Quill and Quire

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Crooked Smile: One Family’s Journey Toward Healing

by Lainie Cohen

In Crooked Smile, the lives of an upper-middle class Toronto family are shattered when the middle of three children is in a car accident while driving home from the cottage with a teen buddy in August 1993. While the story ostensibly centres on 17-year-old Daniel Cohen and his excruciating first year of recovery from a brain injury, the book is really the story of Daniel’s mother, Lainie, as she tries to cope with her own and her family’s new reality.

The family is shocked and numb at first, then angry – Daniel was the seatbeltless passenger and the friend, who escaped with minor injuries, was driving too fast. These emotions eventually give way to a kind of grim yet hopeful acceptance. There is relief that her son is alive, but Cohen finds herself asking dark questions when she sees his quasi-vegetative state. What kind of life will he have? Would it have been better if he hadn’t survived?

The story is told through a combination of flashbacks to Daniel’s pre-accident childhood, newsletters from Cohen to her family and friends on Daniel’s status, and stoic accounts of the slow road to recovery. The accident rips normalcy from the family members, yet Daniel’s incremental triumphs – relearning speech, movement, cognition – sustain them and allow them to enjoy the present and hope for more.

Cohen captures the huge gap between the quotidian events of life versus the trauma of the accident, which allows readers to better appreciate precisely those mundanities we so often take for granted. Different people respond to crises in different ways, so the book is instructive for readers dealing with post-trauma issues, but by no means a blueprint. What is confirmed here is that love and encouragement are crucial to a patient’s recovery, even if they are occasionally offered in a numbed, automaton-like state.