A Daughter's 'Fragile Innocence' At 18 months old, Hillary Reston was struck by a high fever that stunted her healthy development forever. In a new book, Fragile Innocence, her father, James Reston Jr. describes how her family rallied around Hillary, seeking medical answers and a way to improve her quality of life.
NPR logo

A Daughter's 'Fragile Innocence'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5220119/5261165" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Daughter's 'Fragile Innocence'

A Daughter's 'Fragile Innocence'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5220119/5261165" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript



James Reston, Jr. has written books about the marvels of Galileo, the march of General Sherman, the Third Crusade, subjects that are distant, safe. But his latest book is so personal he himself calls it an intrusion.

Mr. JAMES RESTON, JR. (Author): This is an immense invasion of privacy what I've done in writing this book.

MONTAGNE: The book is Fragile Innocence. It's the story of Jim Reston's daughter, Hillary, who as a toddler was transformed by an affliction doctors still do not understand. It left her profoundly retarded and unable to speak.

Ms. DENISE LEARY (Wife of James Reston, Jr.): All right Miss Hillary, it's oatmeal. You do it.

MONTAGNE: Jim Reston, his wife Denise, and Hillary are having breakfast at their comfortable home just outside Washington.

Ms. RESTON: That's going to stick with you for the day. What do you think, Hillary?

MONTAGNE: Hillary is now 24. She is about the size of a 10-year-old with small, trembling hands. She wears a red and white checked bib, and she needs help with her spoon.

Mr. RESTON: Come on Hillary, you do it.

Ms. RESTON: Hillary, you do it. There you go. Nice work. High five.

MONTAGNE: Jim Reston's book is mostly about Hillary's illness but also how a family can come together around a sick child. It reads like a detective story, a mystery that began when Hillary developed an alarmingly high fever at 18 months old.

Mr. RESTON: It was diagnosed as being a viral condition of some sort or another, nothing to be done particularly except to go home and watch it, and give her aspirin and baths. And this sequence went on for three or four days, with Denise getting more and more frantic.

MONTAGNE: On the fifth day, the fever did break and Hillary seemed okay, until a few months later when this vibrant, verbal child began behaving in strange and even dangerous ways.

Mr. RESTON: Quite dangerous. I mean, she would walk off the end of a picnic table or just fall down for no apparent reason. And then came that moment when in this case I was with Hillary alone and she just trundled from the dining room into the kitchen and then was out of my sight for just a second. I was at the time working on a play so I always think of this in almost dramatic and theatrical terms. And she came back into the doorway and let out this really quite terrifying sound and fell to the floor shaking.

That was her first seizure, and we knew at that point of course that there was something terribly, terribly wrong.

MONTAGNE: You did see Hillary--the first Hillary--disappear almost with the seizures.

Mr. RESTON: Yes. It was a very difficult period for us, of course, because, as I said, she was quite verbal. Denise certainly feels that there was something like 200 words that she had acquired at 18 months. But we watched those words drop away one by one by one in the months after that first seizure until it was only three words, and then it was just sounds.

MONTAGNE: There was a moment some months in when you in a sense glimpsed Hillary's future. There's a spot in the book where you write about that. If you wouldn't mind reading it.

Mr. RESTON: (Reading) "Hillary was going to be retarded. Her language might return. The doctor was not sure, but for that to happen the seizures had to come under control. That sort of catastrophe sometimes happens in accomplished verbal families, the doctor went on to say, indeed something similar had happened to the son of a colleague. But the boy had survived and was now in his 20s. What does he do now, Denise asked. On his good days he can stack boxes in a shoe store, the doctor replied. There--in that terrible epiphany--the totality of Hillary's life stretched out before us."

MONTAGNE: As it turned out, the operative word was us, the Reston family. Going through all of this with her were Hillary's older sister May and brother Devin.

Mr. RESTON: Both of whom I think has given them a profound sensitivity. But as they grew older, as May became a young teenager, it was socially difficult for her to be seen with Hillary, and it was embarrassing. Devin, by contrast, was so angry about this that, by golly, he was going to take her wherever he could, and if anybody said a stupid thing about Hillary, he was ready to have his dukes up and mix it up.

MONTAGNE: How did that work for their friends when they would come over?

Mr. RESTON: We were not very wise treating that whole side of the thing. It was so important for us that Hillary be included that it became a kind of litmus test that Mary Jo or Betty Sue would be good people if they liked Hillary when they came over. And if they didn't like Hillary or said something that was sort of off base, then they were bad people. That came to terrify both of my children, and it became known in our household as the Hillary test. We catch ourselves still 20 years later that if somebody is particularly interested in Hillary, they are particularly good people.

MONTAGNE: That isn't such a bad test as test of a quality of a person goes.

Mr. RESTON: It's easier and fairer for adults than it is for children.

MONTAGNE: There has to be, given all of this, there's a Hillary that you all have amongst yourselves in the family. Who is the Hillary that you see that maybe the world just wouldn't see?

Mr. RESTON: Hillary can be extremely annoying. She is a very strong-minded person. But it has occurred to me many times that Hillary is some sort of angel, because she is a total innocent. She is very fragile at the same time, and hence the title of this book.

MONTAGNE: So far, Hillary's life has included a kidney disease so severe it took a transplant to save her. But also a diploma from a special school, a paying job shredding paper for the local school board, and the love of bowling. James Reston, Jr. has worked as an author, and his wife, Denise Leary, a corporate lawyer here at NPR.

The book is called Fragile Innocence: A Father's Memoir of His Daughter's Courageous Journey.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Family photos and an excerpt from the book are at npr.org. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.