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A Family Fights the Wars of a Learning Disability

Interview with 'A Different Life' author Quinn Bradlee.

Quinn Bradlee is a handsome, winning 26-year-old who can give a fluid speech before hundreds of people but cannot remember the months of the year in order.

Quinn is learning disabled, and while he graduated with honors from high school and attended college, he cannot write a check and often gets lost just walking to the gym from his house in Washington, D.C. The son of Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post, and Sally Quinn, journalist and author, Quinn lives next door to his parents. And like any parents of a child with a learning disability, they wonder when to help Quinn and when to pull back. How independent can he be? What kind of life will he have?

In his new book, A Different Life, written with Jeff Himmelman, Quinn Bradlee talks with breathtaking honesty about growing up as kid with learning disabilities and how he is dealing with learning disabilities as an adult. Along with the book, out this month, he also is launching Friends of Quinn, a website designed for young people with learning disabilities and their families who want to get and give advice or simply to connect with others.

After a series of debilitating illnesses and learning problems, at age 14 Quinn was finally diagnosed with velo-cardio-facial syndrome (VCFS), a disorder that includes a host of physical problems as well as learning disabilities.

On a mild spring morning—that day’s Washington Post already read and loosely folded on a chair—the three Bradlees sat at their formal dining room table and talked with AARP Bulletin Today about how the family has struggled with Quinn’s disability. The discussion was remarkably candid, punctuated with humorous digs, laughter and quiet moments remembering heartbreaking setbacks—all from a close, loving family that has fought the learning disability wars together. (Read an excerpt of A Different Life.)

Quinn, your book is very direct, honest. You talk about depression, feelings of isolation and loneliness—how hard it is to make friends and be accepted. Even about sex. Was it difficult to open up about private matters?

Quinn Bradlee: Well, I did wonder whether I would end up looking like a fool. But I’ve been very open my whole life. I’ve always told people I have a learning disability. And I realized if you really want to help people you have to be as open as you can about your problems.

Yours is a distinguished, privileged family. How do you think your experiences will help others who don’t have tutors, private schools and the other advantages you’ve had?

QB: I can tell you that money doesn’t buy friends or girlfriends. And I’d much rather have those. That’s a lot of what I write about. Problems making friends and fitting in. Reading social cues.

Sally, tell us about the therapist mentioned in the book. When Quinn was 8 years old, she said he would never have anything resembling a normal life.

Sally Quinn: The therapist had been testing Quinn, and she called us in to go over the results. She said Quinn is retarded and he will have to go to an institution. She said he will never go to high school or college or have a job. He will never have friends or a relationship.

How did you react?

SQ: I fell apart, literally. Ben had to carry me out of her office and I got in the car and was hysterical. It took me a day or two to process this.

You didn’t accept that prognosis?

Ben Bradlee: No.

SQ: Time after time after time people have underestimated Quinn, and they have always, always been wrong. After I stopped crying, I got really mad and I thought, I will prove this woman wrong. Just because a child has learning disabilities, which should be called learning differences, does not mean they are disabled. They just learn differently.

What did you do?

SQ: I was determined to take the qualities Quinn had that were good and try to work with those and capitalize on them. When people say “this child will never … ” you have to say that is just wrong. You have to say maybe he’s not going to be a rocket scientist or go to Harvard, but neither will a lot of people. You have to trust your own gut and trust your child.

What else can you tell parents with children who have learning disabilities?

SQ: You have to believe in them and you have to love them. Because everywhere they go, they are treated like they are stupid and lazy. It’s subtly reinforced in school and in society that these kids can’t do things. That’s why it is crucial for parents to be advocates and supporters. [See more of Sally's advice for parents of children with learning disabilities.]

Is that right, Quinn? Does being learning disabled still carry a real stigma?

QB: Oh yes, even now, it takes a lot of guts to admit you’re LD. People don’t want other people to know.

Quinn, your job now is the website. Do you write the blog on the site yourself?

QB: I write my blog, then my producer edits it and puts it on the site. Soon, I want to do some video interviews and then have kids interview their friends for the site. The whole point of the website is to create one huge community space for LD kids and their parents.

In your book, Quinn, you mention how frustrating it can be dealing with learning disabilities, and that you cope by surfing. What else do you do?

QB: I love going to the farm we have in Maryland. It’s a place I can feel normal. My doctor says one of the best places for people with velo-cardio-facial syndrome to be is at a farm or somewhere rural.


QB: You don’t have to deal with people so much, and it’s just a simpler life. In the city it’s go go go all the time. Being out in the woods, being in my four-wheeler, I feel like nothing can touch me.

Sally, Quinn endured a string of frightening medical operations, seizures—all kinds of health problems as well as social and emotional challenges. That must have been so stressful. How did you handle it?

SQ: It was extremely hard. For one thing, mothers and fathers deal differently with these problems. Mothers are much more overprotective and emotional. Fathers tend to back off and to go into denial.

BB: I don’t see any denial—but we just don’t go to general quarters [a Navy call to battle].

So there can be friction?

SQ: Ben and I have been through some very rough times over this. I don’t know how we would have gotten through this without therapy. Family therapy. Individual therapy.

BB: (rolling eyes) Not my choice.

SQ: It is incredibly helpful. I would get so depressed at times and almost couldn’t function. Ben would get upset with me because I was depressed, and I would get upset with Ben ...

BB: Because I wasn’t depressed.

SQ: There were times I was just in total despair about Quinn and what was going to happen to him if anything happened to us.

In the book Quinn writes, “I know I am going to need some help from adults from time to time in my life.” Have you as parents made special arrangements for Quinn’s future?

SQ: We have built up a very close-knit group of friends who will help Quinn and be there for him. And my sister and her kids are very close to Quinn. There is a real network of support out there for him.

Have you made any formal arrangements for his future?

BB: There are three trustees to help manage his money.

In the book, which has different voices, Ben’s section stresses pulling back, letting Quinn fail. Sally, your section emphasizes support, always being there. How do you see your roles now that he is an adult?

SQ: (laughing) I’m still out there. But I am working very hard to help Quinn be independent. It’s hard though. I’ve been so protective. I am hoping that once the book is launched and the website takes off I can really back off in a big way.

QB: The one thing she has had an extremely hard time with is letting me fail. It’s in her blood not to let me fail. I think she worries cause she’s seen me be depressed before, and if I fail I will get very depressed and upset. But I will never be able to improve until she lets me fail. It’s like quitting smoking, though. Most people can’t quit cold turkey. They have to take it one step at a time.

But Ben’s OK?

QB: (laughing) Yeah, he just sits there looking cute.

BB: That’s right.

Barbara Basler is a senior editor with the AARP Bulletin.