Book Review: Saving Ben, by Dan E. Burns

A work of healing love

Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author.

"Saving Ben" is the harrowing story of Dan and Sue Buns, whose youngest child Ben is born in 1993 with autism. Young Ben is endlessly demanding -- a hyper-colicky baby whose constant screaming are calmed only with constant rocking and manhandling. It's soon apparent that Ben is not a normal kid, and is clearly falling behind his peers. Ben and Sue try everything in their power to deal with Ben's needs while fending off advice --from family, doctors and educators -- to institutionalize their child. The parents stubbornly ignore this advice, but find themselves ever more isolated and doubtful. Add to this already overwhelming set of troubles Ben's attempts to start a small business, his coming out as a gay man in a conservative community and Sue's struggles with the trauma of childhood abuse. The family careens from crisis to crisis, a train wreck that is impossible to turn away from.

I found the book to be a terrific read. Dan's style is very honest, sometimes to a fault, and almost impressionistic in conveying the drama of his own inner life. What comes through is his undying devotion to Ben, in spite of challenge that would have broken lesser men. If ever there was a case to prove that gay men can be great parents, this was it. Dan's heroic efforts to provide Ben with round-the-clock behavioral (Lovaas) therapy seem reasonable (if harsh to outsiders) and effective. I only became uneasy at the very end of the book, when Dan seemed to be endorsing a medical therapy that supposedly removed hidden stores of lead and mercury that had supposedly caused Ben's problems. Coming as it does at the very end of the book, this section smacked of pseudo-science and desperation.

For me, "Saving Ben" was less a paean to a doubtful medical therapy for autism, than a hymn to parental love and devotion in the face of hopeless odds. A book of unlikely heroes and the difficult healing work of love.