by Jennifer Latson
Simon & Schuster, 2017
Review by Christian Perring on Jan 2nd 2018
Latson describes a boy she calls Eli who has been diagnosed with Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that involves physical, cognitive and emotional variations. Latson focuses on the unguarded friendliness that characterizes the disorder, the webpage of the Williams Syndrome Association makes clear that there are many features that goes with it. The Boy Who Loved Too Much: A True Story of Pathological Friendliness follows Eli from the age of 12 until he was 15. He was enormously and indiscriminately friendly, always seeking hugs. As he got older, this behavior became increasingly inappropriate. His mother Gail works on helping him learn to moderate his interaction with others, especially because his sexual interest in women was undisguised as he moved into adolescence, but he had few social skills. Gail wants Eli to be integrated into the community as much as possible, and this kind of behavior could lead to him being excluded. Latson follows Gail's efforts to support her son and enable him to flourish, and so she covers his life at home, school, and in summer camps. Eli may be able to get some sort of work but he has very little persistence and is very distractible, so he is unlikely to ever be able to live independently or form a long term romantic relationship. On the other hand, Gail does not want to limit his options, and he may be capable of more than people think. After all, it used to be thought not long ago that Down syndrome robbed people of any humanity, and now we understand that with the right support, people with Down's can have rich lives.
Latson is a journalist and her book provides a good mix of science, history, sociology, policy, and story. Her approach to telling the story of Eli and Gail takes a good deal of artistic license, describing details that she could not possibly know but which make those sections more like a novel. At first this is a little off-putting but it is easy to adjust to it, and it does not distort any important facts. Her approach is engaging and informative, in the tradition of many memoirs of distinct disorders. She makes clear what a challenge life is for Gail but she also is optimistic that Eli can live a happy life. She also points out that many with Williams are especially musical, and have some skills or dispositions that serve them well. The book is an informative and helpful portrayal of the syndrome and the community of people with Williams syndrome.
© 2017 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.