That Went Well

Reviews of That Went Well: Adventures in Caring for My Sister

People Magazine  January 26, 2009:
BOOKS page 50
Dougan writes with grace about caring for her sister Irene, who - well into middle age - wears Mickey Mouse socks, makes strangers talk to her dolls, and throws furniture when she's mad. In one sense it's a simple story about having a mentally handicapped sibling. But Dougan wants us to consider how we define a successful life. Irene may be limited, but she gives, and gets, happiness daily. And Dougan finds joy in a caretaking task that can overwhelming. "Think how boring life would be," she writes, "without all the bumps."

[...] I have to say that this is by far the best memoir I have read over the past two years. The courage and tenacity of Terrell and her family's reaction to Irene's handicap stunned and moved me. I can't imagine being as brave as these people were, and the fact that they fought to such extremes is both impressive and inspiring to say the least. Terrell makes no bones about how difficult it can be to look after Irene, and her uncompromising honesty is the glue that holds this book together. To me, Irene sounds like a card, and I laughed with glee at her antics and behaviors. I especially like her adamant refusal to change her Mickey Mouse socks, even when going to a formal event, or her sly attempts at sneaking junk food whenever she can get her hands on it. But underneath all that, there must have been some really frightening times for this family. I think back to the time when she was lost somewhere in the bus terminal, and her family didn't know if she was on a bus halfway across the country or just hidden in a bathroom playing with her dolls. I think about the times when her tantrums cause her to injure herself, or when she is violent with other people, and I marvel at the fortitude that her family shows when the unthinkable becomes the everyday. [...]

» read full article

“Memoir of the author's enduring devotion for her special-needs sister oscillates from heartbreaking to uplifting with the flip of a page.

Born during a relentless Utah electrical storm in 1946, Irene would spend hours in her crib, silently staring at her hands, and didn't take a step until she was almost two years old. She was more than simply "slow," but the devoutly Mormon Harris family wallowed in denial about their impaired, cross-eyed daughter until her first day in kindergarten, when a teacher immediately said she needed to be tested. Irene was classified as "mentally disabled," with an IQ of 57, but her parents refused to place her in the grim state institution. They kept Irene at home, where her violent tantrums and confusion became commonplace. Six years older than her sister, the author responded with "protective anger" whenever anyone asked what was wrong with Irene. Her teenaged years were tricky, as she attempted to date boys and corral her sister's erratic behavior. Caring for Irene became increasingly cumbersome as her mother's arthritis worsened and doting grandma "Bammy" aged, so at age 20 she was placed in a special California school, where she spent six years before being expelled for violent behavior. The author, by then married with two young daughters, began writing a column in the local newspaper and became an advocate for the integration of special-needs children into public schools. She tirelessly shouldered the responsibility for both Irene and her severely disabled mother, spending years teaching her sister everything from how to manage her diabetes and high blood pressure to finding employment. Dougan gets very personal in the final sections, exposing the nerve and dedication necessary to foster independence in a sibling with special needs.

A touching, surprisingly funny tough-love narrative.”

[...] In Dougan's book, which takes a nostalgic look back at her entire life with Irene, the edges are a little more blunted. Irene was born in 1946, a time when the mentally disabled were routinely institutionalized or, at the very least, hidden where nobody else could see them. This was never an option for Dougan's extraordinarily close, loving family, which kept Irene at home and worked tirelessly to teach her independence, ultimately becoming early advocates for the rights of the mentally disabled. Dougan recalls her Utah childhood with great fondness, describing Currier & Ives scenes of skating lessons and white Christmases. Irene, who never learned to read or write, stuck close to her sister, attempting to follow her in all things. Dougan attended Stanford, married and raised two daughters. At 20, Irene was sent to a residential school near Santa Barbara, Calif., to learn basic skills. However, Irene was prone to rages that occasionally became physical and proved too challenging for the staff, who soon sent her home. When both parents became ill and unable to care for Irene, the task of finding a living situation and suitable aides fell to Dougan. ”

» read full article

“In this compassionate memoir, Dougan, humor columnist for 13 years penning “Of All Things” for the Deseret News in Utah, writes for the first time about her mentally disabled sister, Irene. After Irene was born in 1946, their parents decided that she would not be institutionalized; with no Salt Lake City support group available, the girls’ father, who ran an ad agency, teamed with other parents to launch a local day care center in 1952. Dougan made that a family tradition, opening a workshop for teens and adults with mental disabilities in 1968 and serving eight years as president of the Utah Association for Retarded Citizens. To tell Irene’s story, she begins with a traumatizing childhood event; when she was 12 and Irene was six, they witnessed Irene’s babysitter die from a massive brain hemorrhage. The lives of the sisters intertwined: Terrell became obsessed with swimming and ice skating; Irene learned to swim and ice skate, but not to read and write. Terrell studied at Stanford and later got married and had children; Irene was sent away at age 20 to a residential school in the hope she would learn “some independence.” Influenced by Benchley and Thurber, Terrell is a skilled humorist with amusing anecdotes about Irene, such as her behavior during the family’s Venice vacation. Writing with honesty, she is equally impressive in relating the haunting memories of sadness and despair surrounding Irene’s darker days.”

That Went Well, Adventures in Caring for My Sister by Terrell Harris Dougan is a beautiful and honest book which I couldn’t put down.

I wanted to read That Went Well for one simple reason: it takes place in my hometown and the author is local as well. Within the last month I have read three books that are set in Salt Lake City, this one, The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale, and The Loser’s Guide to Life and Love by A.E. Cannon (both yet to be reviewed) and I have to admit that I think it’s great fun to read books where you know all the landmarks and wonder about the yummy sounding restaurant in the book. So that said, even though this author is a stranger to me, I felt a connection simply because of locality. But the book could have taken place in Timbuktu and I still would have loved it.

That Went Well is Dougan’s memoir and as the title suggests is about the adventures in caring for her little sister Irene, who was born with a brain injury. Irene was born in 1946 which frankly was a period of time that parents of children with mental disabilities and special needs were advised to institutionalize them. Her family didn’t want to send her away.

From a very young age Dougan had to constantly defend her sister from neighborhood kids who made fun of Irene for being so slow and as she grew into adolescence had to explain her sister to the dates at the doorway, especially when Irene would ask them to talk to her dolls. Irene actually served as a gatekeeper and Dougan knew she had found her perfect match when her date and then later husband, didn’t flinch at all when meeting Irene.

Unable to read and write and unwelcome in the public school systems, Irene was cared for at home and her parents realized that there was no support for parents of children with special needs. Instead of complaining, they did something about it and created a day care center. Later, after college and Dougan’s marriage and birth of her children, her parents found it more and more difficult to take care of Irene. Hoping to ease Irene into independent living, they sent her to live in a group home in California. Ultimately, she was unhappy and eventually came back home (but not after a few bruised roommates and aide workers). When Dougan’s parents passed away, she became Irene’s primary caregiver.

That Went Well is a honest and frank exploration of what it’s like to care of a sibling with disabilities. But to say that it’s a dry and boring exploration couldn’t be further from the truth. I was sucked into this story from the very first page. Dougan’s voice is fantastic! She is laugh out loud funny but yet shares such intimate inner and physical struggles that one can’t help but sympathize with her and this family. Dougan must come to terms with how she thinks Irene should live versus how Irene wants to live.

And let’s not forget to talk about Irene! Irene is a riot! From taking her dolls with her everywhere, to independently riding the city bus, inviting the firemen over for barbecues and to the magnet on her fridge that says, “Normal People Worry Me” she was simply fantastic. Temper tantrums and all. I loved her and it’s obvious that her sister loves her too.


A beautiful, honest, funny, and thoughtful journey of these two sisters, I highly recommend That Went Well. Dougan opens her heart and one can’t help but take a look inside. It was a pure joy to read this memoir.

“ From the moment I picked up this book I was taken into a private, sometimes chaotic story of a family who was faced with trying to give the best life to Irene, who was born with mental disabilities.

This book struck a raw nerve in me as it hits close to home for me on a very personal level, which attracted me to this book in the first place. I have a brother, Daniel with some similar issues as Irene.

I was able to laugh out loud reading about Terrells adventures with Irene and understand her, where she was coming from. I also could relate to the not so happy moments, the moments of frustration and tears.

I love how Terrell was able to mix humor into a subject that is still not talked about very much, while still respecting Irene. I can imagine how hard it is and can still be in today’s time to defend and uphold the dignity of those who need advocating for the most.

People are cruel, kids are cruel and even those closest to you can be cruel at time as Terrell finds out and she is honest through out the book. Some may think that because they sent Irene away at times that they did not love her, not true, they did it because they loved her.

You can feel the love they all have for Irene in every page. I was impressed by Terrells desire to want to give Irene the best life she can have, the life Irene deserves. Not always an easy task.

I laughed, I cried. I highly recommend this book to anyone. It opened my eyes a little more and reminded me that we are all human.

» read full article

Carole Turner,
“ The Harris family was enjoying a peaceful, comfortable, upper middle-class life in Salt Lake City when the traumatic birth of their second daughter Irene forever changed their outlook, philosophy and dynamics. Irene was severly brain damaged and at maturity had the mental capacity of a three-year-old. She never learned to read or write, was extremely difficult to reason with and had fierce temper tantrums that took a physical toll, mostly on inanimate objects and Irene herself, but also on others occasionally. ”
“ As the book opens, the middle-aged sisters are grocery shopping, and Irene has just hurled a packaged chicken at Terrell, who is refusing to buy sweets for her diabetic sister. The author readily admits how difficult and complicated her life has been because of her sister's handicaps, but she proves she has learned over the years to accept the status quo with grace and humor. She loves Irene very much, and that affection comes through on the pages of this book.

While THAT WENT WELL contains a fair amount of humor, it certainly gives the reader a surprisingly frank and realistic look at life behind someone else's front door. ”

» read full article

[...] I think this is a book that everyone should read -- whether you know someone with special needs or not. Raising awareness about the needs of the special needs population and the burdens that fall on their caregivers is perhaps the best by-product of this book. This is an uplifting book filled with humor and reminders that -- although life doesn't always go the way we hoped --we can often find love, humor, caring and goodness along the way. At the same time, the book doesn't shy away from sharing how difficult it is to be a caregiver for a special needs child or adult. For this reason, I think the book will have special resonance and meaning for anyone who cares for a child or adult with special needs.

Bottom line: This is an easy, fun read with an important message that will open your eyes to the realities of living with and loving a special needs person.”

» read full article

When someone offered to let me read this book, I nearly turned it down. The reviews I saw said it didn't have enough about the sister and some said that it didn't show the author's feelings enough... but I decided "what the heck" and decided to give it a read...

I was shocked by how much I enjoyed this book! The author has a very sarcastic voice and I loved that - it was a nice change of pace from some books I've read like this one where the spend so much time feeling sorry for themselves. And yes, she admits to being very frustrated with her sister and with the world around here. I liked her honesty, I liked her moxie. I liked that she talked about HERSELF - it was, after all, HER memoir, not her sister's memoir! Too often, I read a memoir and it ends up being about someone other than the author.

The last 20 pages or so of this book make it all worth it. The small stories that end in these sarcastic, funny... oh, it's just fabulous!

Ultimately, this story is about sisterly love. I have 2 sisters of my own and even though Irene has some issues, you can tell that the author dearly loves her. I like that while everyone acknowledges that Irene has problems, they do the best they can for her and themselves. At the end of the day, that's all any of us can do. An amazing story, a touching life. Read it.

“One of my favorite gripes about books in general is that for one to be successful it is important to hook the reader in the first 50 pages, if you don’t you are lost, the reader will move on to another book. Terrell Harris Dougan has taken this principal to new highs, she has the reader hooked in the prologue, who can resist a book with the opening sentence:

It’s Christmastime, and in a bright supermarket, with “Joy to the World” spilling out of the speaker, I am ducking a flying packaged chicken that is sailing past my head, thrown at me by my furious sister.

If there was a book award for best opening line Terrell Dougan deserves to win by a landslide!

That Went Well takes us into a place that few have experienced, how to cope and embrace a family member that is challenged, either physically or mentally. For most people their sole contact is by watching a tantrum occur on the bus, or in the local shopping mall. We tend to avert our gaze, or walk away while some patient soul tries to offer comfort. Terrell Dougan is one of those patient souls, and the person that she offers her support to is her sister Irene. These ladies are now in their 60’s and still going strong.

This book is incredibly well written, I know it is cliché to say that it made me laugh and cry at the same time, but it did. There are sections that are so sad, they represent a text book definition of the phrase ‘mans inhumanity to man’, the curious part is that often the perpetrators of the crime are professionals that by training should know better. There are also parts of the book that are laugh out loud funny. Being challenged, does not always mean being stupid, having a 57 IQ does not mean that there is nothing that you cannot excel in. Irene certainly has her issues, but has learned how to manipulate those around her. Her sister Terrel being one of the prime clients.

Another of Irene’s ploys is when in a restaurant she inevitably manages to slip the waiter the good news that it is her birthday, more often than not scoring a small cake at the end of the meal.

One of the the great stories Terrell tells is of the Fridge Magnet that Irene has, it is plain but to the point “NORMAL PEOPLE WORRY ME”. I want one! How many ‘normal’ people would you love to give this to?

To most of us the idea of having to bear the burden of a sibling with special needs seems overwhelming, yet Terrell does not see it that way, yes Irene creates obstacles, yet she also is a source of joy and happiness. Although the time requirements are great Terrel has also led a very full and interesting life including being one of the organizers of the Sundance Film Festival for a few years. You can pick up your copy of That Went Well from Amazon, there is also a companion web site.”

Betsy Burton, The King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City UT:
Author of The King’s English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller
That Went Well by Terrell Dougan is a book after my own heart. Her sister Irene and my son have a world in common -- a world inhabited by people with special needs and their families. Painting this world with a mixture of grace, humor, and heartbreaking accuracy, Dougan made me laugh through my tears and tear up in the middle of belly laughs -- all of which might sound like a recommendation meant for those who, like Ms. Dougan, have responsibility for people like Irene. But this is a book for everyone, a book guaranteed to engage cynics and the soft-hearted alike. The path Dougan and her sister follow as they learn to cope and to communicate can be a roadmap for all of us because, bottom line, we all have 'special needs.' Chock full of empathy and insight, That Went Well will open a window into an unfamiliar world for some and hugely entertain all of us in the process. I loved it.”

What is “normal” anyway? That is a question that Terrell Harris Dougan found herself asking more than once over the course of caring for her mentally disabled younger sister, Irene. In her memoir, That Went Well, Dougan beckons the reader to accompany her on the roller coaster life she has experienced with Irene and the rest of the family. The story that Dougan shares is one of heartbreak and helplessness, of love and loss, of hope and hype, and of faith and the future.

Dougan is a wonderfully engaging writer who learned that laughter is magic for diffusing the often encountered awkward situations with Irene. Dougan not only spent her adult life working to improve Irene’s opportunities but also those of other disabled individuals. She was instrumental in gaining equality rights for education and community housing for the disabled in Utah and fought the mentality that anyone who was “different” belonged in an institution.

That Went Well follows the Harris sisters over a 60 year period and though Irene never learns to read and write, she teaches her older sister many lessons and impacts the lives of all those she meets. According to Dougan, “One thing I know for sure: she’s got my number. She knows exactly what numbers to push to make me angry on her behalf, and she’s going to use them every time she can. Sometimes it’s justified anger. A lot of times, I’m finding, it’s not. And I’m learning to be patient, hold still, breathe deeply, find all the information, and only then decide whether to get angry or to laugh. I surely prefer the latter.”

Dougan amazed me with her ability to take a stressful facet of her life and transform it into a delightful read that made me laugh and cringe in tune with the situations. She empowers the reader to see the bright side of living and working with the disabled and to let the small stuff go in favor of savoring all they do to enrich our daily lives.

[...] I was really interested in this book since I started teaching beadwork to mentally disabled adults a couple months ago. I wanted to get a glimpse of what their lives may be like out of the classroom. Some of Terrell's stories were funny, like Irene's penchant for Mickey Mouse socks. Others were scary, like the time she threw a tantrum and pushed a loveseat through a window. Terrell worked all her life to just take everything in stride. Many times the stress was unbearable. But there were many other loving and fun times to counteract the bad. I often laughed at some of Irene's sneaky antics. The sisters were staying in a Las Vegas hotel and Terrell told Irene not to touch any of the candy in the honor bar. Irene very obediently left the candy alone during their stay. As they were checking out she snuck all of the candy into her luggage and had a candy party for herself when she got home. A very bad thing since she was diabetic. Another time Irene was having a terrible tantrum. It was so bad that Terrell came over to her apartment to help diffuse the situation and Irene again got what she wanted - attention.

One of the points that really stuck with me was that what Terrell wanted for Irene wasn't always the best thing for her. Terrell wanted Irene to experience things that she liked, not realizing that staying home and sticking to a routine was what Irene really wanted instead of going on a vacation to Hawaii or Las Vegas. Irene often did things to please her sister, but the effects and trauma were often more damaging than beneficial like Terrell thought they would be. This memoir tackles the very difficult subject of being the sibling of a mentally handicapped person beautifully. There was plenty of humor mixed with the seriousness of the struggle to improve Irene's life. You don't have to know someone who is mentally handicapped to enjoy and appreciate this book. If you do, then you may come away with a better understanding of how they and their families live.”

» read full article