The New York Times Sunday Book Review

Judith Newman’s Help Desk Column

July 8, 2018

The subject of Katherine Ketcham’s THE ONLY LIFE I COULD SAVE isn’t explicitly trauma, but at the heart of all trauma is helplessness — and I can think of few things more traumatic than watching the personality of the child you love vanish in the face of drug addiction. Ketcham had written several popular books about addiction (her son, Ben, was forced to read one of them in rehab), and she had led counseling groups for addicted teenagers. You might assume this expertise would have prepared her for her own son’s battle. Quite the opposite. “I know how to talk and listen to other people’s children,” she confesses. “But I don’t know how to listen or talk to my own child.” Treating addiction involves a great deal of rinse-and-repeat behavior; at heart, it’s drudgery. But there’s repeated, brutal battering at the heart of any story of a mother trying to save her child, particularly when you know that nothing you say or do will make a difference until he or she is ready. It’s like watching a game of Frogger — only the frog that might be roadkill is your kid, and the cars are real.


How to express the emotions that somersault and handspring when reading a review in the NYTBR of a book in which you have poured out your heart and soul? Of course I wish as all authors do for a review sprinkled with superlatives but 197 words in what a great friend of mine calls "THE, as in THE, most important review of books in which an author can be mentioned" is good enough. No, much, much better than that, it is an honor for which I am deeply, profoundly grateful.

When I read the last line in Judith's column, the reference to the video game Frogger and the image of dead frogs who try and fail, to cross the road to safety hit me hard. A video game gets the adrenaline flowing and there are always new frogs to replace the squashed ones with no blood shed, but a real-life child with a serious drug problem taps into a parent's deepest well of terror and helplessness. Kids who use drugs die -- from overdoses, falling off porches or down stairs, vomiting in their sleep, and from suicides caused by their own feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and despair. I know too many people who have lost their children to drugs and addiction. One of my friends lost her son to an overdose; clean and sober for more than a year, he moved to New York City. A friend at work offered him some heroin and with the thought that "this is the last time" -- at least this is what I believe -- he went home to his tiny apartment where he overdosed and died that night. Bobby's death was all too real and horrifying. He was a much-loved child whose parents and sister will grieve for him every day for the rest of their lives. "You are one of the lucky ones," Bobby's mother told me one day. She is right. I did not love my son more than she did, I did not do more to try to help him than she did but my son made it to the other side of the road while hers did not. And there are no more Bobby's waiting by the side of the road who can take his place.