This is a short piece, a scant twelve pages, in which Williams remembers Alan, an uncle who had mental deficits. During his breech birth, Alan’s brain was starved of oxygen. In the dominant American culture, Alan is called “retarded, handicapped, mentally disabled or challenged.” Williams concludes, “We see them for who they are not, rather than for who they are.” (p. 29) The title of the work refers to an Alaskan totem pole figure whose expression reminds her of Alan. In Tlingit culture, there’s a story of a kidnapped boy who lived with the Salmon People. When he returned twenty years later, he was seen as a holy man, not an “abnormal.”

To the young Terry Tempest, Alan demonstrated enthusiasm and spontaneity, for example bowling with reckless glee, regardless of where the ball went. When she asked him how he was feeling, he said, “very happy and very sad,” explaining that “both require each other’s company.” (p. 31) She liked his direct answers, those of a person we sometimes call a wise fool. Later, he lived in a “training school,” a joyless, ugly, and smelly place where abnormal children in Utah were sent and warehoused. Suffering from epilepsy, he wore a football helmet to protect him from sudden falls.

At age 22, Alan made the choice to be baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Williams describes the ceremony and how the family supported him through it (including yet another violent epileptic episode). When Alan died at age 28, Williams was 18. Looking at the totem pole, she remembers Alan, seeing him for who he truly was.


This is a powerful little piece; it could be read in class before discussion. Because students in medical education face the relentless divisions of sick/well, normal/abnormal, within normal limits/deviant, etc., texts that remind us of the specialness of all persons, regardless of where they fit on a bell-shaped curve, are valuable. The short memoir also shows us this: when medical care reaches the limits of what it can do, often it is family and religious community that bring loving care. Williams has a gift for making her characters (herself included) vivid and personal. She helps us see how Alan’s limitations are only part of his person, a person who can see and say things that so-called “normal” persons cannot.

Primary Source

An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field


Random House/Vintage

Place Published

New York



Page Count