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'Some Kind of Genius :
The extraordinary journey of
Musical Savant Tony DeBlois',
reviewed by ALICE McVEIGH


Before I read this book I had vaguely heard of savants -- people who, though generally incapable of functioning in normal schools, have some extraordinary gift for music, art or similar. Some years ago, I had been struck by seeing a TV program about an amazing teenage London boy, who, after seeing an architectural drawing of St Paul's cathedral for around three minutes, was able to replicate its plan in the minutest detail. However, I had no real notion of what such people really could (or couldn't) do. After reading this book, I have, perhaps, a slightly better idea.

Tony DeBlois, born blind, autistic, and seemingly without hope, was discovered at a young age to be blessed with the ability to recall and play back music perfectly after just one hearing. In addition (which is even rarer) he has the ability to respond musically in a 'jamming' jazz session with other professionals, and even to support himself through work as a jazz pianist, despite being unable to tie his own shoelaces. This book explains how his mother, the redoubtable (probably even terrifying) Janice DeBlois singlehandedly fostered his abilities, despite being hampered by uncaring local authorities, casually cruel partners (both of whom deserted her) and a chronic lack of funds. Not only this, but her second child turned out to have Asperger's, was constantly in trouble with police for thieving, and (one year) ran away from home sixty times! Most people would have been left absolutely flattened by such blows, but nothing seems to have given Janice DeBlois pause for long.

Imagine what her life must have been like. Tony DeBlois, despite being able to play a piece by Prokofiev or Schoenberg after a single hearing, has an attention span too short to enable him to cross the street on his own. He can perform at a high level, without nerves and with evident enjoyment, but he is still -- will always be -- a full-time job, yet his mother has held down any number of jobs while raising him (and his younger brother). One can hardly blame her, if, at times, her story reads in faintly self-congratulatory vein. As far as I'm concerned, this mother deserves all the congratulation going. Imagine the loneliness of singlehandedly bringing up two sons on the autistic spectrum -- one of them a savant but also completely blind. Yet his mother appears singularly free from self-pity. The woman, rather than moaning about her lot, just seems to constantly think, 'Let's see, what can we do? Right, let's get on with it!' It is enough to strike with awe your average mother (me) currently pulling hair out in chunks wondering how to entertain her 8-year-old daughter at half-term. Supermom, indeed!

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Copyright © 28 October 2005 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK


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