S… e… e… n.” When Chantal asked him what he had seen, Jonathan replied, “His house.” This topic of conversation ran for many months, while other questions asked of Jonathan didn’t get the answers that were expected.
The family had a child who could now ask for anything he wanted. Over many months, the family asked Jonathan many questions and received many answers, but it was Jonathan’s description of his time in the garden that blew his family away.
In chapter six, Jonathan takes up his story again, and he could at last tell his family about his time in the garden. It was Jesus’ garden. How much Jonathan wanted to stay in the garden with Jesus, but he knew that he could endure his limiting body for longer, and so he returned.
Jonathan’s newly-found ability to communicate meant that he could be involved in the decisions that affected his future, and even do things that he wanted to do. One result of this was Jonathan’s Brownies!
In this chapter, Jonathan’s world is expanding through a 500-word story for BBC Radio 2, the writing of poetry, and holidays, along with the inevitable frustrations and setbacks.
Chapter eight begins with an astonishing poem that Jonathan wrote, and then moves on through a letter to Edward Timpson the (then) Minister of State for Vulnerable Children, local media stories, and Jonathan’s story going on the website of The Mirror newspaper.
‘Teach Us Too’ had been born, and national newspapers began to pick up Jonathan’s story, with his proudest moment being seeing his poem “Song Of Voice” printed in The Times. The One Show covered Jonathan’s story and went to school to film there, and emails began to come from all over the world. Jonathan met Edward Timpson and also had a documentary filmed about his story. So much more was to follow.
Jonathan’s book is both an easy read and a hard read. It is an easy read because of the narrative style that enables the reader to move quickly through what is a relatively short book. It is a hard read because reading through tears is tricky and, though Jonathan’s story touches the heart, in reality it blows the heart away. It also puts into real perspective the struggles and difficulties that most of us experience in life.
Jonathan’s description of his time in the garden with Jesus shows me that Jesus is never constrained by theological beliefs and nor does Jesus abide by doctrinal rules – Jesus is YaHWeH and he is never restricted by human traditions or human prejudices. Jonathan’s account also highlights what the church in the UK has long forgotten or perhaps never knew – and that is the concept of family salvation.
When you read this precious book – and I strongly encourage you to do so – remember that it is not a theological book and that it is not a doctrinal thesis; it is a valuable book of one young boy’s amazing experiences. Someone who has a real experience is never at the mercy of someone who only has an opinion.