Yesterday, I finished Hamlet’s Dresser: A Memoir, written by Bob Smith who was a dresser/aide for Shakespearean actors including Katherine Hepburn among others. At some point, he starting reading Shakespeare to senior citizens, getting them to appreciate the beauty and complexity of Shakespeare. I picked it up at McKay’s in Chattanooga because of the con connection to Shakespeare. Since writing a high school essay on some of the sonnets, I have come to love Shakespeare even if at times figuring out what Shakespeare was getting at is stubbornly impossible. There is a lot of Shakespeare mostly from the plays skillfully woven into the narrative.
Hamlet’s Dresser is also a sad story in a way because of Smith’s relationship with his parents, and others that made his life so much different than the normal kid in school. His sister, Carolyn was profound mental retardation and moderate to significant physical disabilities due to complications at birth that were attributed to cerebral palsy. Her parents did not know how to cope, and a substantial portion of the burden, and blame, was cast on Smith. Carolyn’s story is a reminder of how far we have come from the early 1940’s in terms of working with the severely disabled though a lot remains to be done. So much was not known and the stigma of “not being right” kept those who needed help from being able to get it. Carolyn’s story is more than therapy and training; it is about giving the severely disabled a chance at a life that also allows for their loved ones to live as well.
The narrative drew me in and I am glad I read Hamlet’s Dresser. That being said, the flow was given to chunkiness, halting and hesitation. It led to stop and starting and re-reading. Then, there were the times that the time periods were so enmeshed that it was confusing. To this reader, it was like being in a dream, slipping from one time period into another and then out to the next without any defining break.