Manni Coe on & the Art of Communication

Posted on 1st March 2024 by Mark Skinner

One of the most acclaimed books of 2022 finally arrives in paperback this March with the publication of Manni and Reuben Coe's beautifully moving The story of how Manni rushed back to England to 'bronap' his sibling with Down's syndrome from a Dorset care home at the height of the pandemic, the joint memoir is an inspiring account of emotional and psychological repair. In this exclusive piece, Manni reflects on how art signalled a way out of the 'emotional coma' that Reuben had fallen into.

In lockdown, my brother Reuben’s mental health plummeted to frightening depths. Left in his bedroom for over 20 hours a day in a care home in Dorset, he imagined we had all abandoned him and sank into despair. From that place of darkness, he sent me a text message. Those five words set our brotherhood on a new course. 

“brother. do. you. love. me.”

I knew instinctively that they were a cry for help so I left my home in Spain and travelled back to the UK in the middle of the pandemic to bronap my brother and bring him back from the brink. We spent the next 26 weeks hidden away from the world in a rural cottage in Dorset. My brother was in pieces. It was painful to hold each other's gaze. 

Faced with a broken brother, how do you go about rebuilding him? I’m not trained in psychology. I’m not a counsellor. My aim? The return of his smile. It was that simple - and that complicated. 

I describe his state as an emotional coma. The visiting psychiatrist called it a regression, giving me a 10% chance of getting my brother back. The odds were stacked against us but when you love someone as fiercely as I love Reuben, that kind of love knows no boundaries.  He was non-verbal, malnourished, with no desire to do anything but sit on his bed and stare out of the window. The only thing he wanted to do was draw. I remember a desperate conversation with a speech therapist who attempted to quell my fears. ‘Encourage any form of communication’, she told me. ‘His speech will come back but it will probably be the last form of communication to return.’ Here was hope from a stranger in a zoom room and I clung to it. 

I ordered felt tip pens and art pads so Reuben could spend his days drawing. At first he was reluctant to show his pictures to me, turning the pages face down when I walked into his room. I sneaked a look early in the mornings when he was still asleep. There were lots of sad lions and broken hearts. Reuben’s early drawings showed me just how severed he was from his former self. Here were his fears and anxious thoughts in bright felt tipped colours. 

Very early on in our brotherly hibernation, just as we were settling back into each other’s company, he started drawing something for me every day. The ritual of giving me a kiss on the cheek and handing it to me upside down was the last thing he did each evening before heading upstairs to bed. I would wait until he had reached his bedroom before turning the paper over to gaze on his distinctive style and read his tender words. 

‘Sleep well brother love you what we do tomorrow.’

He was beginning to communicate with words on the page. I started leaving him written notes; on his bed, on the kitchen table if I went out for a walk, on the stairs for him to find on his way to bed. Conversations took days, answers and replies written on white paper with felt tips. Slowly, the gaping hole in his coloured hearts began to close. After a while the sadness in his lion’s eyes began to dissipate, replaced with strength. Reuben used his art to communicate his feelings. 

People often ask me if Reuben has always been an artist. I reply that he has always drawn but that no, he hasn't always been an artist. I believe an artist is driven to their craft by a need to communicate something important that lies within them. Reuben’s only vehicle of expression was his art. I was happy to receive these messages of love and brotherly affection. He wasn't ready to talk but his emotional landscape was intact. His drawings were restorative for both of us. He became an artist. 

I remember one particular evening, whilst enjoying our Friday Night dinner, with a candle on the table and a drawing of ‘brother’s dinner’ by Reuben, when we began to communicate on a deeper level. I dared ask Reuben some important questions and he dared answer me. The entire conversation was written out with felt tipped pens on a sheet of paper that we slid across the table to each other. A simple conversation took hours but I didn't care. I had nowhere to be. There was nowhere I would have rather been. I waited patiently whilst my brother’s feelings began to formulate in his mind until they formed words that he felt free and strong enough to commit to paper. I remember I cried a lot. Something was unlocking. 

Reubs has been afraid to communicate because his feelings were too frightening to articulate. Art helped him untangle himself. Art was his vehicle to reconnecting, not just with me but with himself.

Two years  on, Reuben’s recovery is consolidated. We have all enjoyed witnessing the return of his smile. Not a day goes by when he doesn't draw. Art has become his lifeblood. Isn't that the life of a true artist? I believe so. And the kind speech therapist who gave me hope all those months ago? Well, she was right. His voice did return. At first it was just a whisper. It is still very faint but occasionally when Reuben is truly enjoying himself, his true voice slips out. We’ve all heard it. 

Art led the way on his recovery to communication. I often ask myself, ‘Where would we be without his felt tip pens?'


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env: aptum