As It Happens

How Jean Vanier brought Ian Brown closer to his son

Author Ian Brown shares how the founder of L'Arche — a network of homes shared by disabled and non-disabled people — showed him how to relate to his son, Walker, on equal terms.

The late humanitarian's approach to connecting with disabled people was a 'liberation,' says author

Canadian Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche communities, after he received the Templeton Prize at St Martins-in-the-Fields church in London, in May, 2015. (Alastair Grant/Associated Press)


Jean Vanier touched many people in his nine decades. But, just as important to him, they changed his life as well.

The Canadian advocate for people with developmental disabilities has died at the age of 90.   

In 1964, he invited two men with developmental disabilities to leave the institution where they lived to share a small house with him in France. Today, there is a network of homes in 38 countries built on that model. It's called L'Arche

Writer Ian Brown forged a bond with Vanier. He's the author of The Boy in the Moon, which chronicles the life of his severely disabled son, Walker, and his own struggle to make sense of Walker's life.

Brown spoke to As it Happens host Carol Off about what he learned from Jean Vanier and how it changed how he saw his son. Here is some of their conversation.

Globe and Mail writer Ian Brown offers an intimate look at raising a child with disabilities in the memoir The Boy in the Moon. (John Barber/Vintage Canada)

What do you think made Jean Vanier such a remarkable individual?

I think he was both very charismatic and very disciplined. He had a great sense of humour — very nice guy, very easy to talk to, very accepting. And at the same time, he would always keep his eye on the ball. He always had a point he wanted to make.

What was going on for you when you first met Jean Vanier?

I was looking for a place that my son Walker might eventually live. Walker suffers from a very rare condition. He's 22. He looks about twelve. And he has the mind of one-and-a-half year old. You know, he can't speak, he can't take care of himself. He needs 24-hour care. And it was really driving us crazy. It was way harder than anybody ever described — and also more interesting than anybody ever described.

So I wanted to have a relationship, but also find a place for him to live after we were gone. And in the course of looking for a place, I ran into L'Arche and went and visited Vanier, because I didn't believe that there could be this place.

Jean Vanier outside his home in Trosly-Breuil, in 2015. (Tom Heneghan/Reuters)

But what Vanier convinced me of was that people like my son not only had an inner life, not only was a person with, you know, lots to offer — however subtle it was to see — but he showed that actually, what he himself had realized, that the intellectually disabled actually have more to offer us than we can offer them.

I mean, we can't really save them, we can't fix them. But they can open us up in ways that I think we never can.

And that was a huge liberation. A huge liberation.

He figured that out when he moved in with a couple of guys, you know, who were 45, and couldn't talk, you know. He had no experience looking after them.

The Boy in the Moon

13 years ago
Duration 16:44
Writer Ian Brown's son Walker, born with the rare Cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome, has led a life of huge challenges and small triumphs

How did Jean Vanier relate to them? And was he still as much a part of their lives as he was at the very beginning?

He lived in Trosly-Breuil, which is where the first one started. It's still the headquarters of L'Arche, internationally.

When he was there, I think he had every lunch and every dinner in the foyer with, you know, his companions, his friends, these people he lived with for more than 50 years.

He'd walk into the house and everybody would go crazy. He'd been there at lunch, but he was back and it was dinner and they were going crazy again. And, people would go up to him and they'd hug him or they'd tell him a joke or they'd tell him something that'd happened and they'd embrace.

That was his thing. Every moment was a new moment — a reinvented moment. 

What stays with you most about what he taught you?

Every two weeks, I go up to my son Walker's house and I get him and I bring him back home for a couple of days and we go back up there.

He lives with seven people — none of whom can speak, and many of whom have quite severe intellectual and physical disabilities. And every time I go up there, I am petrified. I am ashamed to admit this, but it is true. I think, "I don't know what to do. I can't fix anybody." Their isolation terrifies me and makes me sad.

And every time I walk in there I remember what Vanier said, which is, "They don't want you to save them. They have two questions: 'Could you love me?' and 'Could you be my friend?'"

If you can stop trying make them into something you want them to be and accept them as they are, then you can be accepted as you are and you can find this great equality that, I think, was the centre of Vanier's theory, the centre of the way he lived.

It was a pleasure and an honour to know him.

Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A edited for length and clarity.


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