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Emma Henderson – Grace Williams Says It Loud

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Yet another point in history where people were treated badly.

Publisher: Sceptre (Hodder)
Pages: 323
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-444-70401-3
First Published: 1st July 2010
Date Reviewed: 20th January 2014
Rating: 4/5

Born differently-abled, Grace later contracts polio and becomes, as far as the 1950s were concerned, ineducable and severely mentally impaired. Taken from her parents, she is institutionalised along with hundreds of other children and adults, forced into a situation of poor hygiene, neglect, and abuse. Grace’s inner world is full but she has difficulty being understood by those who believe she is stupid; the exception to this is Daniel, a boy who lost his arms in an accident and takes a shine to her.

Grace Williams Says It Loud is a semi-biographical story. A look at the horrors of institutionalisation and the way disabled people used to (and still are to some extent) seen, the book is a good starting point to learn about the truth of disability and social discrimination.

Henderson wrote the book in honour of her sister, whose disabilities were never properly diagnosed. Henderson herself is therefore very much a part of the book – whilst it may take an interview to learn that this is so, the author never excuses herself; her presence as the oft-hateful younger sister Sarah is unapologetic, realistic, and at times very damning.

Whilst the institution in this book may not be as quite as awful as some were, Henderson never holds back from detailing the horrors that occurred. She shows the abuse that was meted out by the staff – sadistic, sexual, forced medication (the latter often increasing the patients’ mental and physical issues) – as well as the numerous slurs and taunts. The words ‘spastic’, ‘mong’, and other denigrating phrases are here in abundance. It is of course worth noting that unlike other books written in our times, where authors use ‘retard’, ‘spastic’, and ‘spaz’ without thinking of the hurt this causes (consider that these words are similar in this way to the N word) Henderson’s use is medical, historical, and relevant.

The author shows just how much severely disabled people – at least ‘severely’ in the sense that they seem so on the surface – can be misunderstood. Grace may not be able to speak, but she is as intelligent as she could be given her lack of a formal education. She is capable of a sexual relationship and love. Her friend (or ‘boyfriend’ – whilst Grace speaks of love a little and has sex, love is one area that Henderson does not elaborate on) Daniel, treats her as he would any other person and whilst Grace is limited in how much she can tell us, being the only narrator and stuck in an institution, there is the suggestion that it is society that is the reason for the disability. This common idea, that society is the cause of disability, the person themselves more able if society helped them be so, is very much suggested in this book. Grace often responds, or starts, or tries, to respond to questions asked by those around her. The way Henderson writes shows that those people answer for Grace before they’ve even given her a chance, never seeing the issue that their belief in stupidity before proven guilty causes.

Henderson’s writing is easy to read but the necessarily restricted-to-a-few-locations story may sometimes prove boring. This is of course both the point and an inescapable truth. Grace is stuck in the hospital, she is not allowed to live to the full extent of her capability, and the narrative is written solely from her viewpoint. Indeed if the narrative switched it would be like a get-out card – if Henderson allowed the reader time away from Grace they would never be able to appreciate just how awful, how dull, how wrong these places were and can still be.

However, beyond this, the writing can at times prove difficult. The author mixes a highly literary style with short bullet-point-like sentences and paragraphs, and whilst you could say that Grace could well think this way, it just doesn’t work. If it is to show that Grace does have a mental impairment of sorts then it is understandable, and admittedly Henderson never tells the reader exactly what Grace’s differences are (this is a nice reprieve from the world’s obsession of having to know what is wrong with someone instead of just getting on with it), but it may prove confusing and it can change the pace in a way that it seems shouldn’t happen. Apart from this the constant and sudden switches between the current time and flashbacks can be confusing as there is nothing to separate the two strands of thought – you learn that Grace is now thinking of her childhood, for example, halfway through, because an age or year is mentioned. Switches happen, we change our thoughts constantly and suddenly, so it is realistic, but the difference in reality is that we of course know what we are thinking about, and if someone else is talking and switches subject we can ask them to explain. Grace could find explaining difficult of course, but the problem is that as readers, bystanders, we don’t have the chance to so much as ask.

The writing is problematic in places, but otherwise Grace Williams Says It Loud is an excellent book. It is incredibly important, it tells of the people that tend to be looked over in the media, it uses words in their true medical and historical contexts, and albeit that it is written by an able-bodied woman, it gives a voice to those society likes to forget.

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Audra (Unabridged Chick)

January 27, 2014, 4:14 pm

Eeek, I don’t think I could read this — too upsetting — although ti sounds like an important topic to explore. Too bad the writing is problematic.

Literary Feline

January 27, 2014, 7:50 pm

It’s too bad about the writing, but the subject matter does sound interesting–and important.

My mother has two cousins who are disabled (although I don’t think they qualify as severely) that I spent a lot of time around when I was younger and I remember how difficult it was for them, how ostracized they often felt in general from outsiders and even from inside the family. Neither was institutionalized, thank goodness. They’re parents were proactive enough to avoid that even when it was recommended.


January 28, 2014, 8:06 pm

I read this a few years ago and although I didn’t love it I was glad I had read it as it’s such an important subject to understand. The writing style stopped me from being able to really connect with Grace, but I liked Daniel and thought his story was very sad too.


February 27, 2014, 1:09 pm

Audra: I think the issue is the author was trying to explain Grace’s disability through her narration, but got caught up with other things at the wrong times.

Literary Feline: Yes, away from the writing it’s very important. That’s good to hear. There have been some rather disturbing stories even recently (the one of the severely disabled girl having her reproductive system removed for ease was one) so it’s always good to know about the other side. It’s sad how it’s still happening.

Helen: That’s the thing – Henderson clearly wanted to show how able and astute Grace was but lose a hold of the concept a little. I think I’d have liked to hear more about what happened to Daniel later, as anything could have been the case.



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