Ford Family Fighters
Ford's devotion, not her money and prominence, made the
difference for her learning disabled daughter.
by Ellen Creager, Detroit Free Press, May 7, 2003
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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
"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
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
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
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
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.
Anne Ford will appear at Borders Books in Farmington 7 p.m. June
12, at Borders in Dearborn 7 p.m. June 13 and at the Ford Motor
Co. Centennial Celebration June 14; details not yet set. For
more information and LD links, see
or the National Center for Learning Disabilities,
Contact ELLEN CREAGER at 313-222-6498 or