FORD FAMILY FIGHTERS: Anne Ford's devotion, not her money and prominence,
made the difference for her learning disabled daughter
BY ELLEN CREAGER
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
Anne Ford was afraid to tell her famous father, Henry Ford II, that her daughter Allegra had a severe learning disability.
"I knew it was one thing he could not fix," she says.
She also was afraid to tell her very proper mother, Anne McDonnell Ford.
"I didn't want her to talk to her friends at luncheons about me; I didn't want them all to pity poor Anne," she says.
So for years, Ford kept her fear, embarrassment, confusion, panic and desperation to herself. She took Allegra from preschool to preschool and specialist to specialist, trying to put her daughter on a conventional path.
But life had other plans.
Allegra Ford, now 30, was diagnosed in 1976 with learning disabilities so severe a doctor once recommended she be institutionalized. Unlike her older brother Alessandro, Allegra could not go to a regular school. Math was a mystery. She could not read others' social cues necessary for friendship. She struggled to make sense of words and writing. Always happy, Allegra was on the lower side of the bell curve of intelligence.
In the 1970s, most parents kept such news private. That's what Anne Ford tried to do. "I was completely unequipped to deal with rejection and failure, and most of all, this new thing in my family, a disability, a flaw!" Ford writes in "Laughing Allegra," which she wrote with John-Richard Thompson (Newmarket, $24.95). It's a painfully honest memoir and advice book for parents of children with learning disabilities.
A rare glimpse into the workings of the Ford family and the evolution of LD treatment in the last 30 years, the memoir illustrates what a parent's determination can achieve and what all the riches in the world cannot.
"What good in the end did it do me to have all of that privilege, really?" says Ford, 60, in an interview from her New York home. "We're all on the same level when you're dealing with learning disabilities."
Tonight is the big launch for the book at the Four Seasons in New York City. Allegra, who lives quietly upstate, will help throw the party for her mother. But she is not part of the book tour.
When parents get the diagnosis that their child has a learning disability, they hear a lot of confusing terminology.
Because it is a set of neurological disorders that can show up in minor and major ways (dyslexia is just one example), it is hard to understand. LD is not autism, although autistic-like syndromes can be part of it. It is not attention deficit disorder or mental retardation, although ADD or retardation can be part.
Three million children in the United States are receiving special education for LD.
But "people are still ashamed to talk about it," Ford says. "I wanted to get rid of that stigma. It does not do any good to spend years in denial like I did. In this book I opened up a lot more of my personal feelings. People say, 'How can you remember what you wore? How Allegra dealt with her dolls?'
"I remember everything like it was yesterday."
Many in Detroit might remember Anne Ford. The great-granddaughter of Henry Ford, she is the sister of Charlotte and Edsel. She grew up on Lake Shore Drive in Grosse Pointe Shores. Her Granny Ford, as she called Eleanor Ford, "lived in a big spooky house," the book recalls. "Whenever we visited her, we would play hide and seek," she says. "Granny Ford would hide behind the same curtains every time, not knowing we could see her shoes." The "spooky house" was the Edsel and Eleanor Ford mansion.
When Ford was 18, her parents divorced and she moved to New York with her mother. She and Charlotte built lives there, while Edsel raised his family in Grosse Pointe.
Anne Ford had attended Sacred Heart Seminary in Bloomfield Hills and another convent school, so when she married Gianni Uzielli in 1965 and became a mother, she knew absolutely nothing of the public school system. By 1976, when she was desperately searching for a private school that would take Allegra, she did not even think to check out the public schools.
"Special ed gets a bum rap, but public schools do a better job of it than private schools do," she says now.
By the time Allegra's problems began showing up, Anne Ford and Uzielli had divorced. She faced them alone, as a single mother.
It was rough.
One summer when Allegra was nearly 6, the extended Ford family gathered as usual in the Hamptons. It seemed as though everyone's children took gymnastics and did it well -- except Allegra, who simply could not understand the instructions and was unfocused and uncoordinated.
At one disastrous gymnastics show, "The mothers were dressed identically, thin, tan, all with long blond hair, watching their perfect children perform perfectly," Ford writes. "With every activity, "my child was exposed to not being as perfect as children are supposed to be in Southampton. And there I was, hiding under a big floppy hat, wanting to melt away."
That was the last summer there. Allegra entered a series of special schools, and Anne Ford's own crash course began. She learned there were schools that could help her daughter. That LD children can be very talented at certain things, if they keep trying. Allegra failed at virtually every activity -- until she discovered ice skating, an individual sport.
It was a godsend, Ford remembers, "because you have got to find something they do very well and praise them. Self-esteem is such an issue. The headmaster at (one of Allegra's schools) always said parents never cried over math scores. They cried because their children didn't have any friends."
New York Gov. Hugh Carey befriended Ford and her daughter.
"Never give up on her," he told Ford. "Never give failure too much power. Never doubt that your child will somehow find her way, in ways you never expect."
He was right.
Today, Allegra lives on her own. She has a roommate, a woman who is not learning disabled. She has worked as a preschool aide and is looking for a new job, her mother says. Although she comes from one of the nation's wealthiest families, Allegra has no idea that the Fords are legendary or her family is rich.
She doesn't even know where money even comes from, except the ATM. To her, it is magic.
After years of trying, Allegra passed most of her driver's test. She was able to take the written test verbally. She still does not have her license because she cannot parallel park, "but we're working on it," Ford says.
She still talks to Allegra every day. She got her daughter's permission to write the book.
"Allegra was not too hot about my writing a book in the beginning," Ford says. "Then she realized she might be able to help someone else. She sent a lot of e-mails over the last year."
Ford includes some of them in the book, with Allegra's own spelling and typos:
"Granddaddy gave me a aligator that we swam together with and we have so much fun. i miss him a lot." "We went saw so many doctors that the last one said I can't help anymore And that was like a stab in the heart." And this one:
"i know in life we all go thorugh something thats not right or we just donr know what to do. because we went the rong way."
Today, public awareness and early diagnosis of LD is better, Ford says. There is a wealth of information and support from other parents on the Internet. Finally, denial is out of fashion.
When Ford finally told her father that Allegra had learning disabilities, Henry Ford II promised her he would help cure Allegra. He contacted the most prominent pediatric neurologist in New York. But there was to be no cure.
"I had always believed my father could fix anything -- a phone call, a letter, a personal visit, it was done, no matter what it was," writes Ford. "I also knew this was the first time he would fail." She also finally told her proper, stoic mother about Allegra's disabilities. Her mother did not, as she had feared, spread the news to the ladies who lunch. Instead, she went with Anne on the most difficult day of her daughter's life -- to drop Allegra off at a special education boarding school on Cape Cod.
And Anne Ford? She did not remain a confused and ashamed young mother. She went on to become chairman of the board of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, determined that no other parent would have to face a child's LD alone.
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....