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Author Talk: April 2010

April 2010

Best known to teen audiences for his thrillers like the Maximum Ride series, James Patterson’s latest book, MED HEAD, is a young adult adaptation of 2008’s AGAINST MEDICAL ADVICE, which captures the personal struggles of Cory Friedman, who has suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder since the age of five.

In this interview, Hal Friedman --- who co-wrote the book with Patterson --- discusses the process of writing from his son’s perspective, reflects on their highs and lows during their 13-year ordeal, and offers advice to families dealing with similarly challenging circumstances.

Q: Can you describe the process of working on this book, and learning how to tell this story from Cory’s point of view --- particularly parts that you wouldn’t have necessarily known from observation only? How were you able to put yourself in his head so well, into situations that you couldn’t have experienced (such as the wilderness program)?

Hal Friedman: It was very clear to me and James Patterson that Cory’s story was best told in his own voice. It was, after all, his story, his life, and there was simply no better or more truthful way to help readers understand what it was like to be him than to put it in the first person. It was not hard to do that with a great deal of accuracy. My wife and I lived Cory’s life by his side since the very beginning.

Between the two of us there were few incidents we didn’t observe and/or talk about with him or with one another. My wife kept extensive notes on his medicines and on many events in his life. Because Cory is part of us, we felt his pain as much as he did. Having Tourette’s syndrome myself, I could especially identify with what he went through. We don’t share the same tics, but we share many of the same emotions. I always knew what he was going through.

Also, my wife and I constantly asked Cory what happened in the hours that we weren’t physically with him, and we received many doctors’ reports of events that Cory told them about. One of the times when we weren’t with him was, of course, the wilderness program. I dropped him off there and picked him up when it was over. I was full of questions, and Cory told me everything he could remember. I spoke with the staff who were up there on the mountain with him. Cory is a modest person who doesn’t ever like to brag, so I would have to say that as rough as we depicted his story on the mountain, it was probably a lot rougher for him. I don’t know how he got through it, but then again, he’s Cory.

Q: During those thirteen years of trials and tribulations, was there ever a moment when you lost hope that there might be a solution for Cory’s problems? Or did you always feel there was a solution just waiting to be found?

HF: For most of the years that we searched for an answer, we kept hoping there would be one. We had no choice, really. We couldn’t just accept the status quo when it was so painful. Also, in the beginning there were so many things to try that anything seemed possible --- plus we were told that many TS kids are well treated with medicines. Maybe that’s true for those with much less severe Tourette’s and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Still, we had to have hope for tomorrow and not allow ourselves to think the hard times would go on forever. Later on, when after many attempts nothing helped --- indeed, made Cory worse --- Cory himself became the reason we didn’t give up hope, because through it all he never did. It wasn’t as if he believed that the next medicine or next doctor would cure him. I think he turned cynical about that before we did. It was his never-say-die attitude, the conviction that he would make it the way he was and that it was up to other people to deal with it or not. He could. He has never changed about that.

Q: Do you have any general advice for families who are struggling with extremely complex and/or unusual medical problems?

HF: If you’re a kid, remember that nothing ever stays the same, that there are always good and bad days, even good and bad minutes. If you’re a parent, never give up on your children or yourselves. You are stronger than you think you are, and so are your kids. Support your child as though you are the only thing that stands between him or her and giving up, because you probably are.

Work hard at finding the best, most caring doctors. Finding one is enough, someone who will be there for you all the time. We had such a doctor, named Ruth Bruun, whom we still use even though she has moved far away from us. She is still there night and day. Don’t settle for a doctor who makes you wait a week of two for a visit when you are in a crisis. Try to network with other parents and hospitals that are at the leading edge of advancements in the area of your problems.

Go to online chat rooms. Stay up with the news on your illnesses. Get ready to be the most unselfish person you never thought you could become, because that’s what’s required. But it’s worth it. What else can you ever do in your life that’s better than helping someone you love?

Q: Is it possible to single out the “lowest,” most difficult point for you as a father watching his son struggle with these disorders during this thirteen-year battle, as well as the “highest” peak moment of triumph over challenges that you’ll never forget?

HF: The book describes many high and low points of Cory’s --- and thus my --- life. Among the worst were the side effects of his medicine, putting fifty pounds on him, worsening his tics. It was terrible watching other kids making fun of him, being part of the intense pain he suffered from some physical tics, his loneliness and isolation, seeing him have to go to high school in a wheelchair for a time. Watching the emotional toll it took on him was the hardest part, wondering how long he could possibly keep his spirits up --- and how long we could, too.

The best moments were seeing his confident side emerge again and again, just when you thought he couldn’t possibly come out of some of the worst moments. Graduating from high school was a huge moment, since only a year earlier there wasn’t a lot to hope for in that area. Getting accepted to Syracuse was a crying time. And along the way, his many victories in sports --- winning the league championship with an out-of-the-park home run, being a ferocious star nose guard in football and sacking the quarterback again and again…those were great. He was popular and heard cheers at those priceless times. It made up for a lot of damage to his self image inflicted by kids and adults around him.

» Click here to read an interview with Hal's son, Cory Friedman.