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Jeremy Morantz and the book he wrote about his brother Nathan

By BERNIE BELLAN
For 22-year-old Jeremy Morantz, writing a book about what it was like to live with a brother who was severely autistic served multiple purposes. What began as a project for the Creative Communications program in which Jeremy is enrolled at Red River College was transformed into a short book titled “What does he dream about?, which was launched this past February.

 

 

In an email to this paper, Jeremy wrote: “Winnipeg’s Jewish community has shaped me in a way I imagine few communities could. I consider myself a very rooted member within our local community, having attended Gray Academy and being a part of BBYO before I moved on to pursuing an education in Communications at the University of Winnipeg and Red River College. The Jewish community here was also vital in my little brother Nathan’s life before he passed away suddenly in 2016.
“Nathan had severe autism. I find that pop culture glorifies those on the autism spectrum. In movies and TV, it’s as if autism is merely a socially awkward disorder compensated by gifted genius. That wasn’t my experience with my little brother, Nathan, before he passed away – which is why I wrote this book.”
Through the course of the book, Nathan tells stories about living with Nathan, offers some insightful observations about autism, and exhibits a talent as a writer that comes as a surprise – to him. Like many other members of his generation, Jeremy admits that he didn’t read much as a youngster. Still, somewhere along the way, he absorbed enough lessons to be able to write well. His book is both poignant and educational.
Here is one excerpt that illustrates Jeremy’s ability to hone in on the subject of his book:
“My brother wasn’t just a number. Although he couldn’t talk like you or me and had the vocabulary of a five-year-old crossed with a chimpanzee, my brother was full of heart, personality, and affection. He was the purest, rawest version of a person as a person can possibly be. He was human, he was genuine, he was Nathan.”
After I finished reading “What does he dream about?”, I emailed Jeremy, telling him that, rather than simply review his excellent book, I wanted to interview him, and perhaps get him to expound more on what drew him to write this book, and how having dealt with his brother’s death three years ago has changed him.

Nathan, 10/Jeremy, 13

JP&N: To start with, let’s be honest: Your family is well known. When Nathan died, a huge number of people in the Jewish community were made aware of the tragedy. Do you have any idea how many people have talked to you about what happened?
Jeremy: That’s a good question. My family and I were very humbled by the outpouring of support from the Jewish community. Word traveled…and we were overwhelmed by the number of people who came to the funeral, who came to the shiva, or who reached out to us through email or text or phone calls.
JP&N: You write quite candidly about how severely autistic Nathan was. I’ve met a fair number of people who have Asberger’s and communicating with them isn’t a problem, but in Nathan’s case it wasn’t a verbal communication you had with him, was it? It was sort of intuitive.
Jeremy: That’s a really good point. You nailed it. Autism manifests itself in very different ways. My brother was extremely non-verbal, but because I grew up with him my whole life, I understood his language. He had small elements of English, but whether it was through body language or tone of voice – or even the expression on his face, I was kind of able to understand what it was he was trying to say.
JP&N: Have you met other autistic individuals?
Jeremy: My experience with other people on the spectrum is really very limited. My brother would attend summer camps (for kids with special needs) and I would visit him in those summer camps, and through that I would be exposed to other kids on the spectrum. But they were all so different from one another. It’s hard to put everyone on the spectrum under the same umbrella.
JP&N: I was fascinated by your describing how your family would have three different specialists come in every day to work with Nathan. How many years did that go on?
Jeremy: Because the age gap between my brother and me was quite small, I was also very young when that started happening, so I don’t have the clearest memory of how long it went on. I would guess about a decade.
JP&N: Then, all of a sudden something happens to Nathan physically – and he starts to gain weight and he becomes much more difficult to control because he’s taking a new kind of medication to try and keep him calm.
Jeremy: It started when he developed this “STIM”, this self-stimulatory behavior where he began to shriek constantly. He was around 13 at the time. The analysis reported that he was shrieking 60 times a minute. We just didn’t know what to do and it was at that point that my parents said to themselves: “We’ve got to do something.” He was never on any medication up until that point, but this behaviour was just out of control, so doctors did experiment for a while…this amount of this medicine…they put him on a cocktail of various medications until they find the right combo. Once they found the right combo the shrieking stopped, but his personality became something very different. He did gain weight… he became less articulate, literally, in the way he pronounced words. It became harder to understand him. I would say he become more lethargic. In his adolescence he became a very different person than when he was a kid and he and I were growing up together.
JP&N: You had this tremendous affection for him, but also, at the same time – he was a real pain, so you sort of adored him, but you had to have your own space. Yet, even when you would close yourself in your room, he would invade your space.
Jeremy: That’s a really good way of putting it. I did, of course, have extreme love and affection for him. He was my little brother; how could you not? There was an unconditional love there – no matter what.
But, at the same time, as a teenager myself during that time in my life, I resented having him as a little brother so much. I resented him living in the same house as me, taking up so much space, being so loud, urinating and defecating on the walls, while I was just trying to live as normal a home life as I could.
I would go to my friends’ houses at the time. It would seem that they had such normal existences. Their basements were their basements, where they could play video games or play hockey. My basement was populated by my brother and his 24-7 caregiver. There was definitely a resentment that built as time went on. I remember begging my parents: “When can he move out?” Because I just couldn’t stand it any more.
JP&N: I don’t know whether I have to write about this, but was it ever a consideration to put Nathan into some kind of institution?
Jeremy: It was a conversation we would have every once in a while, but the conversation would always end with: “We’ll have to wait until he’s not a minor any more,” because wait times (to have someone go into some sort of facility equipped to deal with severely autistic individuals) are shorter when you’re an adult.
JP&N: But the family included him. You tell several stories of the trips that you took together with Nathan. Were there ever any trips where he didn’t come along?
Jeremy: Toward the end of his life where he became quite a bit more difficult to manage, and especially when we had this 24-7 caregiver, after a while we trusted her enough to stay home with him while my family and I went away.
JP&N: Maybe it’s because in your book you tell several stories of disastrous situations occurring with Nathan that readers might get the sense that there was always a sense of impending danger when you were with him. Was it like that?
Jeremy: I don’t think that’s necessarily how it felt in the moment. I think that what I was trying to say in the book was that, looking back on it, the potential was always there. It could have happened any number of times (Nathan dying).
JP&N: I have a question about your schooling. You say that you went to Gray Academy. Did Nathan also go to Gray Academy?
Jeremy: We followed a similar trajectory. Nathan and I both went to Gray Academy up until middle school, up until I was in Grade 9. Then he and I both switched to Grant Park.
JP&N: Obviously, Nathan was in special needs programs.
Jeremy: Grant Park has a great program for special needs students. I would often see my brother riding on these bicycles that are especially constructed for special needs students.
JP&N: The book could be read by individuals who have had experience of autism – or not; it’s one young person’s recollections. It’s been three years now since Nathan died. Looking back on all that happened, can you see how living with Nathan – and what’s happened since, has affected your personality?
Jeremy: It definitely made me a more patient and compassionate person, but the question about the passage of time is interesting – and how that’s changed me. I cannot believe it’s been that long. It feels like only a few months have passed since it’s happened.
JP&N: Talking about the book itself, any idea how many copies have been sold?
Jeremy: There are McNally Robinson sales and my own private sales. I think, between the two of them, I’ve sold about 300 books.

Final note: Jeremy’s book can be ordered online at jeremymorantz.com. Jeremy notes that “All of the book’s profits will be donated to the Nathan Morantz Respite Care Fund to help pay for families with children with autism’s much needed respite services.”

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