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BOOK REVIEW : Some Extraordinary Family Snapshots : FAMILY PICTURES <i> by Sue Miller</i> Harper & Row $19.95, 330 pages

“Family Pictures” is literature by exorcism. When the writer is in complete control of the material, as Sue Miller is here, the reader also will be possessed, oblivious to claims outside the hermetic world of the book until the last page is turned.

If a writer can accomplish this transference with virtually no plot and the most skeletal structure, with a cast of only eight principal characters and a setting no more exotic than an upper-middle-class Chicago neighborhood, you know you’re in splendid company.

The effect an autistic boy has on his parents and siblings is Miller’s subject: a tough, uncompromising theme that must be deeply felt and thoroughly absorbed. Miller keeps the medical details to a minimum. You know that Randall Eberhardt is a physically attractive child; that his usual silent passivity is broken only rarely by uncontrollable destructive outbursts, mostly against things but occasionally--and terrifyingly--against the persons who love him.

This is not a book about the pathology of autism, but about the way Randall’s condition forms, alters and skews his parents’ marriage and the directions taken by his brothers and sisters. There are two older children--Lyddie and Macklin--and three younger girls, born to prove that Randall was a cosmic accident for which no one is responsible.

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Although the story is told from several points of view, the dominant voice is Nina’s--first of “the last straws,” the biggest “little pitcher of health.” Those are their father’s pet names for his small daughters, and the irony is apparent even to the tots.

Nina is strategically placed to be the spokesperson; after Randall, before her small sisters. She’s the living demonstration that all can be well again, and from earliest childhood, that obligation motivates and burdens her. Randall remains remote, a powerful catalyst working almost invisibly upon the others, virtually inert until the precarious equilibrium is disturbed.

As the Eberhardt story unfolds over the 4 1/2 decades beginning with David and Lainey’s marriage in 1940, we realize Randall is the binding force that holds the family together. When the wrenching decision is finally reached to place him in a more structured environment, the tightly woven family fabric unravels. Once he’s gone, the older two children suddenly find themselves directionless, with no substitute for the constraints Randall provided. The glue that had turned the three younger girls into a self-sufficient unit dissolves, and they drift apart.

One day, in a burst of directionless rage, Randall pushes his mother down the stairs. By then, David and Lainey have separated. Sarah, the youngest, phones her father, who responds immediately, cleaning Lainey’s deep head wound, calming Randall and getting him to bed, staying the night.

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Indirectly, we’ve learned enough about autism to realize that such outbursts are more frequent after puberty, triggered by the same hormones that turn docile children into sullen rebels. As David said so long ago, there was no other Randall inside this one, struggling to emerge; no love great enough to create a person inside the shell.

And so Randall goes away, to the best of the available places. Macklin goes, too--to Vietnam, after drifting through a semester at Harvard. Unmoored, with no further reason to be exceptional, Mack longs for the humdrum. He returns safely from the war and buys a bar.

Beautiful, gifted Lyddie settles for a series of stopgap jobs. Nina, our narrator, escapes into a marriage so suffocatingly bland that she must leave her husband to find the more demanding life for which her childhood prepared her.

The saga emerges from vignettes--snaps of Lainey and David young and happy with their babies and friends; overheard recriminations leading to their separation; glimpses of the children at school, at play and in love; apparently unposed, candid pictures cataloguing the manners and mores of the last 40 years, revealing character more honestly than any formal portraits could. That’s all, but Miller has made “Family Pictures” as compelling as life itself.

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Next: Carolyn See reviews “Hype and Glory” by William Goldman.


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