Interview: May 10, 2002
May 10, 2002
The story of Brooke and Jean Ellison, the mother and daughter who co-wrote THE BROOKE ELLISON STORY, is inspiring to everyone who reads it. Bookreporter.com's co-founders Carol Fitzgerald and Jesse Kornbluth (Harvard '68, magna cum laude) interviewed the Ellison's about Brooke's acceptance to Harvard, her future aspirations, and how her quadriplegia has given them a whole new appreciation of life, faith and family.
BRC: Brooke, as a kid, you danced, played softball, studied cello and karate. Then at eleven you were hit by a car, permanently paralyzed and unable to breathe without a respirator. Your book offers a message of hope and possibility to people who are challenged --- no matter how steep the challenge --- but that hope couldn't have been easily won. Tell us about the struggle to get to hope.
BE: After my accident in 1990, there was no doubt that I was going to be facing quite a challenging and life-altering situation. Initially, I wasn't exactly sure how I was going to live in this new condition, whether I would be able to handle everything, or whether I could even continue. It didn't take long, however, until I realized how much I still had in my life, despite the fact that I had lost so much. I still had a family, friends, and community who loved me very much and to give up hope would not only affect my own life but also would affect the lives of everyone who cared for me. That would be an extremely selfish act. The support of the people in my life certainly fueled my own level of hope. In addition to that, however, I was quickly learning that, even though my life had changed, I still have the ability to achieve goals, most notably to excel at my education. That kept me driven throughout my years in junior high school and high school. Knowing that I could make a way for myself and continue to make progress allowed me to focus on what I could do rather than what I couldn't. And this perspective will keep me motivated for however long it has to. I am not willing to give up on the idea that a cure for spinal cord injuries is on the horizon and, until that time comes, I will remain as active and positive as I possibly can.
BRC: Jean, what is the greatest lesson that Brooke's accident taught you?
JE: Brooke's accident taught me several important things about life. First, I learned how precious and fragile life is. With that came the understanding that I had to appreciate each day and the time we have to spend together. Life can be so tenuous and we never know when things can change. Also, Brooke's accident taught me about the importance of family, faith and friendship. Our relationships with members of our family and community were essential in helping us through those very difficult times and without them it would have been almost impossible to overcome our challenges. Most importantly, I learned that love can conquer anything and it is a very integral part of the healing process.
BRC: Harvard is a haven for the self-reliant. Was that its attraction for you?
BE: Harvard certainly is known for its student body being somewhat self-reliant and motivated. However, that is not what drew me there. On the contrary, over the years I have come to realize how dependent we all are on one another to get through each day. When I applied to Harvard, I applied on a whim, without any expectation of any sort. I never anticipated being accepted and thought that, in the event that I was accepted, I would frame the acceptance letter and still go to a local school. However, that changed quickly. From day one, my family was committed to making sure I would be as productive and achieve much as I possibly could. After I was accepted to Harvard, plans immediately went into the works to try to get me there because everyone knew what a difference it would make in my life. My family and I knew that receiving a degree from Harvard would give me the added credentials and, thus, respect that people in similar situations often don't get.
BRC: You applied to six graduate programs, but then you decided to write a book. Why? Will you go to grad school? Where? Will your mom again accompany you?
BE: I plan to continue my education to further this. I have applied to graduate school and have been accepted to several programs. Among these, though, was a master's program in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and that is where I plan to continue my education. I was awarded a full-tuition fellowship to study there and I am very excited to resume school. I hope that, through my education at The Kennedy School, I can help shape policy and issues that directly affect people's lives. My mother will have to accompany me and the arrangement will be very similar to my undergraduate career, with my father coming up to visit on the weekends.
BRC: You wrote the book in just six months. What was the hardest chapter to write? When did you decide to write it in both of your voices --- or was that inevitable from the start?
BE: There were several chapters in the book that were difficult to write. Naturally, describing the days immediately following my accident when I was in the hospital was extremely emotional and difficult, however, that was not the most difficult for me. I found it exceptionally hard to reveal, express, and articulate my personal emotions, for instance how I feel about not having a romantic relationship. That was very revealing and left me feeling exposed.
Writing about those emotions and personal thoughts literally forced me to think about things that I hadn't thought about for quite some time. But, I wanted the book to be as honest as possible so that had to include thoughts and emotions such as that. Writing the book in two voices seemed to be the most logical way to tell our story because my life and my mother's life are so intricately intertwined that they are almost inseparable. From the beginning, we thought that was the best way to tell our story fully and from the most broad perspective.
BRC: Christopher Reeve wants to direct your story for a TV movie. How does that feel?
BE: We are still waiting for the "go ahead" from ABC before anything happens definitively. However, just the interest from Christopher Reeve and the production companies certainly was overwhelming. This is especially the case since I don't really view my life as anything special. I have been confronted with a difficult situation but have tried my best to live in spite of it. This is just life, not really anything noteworthy. So, in that regard, the interest in making a movie about my life has been very surreal and otherworldly. At the same time, though, it is very exciting and flattering. I hope that, should the movie be completed, people will take something from it and even become motivated to tackle problems in their own lives.
BRC: How did you feel the first time you saw the book in a store? What has been the most memorable response you've received from a reader?
BE: The first time I saw my book in the bookstore, I was almost overcome with excitement and pride. It was there among the books of bestselling authors and the books I had read over the years. The knowledge that we had completed something of that magnitude was overwhelming. I have received quite a bit of positive feedback on the book although the most notable was an email I received from a gentleman from Arkansas. He said that the book changed his life for the better and he would never forget it, always living with the message in his heart. I was extremely honored to know that I had changed someone's life in that way.
BRC: There has been some criticism that your story is not typical of most quads, who tend to find themselves living in hospitals or care units without the same "success" stories to share. How do you respond to these criticisms?
BE: I would be the first to admit that my life is unlike most other people in similar circumstances. I have family, friends, and community that love me very much and are committed to my well-being. For that, I am so very thankful. But what my family has done is unique and I believe that that is what makes it special. The fact that my life has not been like most others does not negate the fact that the "story" can and should be told. Regardless of the nature of any "problem," each specific circumstance is unique and different. We are not all the same and should not be viewed as such. I understand the situations that other people face and, in the future, will seek to change it in whatever way I can. Maybe having our story out in public and known, that might help change the difficult circumstances that other people with quadriplegia face. That would be what I hope.
BRC: In the book, Brooke writes that while most teens and college-aged kids were arguing with their parents, she did not have that luxury. Have you done any speaking to a teen audience where you touched on that particular thought? Jean, how do you feel about Brooke's comments?
BE: Over the two years since my graduation from Harvard, I have done a significant amount of public speaking, speaking to audiences of all kinds but most notably to children and adolescents, some of whom have struggled mightily against the problems they face. I often discuss my relationship with my mother and how we came very close to losing one another. I discuss how that made us realize what was truly important in life and how we have to value our relationships with those in our lives. This often gets quite a positive response. I typically answer questions after I speak and people are usually curious about this. I have gotten quite a bit of feedback from people, particularly adolescents, saying that they view their lives much differently after having heard me speak. That makes me feel wonderful, like I have helped change someone's life for the better.
JE: When I see Brooke speak, it is evident to me what an impact she is having on the people she speaks to. I have seen her helping children through their problems and helping them to appreciate the gifts in their lives. I am so proud of her when she does that, particularly when she cites our relationship as a framework. It makes me feel very blessed to know that others can benefit from our relationship.
BRC: Brooke, your mother essentially "left" your father to be with you at Harvard. Do you now have projects with your Dad?
BE: My father is a huge part in the success of my life and the lives of everyone in my family. He has been quite a backbone in making everything happen the way it has. Although he is often not in the "spotlight," he is an essential part in what goes on day-to-day. He has made significant, almost unimaginable, sacrifices to help ensure that my life has been, and will be, as productive as possible. I am very thankful for that. I plan to collaborate with my father, possibly on another book if the opportunity presents itself. Just as much as my mother and I, my father has a story to tell and I hope to work with him on that. If that doesn't come to pass, I hope to do something else with him. My father and I have quite a unique and special relationship, one that is deserving of recognition.
BRC: Brooke, what are you giving your mom for Mother's Day? How will you celebrate your mom? Jean, what is the greatest gift you ever got for Mother's Day?
BE: For Mother's Day, I got my mother a trio of wreaths to hang in our apartment in Cambridge next year. I hope that it will make our "home away from home" a little bit more comfortable and familiar feeling. In addition to that, I gave a donation in my mother's name to "Meals on Wheels" for mothers to receive a meal on Mother's Day. Maybe this will help a mother have a holiday that is a special as ours is. Right now, we just plan to spend Mother's Day together, value the time together, and appreciate one another. Likely we will visit my grandmother and spend some time with my extended family but that is, right now, not certain.
JE: Although it didn't occur exactly on Mother's Day and wasn't a Mother's Day gift per se, the greatest "gift" I received was coming home from the hospital with Brooke in May of 1991. After spending nine months in the hospital with her, it was truly a gift to be reunited with the rest of our family and be together again. That, without question, was one of the greatest gifts I could have ever asked for.