She's my sister: Local author describes 'adventures' with Irene

Published: Sunday, Jan. 25 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

Irene Harris is mentally disabled and is cared for by her sister, Terrell Dougan. Dougan says life with Irene is always an adventure.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

Terrell Dougan was in the meat section of a grocery store, ducking the frozen chicken that her sister, Irene, had thrown at her, when it hit her.

Not the chicken.

It was the realization that life with Irene was always going to be an adventure, but maybe there were things in that adventure that would help, inspire and entertain others.

She was right. Dougan's recently published book, "That Went Well: Adventures in Caring for My Sister" (Hyperion, $24.95), details not only what it was like to grow up and eventually take over the care of a person with mental disabilities, but also the changing perceptions and programs in dealing with the mentally handicapped experienced by society at large.

It also demonstrates the power of love, humor and compassion in any life.

Irene Harris was born some 60-plus years ago. Doctors later speculated that trauma at birth deprived her brain of oxygen and left her with mental disabilities that meant she would never learn to read and write, that her emotional age would never progress beyond about age 3, that she would respond to love and affection, and that her brain was wired for tantrums.

At that time, there were two choices for children like Irene. The parents could place them in an institution, or they could struggle with them at home. The Harrises chose the latter course.

The 1950s and '60s were a time when attitudes toward those with mental handicaps began to change. "It was a remarkable time, and we were right in the middle, thanks to my father," Dougan says.

Richmond T. Harris, an advertising man who later co-founded the Harris and Love advertising agency, decided there must be other parents in similar situations, and in 1952 he put an ad in the newspaper asking them to contact him. Fifty people responded and organized themselves into the Salt Lake County Association for Retarded Children.

They didn't know that other parents around the country were doing the same thing. In fact, two years earlier, 40 people from 13 states had met in Minneapolis to form the National Association for Retarded Children. But they knew they could work together to effect change.

Years later, Dougan herself would serve as president of the Utah Association for Retarded Citizens for eight years and would serve on the board of the National Association for Retarded Citizens for two terms.

Over the years, the terminology has changed along with the attitudes, and so have opportunities for mainstream education, group homes and sheltered workshops, greater acceptance by children and adults. And Irene has been there for it all.

One thing they learned early on, however, Dougan says, was that Irene was a true homebody. She really preferred to stay home and sometimes let that preference be known in extreme ways.

She is now "retired" and lives in her own home, where paid companions take care of her and see that her basic needs are met. "We are really lucky that we have the resources to be able to do that," Dougan says. "Irene is much happier on her own than she would be living with me, although that is always our fallback plan."

These days, Irene is a "happy camper," Dougan says. She still plays with her dolls. She follows people around and scams them for money. She's made friends with the local firefighters. She can ride the bus and make transfers.

"She has also learned how to get what she wants and is smart in ways we're still learning," Dougan says.

For example, for Christmas Irene got a phone to keep by her bed. She has a list of phone numbers and is able to copy them onto the phone. But she has to keep that list downstairs, so she doesn't call people at all hours of the night.

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