Josh Greenfeld, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter who was also acclaimed for three forthright books about his autistic son, died May 11 in Los Angeles. He was 90.
His oldest son, writer Karl Taro Greenfeld, said the cause was pneumonia.
In the early 1970s, when people with developmental disabilities were still often hidden away, Greenfeld helped put their needs in the public arena with “A Child Called Noah,” published in 1972. It detailed in journal form the challenges his family faced in raising his younger son, Noah, who, born in 1966, was nonverbal and difficult to control.
The book was blunt and honest. “What’s the matter with Noah?” he wrote. “For the longest time it seemed to depend on what diagnosis we were willing to shop around for. We’ve been told he was mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed, autistic, schizophrenic, possibly brain-damaged, or he was suffering from a Chinese box combination of these conditions.
“But we finally discovered the diagnosis didn’t seem to matter; it was all so sadly academic.”
Two years after the book came out, Greenfeld shared an Oscar nomination with Paul Mazursky for the screenplay of “Harry and Tonto,” a movie about a road trip taken by a man and his cat. (Art Carney, as Harry, won the best-actor Oscar.) He was not, however, done with the story of Noah; two more books would follow: “A Place for Noah” (1978) and “A Client Called Noah” (1987).
At a time when the United States was beginning to face the issues of how to view people with disabilities and what services to provide them, Greenfeld’s books helped other families in the same situation realize they could and should speak up, and become their own best advocates.
“My father never regretted writing about our family,” his son Karl said by email. “He believed it was important that parents of developmentally disabled children talk about them openly and honestly, so that society would understand how difficult raising such children can be. When he was looking for books on the subject, he found very few resources, and so wrote the book himself.”
Joshua Joseph Greenfeld was born on Feb. 27, 1928, in Malden, Mass., to Nathan and Katherine (Hellerman) Greenfeld. His father was “in the wool and waste business, basically, what we now call recycling,” Karl Greenfeld said.
Greenfeld grew up in Brooklyn and attended Samuel J. Tilden High School and then Brooklyn College before earning his bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan. He later received a master’s degree in English at Columbia University. In 1959 he met the Japanese writer and painter Foumiko Kometani at the Mac-Dowell Colony for artists in New Hampshire; they married the next year. Kometani would also write about life with Noah, receiving top literary awards in Japan, including the Akutagawa Prize in 1986.
Greenfeld wrote reviews and feature articles for numerous publications, including the New York Times. He was also a playwright. His “I Have a Dream,” compiled from the writings of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., ran for 88 performances on Broadway in 1976, with Billy Dee Williams as King.
Greenfeld’s novels included “The Return of Mr. Hollywood” (1984), about an unscrupulous director. “Many of the people are awful,” People Magazine said in reviewing that book. But, the review added, “’The Return of Mr. Hollywood’ is grotesquely funny, and the ending, after all the nasty wheeling and dealing and throat cutting, is surprisingly moving.”
Greenfeld once said that he came to view his “Noah” books as paralleling the stages of grief. The first, about the boy’s early years and facing up to the diagnosis, represented denial, he said. The second, which focused on trying to find a school or training center for Noah — and, on a deeper level, on finding a place for him within the family — was the equivalent of the “rage” stage. And the third book, he said, about coming to grips with the fact that he and his wife could no longer care for Noah, “suggests acceptance or resignation.”
That third book may have been about acceptance, but it was as uncompromising as the first two, as Susan Kenney wrote in reviewing it in the Times.
“It is the great and remarkable strength of this book that, even in the face of the relentless grinding down of the human spirit — entry after entry loaded with calamity and cleanup, despair, frustration, guilt, self-pity and rage, stress beyond anyone’s normal ability or even duty to tolerate — the reader feels compelled to read on,” she said. “Whether by the process of selection, or simply because he understands so well the art of narrative, Josh Greenfeld has given this personal history some of the best qualities of fiction.”
Karl Greenfeld, who continued telling Noah’s story in his own book, “Boy Alone: A Brother’s Memoir” (2009), said his brother, now 51, is in an assisted living home in Lawndale, Los Angeles County. “My parents went to see him every weekend until my father’s condition deteriorated over the last three years,” he said.
In addition to his wife and two sons, Greenfeld is survived by two grandchildren.
Greenfeld once described to “60 Minutes” the process he went through in his thinking about Noah.
“At first, you just hoped he’d be normal,” he said. “Then you just hoped he could talk. And then you just hoped he could communicate a little more or understand. And then, finally, you reached the point where you just hope he can be well fed, well taken care of — be happy, not feel pain. You become very, very basic.”