“Read Me Differently” tells family tale of learning disabilities

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Learning disabilities can be a family affair. That is the message of Aquinnah summer visitor Sarah Entine’s 2009 documentary, “Read Me Differently,” where the Berkeley-based director examines the learning disabilities in three generations of Entine women.

The film will air on Boston PBS station, WGBH-TV, at 10 pm on Monday, Sept. 19, and again at 1 pm on Sunday, Sept. 25. The Vineyard Haven Library will screen “Read Me Differently” at 7 pm on Tuesday, Oct. 11.

Ms. Entine will attend the Vineyard Haven screening and answer questions. Her mother, Jean Entine, an Aquinnah summer resident who has worked for the Island Affordable Housing Fund, will also be there.

While the topic of learning disabilities could signal a technical or boring documentary, that is not the case with “Read Me Differently.” Sarah, her mother, and her grandmother Sylvia are such lively, charming subjects they lend the film an unexpected warmth and openness.

“It’s kind of been rewarding to see that it [the film]has a reach into a larger world than learning disabilities, and that it might actually have universal themes,” the first-time director said in a telephone interview this week from her Berkeley home, which she shares with her partner, Walt Opie, a marketing editor for Marin-County-based Spirit Rock.

Summering at her mother’s Aquinnah home since her high school days, Ms. Entine entered first grade at Graham and Parks Alternative School in Cambridge and struggled with reading. Thanks to newly minted Special Education legislation, she acquired a tutor to help her overcome her inability to process sounds, a phonological disorder.

“My generation was the first one to get help,” Ms. Entine says in the film. “Difficulty with reading makes life hard for children.”

If school proved hard for her, home life became even more of a challenge. Born in New York in 1972, she was six months old when her high-achieving parents divorced. Ms. Entine moved to Cambridge at age six with her mother and her sister, Jennifer — visiting her father, Alan Entine, frequently in New York with her sister.

Both her parents misunderstood the nature of their daughter’s disability and often thought she just wasn’t trying hard enough. Her sister often ran interference for her. Despite her learning difficulties, Ms. Entine belonged to the National Honor Society in high school and graduated from Grinnell College and Boston’s Simmons College School of Social Work.

The realization that both her mother and her grandmother had undiagnosed learning disabilities came while Ms. Entine was in graduate school. She had picked Social Work as a pragmatic, people-oriented field, but was not sure she could handle its challenges. The family encouraged her to “buck up.”

Avoiding the use of labels, no one in the family talked about Ms. Entine’s learning disability. She told herself the wrong “story” about her problem and often felt as if she were in a fog, not totally connected to her parents or sister.

“I really had to work hard to talk to Mom,” she says in the film. Her sister Jennifer served as her interpreter.

As Ms. Entine researched her mother’s and her grandmother’s histories, she began to understand how her grandmother, Sylvia, drove her mother, Jean, crazy because of their differing communication strategies. A generational pattern of stuttering in family members emerged, along with other indications of learning disorders.

“Gramma would just start talking,” Ms. Entine says of Memphis-born Sylvia Entine. Because the three women had trouble communicating with each other, collaboration proved extremely difficult.

Although Sylvia Entine attended Goucher College, she found reading such a challenge that she dropped out, blaming eye trouble, and married soon after. That was not as viable an option in the director’s generation. Both her parents expected her to become a professional.

After a string of dead-end jobs, Ms. Entine settled on flower arranging. She was good at it, and it “felt right.” But after two years, she was ready to tackle a bigger challenge and applied to the Simmons College School of Social Work. She sympathized with the disadvantaged children she worked with during her graduate school internship, because like her, they felt they didn’t belong.

After moving to the San Francisco area, the essentially self-taught Ms. Entine took a few classes at the Bay Area Video Coalition, asking the instructor to work with her one-on-one. She made friends with other filmmakers and praises their contributions to “Read Me Differently.”

“I knew that I was in well-trained hands,” she says. Currently Ms. Entine is spending her time doing outreach for the film.

After its release in 2009, the film won the Fall 2010 competition for the prestigious CINE Golden Eagle Award. Other winners include Steven Spielberg, Ken Burns, Ron Howard, Mira Nair, and Oak Bluffs summer resident Stanley Nelson.

“Read Me Differently” begins and ends with scenes of Ms. Entine helping her grandmother sort through the mayhem of papers that litter her home. In the final scene the search is on for her grandmother’s missing purse.

“We all live our lives in parallel universes,” Ms. Entine observes. As “Read Me Differently” demonstrates, family loyalty and hard work help breach the gaps between those separate universes.

Film: “Read Me Differently,” 7 pm, Tuesday, Oct. 11, Vineyard Haven Library. 508-696-4211.

Brooks Robards, a frequent contributor to The Times, divides her time between Oak Bluffs and Northampton.