In The Covered Smile, first-time author Sonja Lauren shows her reader a new dimension of childhood neglect. By the so-tender age of 13, a child of poverty in a small West Virginia town, Ms. Lauren had all her teeth surgically extracted. The author believes she may be the youngest child ever to have this experience and her passion to educate so that others will never know her trauma emanates strongly from the pages of this slender book.
Ms. Lauren begins her memoir at her "moment of truth"—27 years old and in her dentist's office. Because her current dentures are ill-fitting, embarrassing, and causing both speech and eating disorders, she believes that new dentures will resolve her problems. Thus she is completely unprepared for the shocking facts she hears. She no longer has enough bone in her jaw to support dentures, will need several expensive implant surgeries over the course of a year, and then will require much more expensive dentures to connect with the implants.
In shock, pain, and deep anger, she goes home wondering how she can afford her needs. Her long-suppressed childhood memories begin to emerge, and we journey back to her childhood home where, with grace, she shows parents unable to care for her and her younger sister. We meet her adopted older sister who has learned to cook and clean and bathe Ms. Lauren and her sibling. When her older sister marries and leaves home, it triggers the author's acting-out behavior. At age 6, she is diagnosed as a troubled child and, among other behaviors, begins to frequently suck on candy and chew gum as comforting devices.
Clearly, the title is not only about hiding decayed teeth but also the demeanor of a neglected child. Ms. Lauren shows us the skills she developed in order to survive in a very literal way. One of her mother's dysfunctions was an inability (based in deep fear) to care for any illnesses or injuries her daughters sustained. Lack of self-care education at home and school led rapidly to one of the inevitable consequences—serious oral decay and infection along with other serious social consequences. In emergency situations, she describes her dentists. The first impatiently tells her mother that since the young Lauren will not care properly for her teeth, she should have them all pulled at age 16. In an emergency visit not long after, another dentist angrily tells her parents that Ms. Lauren has been neglected and they are responsible for not assuring she properly cared for her teeth. Decades later, the author's search to re-connect with her history leads her back to the dentist's chart note from that day—"Absolutely the worst dental case I have ever seen."
Lauren does an excellent job of showing her reader how a neglected child experiences the parent/child relationship in reverse. The chapters progress with a primary focus on her dental experiences as a child, move into her pre-teen extractions, and continue with the lonely, bloody aftermath of two oral surgeries. Ultimately, she discusses her permanent handicaps and how such trauma could have been prevented.
The lovely young woman on the book cover is the author's daughter Angelica, whose hand hides a smile her mother was determined would never need to be hidden. Angelica is "the incredible force that pushed me into therapy at the age of twenty-five. I knew the minute my child was born that she would not suffer as I had. I can recall the day when Angelica began to cut her baby teeth. Each night, I carefully wiped each tooth clean before bedtime. Angelica still has never had a cavity."
We accompany Lauren as she receives her implant surgeries, new dentures and follow-up care in the face of enormous cost. The goodness of the many professionals is demonstrated when they find room in their hearts and practices to help those in need. The author's strength of spirit is also powerfully moving, particularly in one of the last chapters when she addresses a frequently asked question, "Have you forgiven your parents?"
The book contains solid basic oral hygiene education as well as the newest findings. Oral health is clearly linked to overall health. Chapters 14 and 15 are written by two dentists, and the appendix describes ways to help children avoid Lauren's path.
I connected most strongly to the author's word snapshots of being a small, unkempt child alone in her "dark, dirty bedroom staring out the window" while enduring the pain of a tooth infection or a physical injury. In extreme situations only, would she would go to her parents for help. She feels responsible if her mother becomes unduly upset. She feels guilty when her dental care creates financial problems for her parents. Thus, Lauren links her writing with one of my own passions—to show readers the inner world of the neglected or abused child in order to promote education, understanding, and one day, hopefully, obliteration of the destruction of precious, young psyches.
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