"I still find it difficult to watch Lorenzo’s Oil. The film brings up so many painful memories – especially now that my father, my stepmother and Lorenzo are all gone.
Often, still, I will have teachers and students come up to me, saying that they were showing or had been shown the film at school. I always assume they mean in science class – but no, it is in PSH or assembly or chapel.
Because ‘Lorenzo’s Oil’ is nominally about adrenoleukodystrophy, and medical science. And of course the elitism of the medical establishment – “ what, you don’t even have a science A level and you think we should take you seriously?” the medics used to mock my father.
But it is fundamentally a film about character.
My father’s and my step-mother’s characters. They displayed courage at a time of tragedy. Grit in the face of unending setbacks. Generosity when no one would give them a helping hand.
And loyalty, too. Despite some very difficult moments, my father and stepmother stayed together – against the odds, I have discovered: families with children with special needs have higher than average divorce rates. In fact, for those with autistic children, researchers report divorce rates of 85%.
At a time when we seem – at least in this country – to be confused about what character is, ‘Lorenzo’s Oil’ is a testament to the kind of values that see you through the darkest hardest chapters of your life. In fact the film does not just chronicle but celebrates these values. The film-makers turn the fight of a mum and dad to keep their son alive into a heroic epic; and transform two middle aged, middle class parents into intrepid heroes of the kind Hollywood usually prefers to put in action films starring Chris Pratt or Michael Fassbender.
George Miller, the director, had started life as a medical student. He refused to sanitise the depiction of disability, or edit out the cruelty of ordinary people (and even doctors) when it comes to excluding those whom lady luck has passed over. I still remember my father telling him how colleagues from the World Bank would cross the street to avoid him, because they didn’t know how to deal with someone whose son had been afflicted with such a dread disease.
The film is an extraordinary achievement because in lalaland, looking at how ordinary people cope with a disability is not the done thing. And even outside LA, many of us tend to ignore the beauty in self-sacrifice, and to overlook the genuine heroism of continuing to hope when everyone tells you to give up. When culture idolises individual beauty and individual success, a film that dares to focus on the strength of self-sacrifice and family bonds is truly unusual.
Lorenzo’s Oil was made in 1992. In 2017, I fear, the culture has not changed very much. The term “values” is still vague, nebulous, insubstantial.
Yet if we are unsure of what character and values ARE, we certainly know what they ARE NOT. The outrage over the care home scandal and how our elderly loved ones are treated there; the row over Philip Green’s behaviour with BhS, the outcry over some of the statements issued by the man who has just been inaugurated 45th President of the USA…. We know that bad values can wreak havoc and destroy a prosperous society.
We know that values are motivational drivers that dictate our judgement - our ability to choose the right path in a moral dilemma. We learn them in the family, the neighbourhood, school, the workplace – even film.
The link between a stable family and good values is so strong that the US sociologist Robert Putnam says that the difference between disadvantaged and prosperous youth is not family income but family relationships – those who have strong connections with their parents and their extended family do immeasurably better in terms of academic attainment future income and relationships.
But what about those youngsters who cannot benefit from stable parents, or a loving extended family? Are they doomed?
Not if they have character, they are not. Character can provide a substitute for the social safety net. Character strengths provide the one alternative to the support from stable families, good schools, a wealth of connections that protect middle class young people from the consequences of occasional mistakes and wrong choices. Character is the one prop you can rely on when tragedy hits and you are told your beloved little boy has a dread genetic neurological disorder and you watch the scaffolding of your life fall apart
I saw it with my father – determined to overcome the scepticism of scientists and medics; determined to sacrifice his own career and ambitions for the welfare of his son; willing to be generous with his knowledge and his support to other parents of children with ALD, or MS, who would ring him, or write to him, in despair.
I still remember his saying that, every day after Lorenzo’s terrible diagnosis, he would wake up to the light that streamed in through the window and think, oh good, another day… only to then remember that his son lay in the room next door, unable to move or see hear or speak. The realisation would hit him so hard, he confessed to me, that he sometimes found it difficult to get out of bed and face another day.
Yet he did. And as the film chronicles he found the strength to challenge his terrible fate. In my father’s case, the strength of character that saw him find a therapy that had eluded all scientists and doctors before him was hewn by tragic experience.
I wouldn’t wish that on anyone else – but here is the good news. Character can be taught. It is not nature but nurture, not DNA but habits that simply need practice, day in and day out.
A number of studies bear this out – and educational gurus from Angela Ducker to Paul Tough have shown how to incorporate character in schools. In the States, an entire federation of schools subscribed to the Knowledge is Power curriculum which focused on character.
Over here, too, schools have begun to include character and values in their curriculum: the Floreat schools are an example of this, and Sir Anthony Seldon is a champion of values-led teaching.
But is school really the only place where we can pick up the virtuous habits that will stand us in good stead throughout our lives?
What about the family?
I thought that this could be an area of important research. So I went up and down the country studying parenting classes. Can these classes teach good values to parents?
My findings will be published next month – but I can give you a sneak preview.
Although I met with 70 parents in 14 different groups in places as different as Fareham, Bradford, and South Oxhey –and although some of these classes were being offered by the government and others by private companies and other still by church groups, all of them agreed that the classes had transformed their relationships with their children.
I encountered mums and dads who told me that they used to hit out – and even hit – their children – and now they don’t. That they used to talk over their partners and little ones -- and now they listen attentively. That they used to feel lonely, and worthless, and now they feel neither. That they used to view parenting as a terrifying challenge way beyond their capabilities – whereas now they see it as a task they can cope with.
Ask these parents what their values are and they won’t know what you mean. But ask them what they would like their children to be like and they will tell you: honest, brave, confident in themselves. Kind and charitable. Able to dust themselves off after a setback. These mums and dads long to instil character and values in their children. They want to be the best for their children – but are not sure they know how.
If, as I found, parenting classes can help – then we should roll them out nationally, for everyone, regardless of background.
And here is a thought. Many of the courses I encountered used case studies that presented a dilemma and invited parents to say how they would act in certain situations. These case studies served the purpose that morality tales have served for millennia. In 2017 it might be even better to rely on film, videos, YouTube clips to present the moral dilemmas that face us – not only as parents but as human beings. As a film like ‘Lorenzo’s Oil’ illustrates, Hollywood CAN teach about the importance character. To parents and their children. Maybe most especially when those children have special needs -- that are both a joy and a challenge"