Saturday, January 29, 2011

In Which I Finally Get Back to Writing About Autism in Fiction

Marti Leimbach's 2006 novel, Daniel Isn't Talking, covers a lot of the same narrative territory as the first volume of Keiko Tobe's manga series "With the Light" --- the protagonist is a young wife and mother who discovers that her son is autistic, and the story follows this pattern, more or less: 1) following her child's diagnosis, the main character goes into shock, grieves for the "normal" child she wishes she had instead, and watches her life and her marriage fall apart around her; 2) she comes out of her depression and begins to fight for her child, wrangling with various therapists, educators and bureaucrats over what sort of treatment to pursue; and 3) as she, and her allies in the school and health-care systems, and among her in-laws, begin to find schools, therapies, and accommodations that work well for her child, her life regains a semblance of order and she comes to understand her child better and love him for the person he is more than she grieves for the person he's not.

I'll review this book as a whole later, but what I want to focus on right now is Leimbach's use of military metaphors throughout this book: her protagonist, Melanie Marsh, refers to herself repeatedly as someone fighting a war against autism.

Here are some instances of this parenting-as-combat, autism-as-The-Enemy metaphor:
Stephen's uncle Raymond, that dear man, rings to tell me not to regret giving Daniel the MMR. His voice is loud in the receiver; he speaks as one who has endured early attempts at telephonic communication, who has shouted into tortoiseshell receivers fixed on wall phones, gone through operators in order to place calls. Now he tells me that in his time he has seen children die of measles; they died in droves when he was a boy. Temperatures of a hundred and six, their brains burned inside their skulls. I mustn't regret a thing.

"Please come and see us," I say to him. Raymond lives on the other side of London. He owns the same house in which he grew up and that he shared with his mother until her death some thirty years ago. He has taken me around the upstairs to show me the scars in the ceiling where a bomb came through the roof during the war. He has stood by me by the window and pointed to the areas, now dense with houses, where once there was nothing but craters and buildings in ruin. He has seen things he will not tell me about, the experiences of being a soldier. "I would not wish my memories upon you," he once said, then asked me if I could find a use for the cake pan his mother used to bake birthday cakes for him and his brother when they were children. Whether, too, I might like some of his mother's damask linen.

"I will come," he says now. "But meanwhile, you mustn't blame yourself."

"I don't," I tell him, a lie. I am fast becoming a good liar, which I discover is a means of camouflage for the protection of others, those who have not been conscripted into this battle with autism, those who have normal children, for example.

(Notice, too, the juxtaposition of Melanie's silence, as an embattled (in a metaphorical sense) Mom of an Autistic Kid with the silence of this other character, Raymond, who has fought in an actual war. He and Melanie have identical reasons for concealing their darkest thoughts from each other, and I think Leimbach's highlighting the similarities between Melanie and Raymond, and their reasoning behind fencing off a portion of their minds from other people, for those other people's protection, helps emphasize the mom-as-soldier metaphor in a way that merely explicitly stating it, as Melanie does when she says she has been "conscripted into this battle with autism," can't do.)

Another example:
"What about all these other therapies?" I ask Andy. There's art therapy, music therapy, sound therapy, therapies that involve brushing the child in order to help with "sensory" issues, not to mention many highly structured teaching practices that happen in schools.

Andy is setting out a new track [of a toy train set; he's playing a game with Daniel, who likes Thomas the Tank Engine], one that finishes at the edge of a seat cushion so the train will crash to the floor. He looks at me, then back down to the track again. He says, "You can try other things. Mostly they won't hurt him."

"But will they help him?"

He shrugs. "I'm a play therapist. And I like the behavioral approach." A flat statement, a non-comment. But it feels to me he is saying much more, that I am speaking to someone in the trenches, who has been in the trenches for a long time, who is battle-weary but full of wisdom. It is as though he is saying, "Here is the only gun that fires. Pick up the bloody gun."

Here's another metaphor that I think is related to the parenting-an-autistic-child-as-war metaphor; Melanie compares her efforts to get her son, Daniel, to speak before it's "too late" for his prognosis to improve to trying to get him out of a burning building:

To ask a person to do nothing for their child or to do very little is unfair. For them to do nothing means they have to fight the overwhelming urge to push away the danger, to run through the flames, to slay the dragon. However hopeless the situation might appear, it is infinitely more difficult to do nothing than even an ill-considered something. I knew a man whose teenage son was stabbed to death in the early hours of a Saturday night by kids his own age who wanted the sneakers he was wearing. His father had repeated dreams --- the day-and-night dreams that I came to be familiar with after Daniel's diagnosis --- in which he was there when it happened, just behind the gang as they circled his boy. There, hidden in the luxuriant green of unkempt bushes, he would be crouching. Or he stepped off the bus just in time to reach over and pluck his son, vibrant and alive, from the hands of his attackers. In his dreams, the five-inch steel blade that pierced his son's chest never so much as scratched his skin. Instead, he took his child in his arms as he had as a baby, running at a supernatural speed, flying even, not knowing where he was going but knowing it was away --- away from threat and danger and harm, away from four youths and their deadly, sharpened blade.

But the dreams were only dreams. The reality was, the boy died. The father slept.

My reality is that my child lives peacefully within a dysfunctional brain while I search madly --- tear myself apart --- trying to think for the both of us how to get out of the burning building of autism. Even using this method --- this play therapy mixed with applied behavior therapy and whatever else Andy brings to bear --- there are limitations. With every learned word or spontaneous moment of play, I see Daniel becoming more like any other child, less "autistic"-seeming, and I know that if he will interact with others as he is now interacting with Andy, with me, with [his sister] Emily, his life will not be entirely ruined by the condition. But there is also a time factor. As he develops so do all the other children around him. He has to race to catch up or never catch up at all. I understand this very well. It is almost as though someone has told me, "If he is going to escape the fire, he must do so early, before the roof caves in."

There's another comparison to armed conflict at the beginning of this quoted passage, where Melanie compares her own angst over having an autistic son to the recurring nightmares of a father of a murdered son; placing herself in the father's shoes, Melanie makes Daniel's autism into the gang of teenage thugs that took the other boy's life.

Later in the same passage, Daniel's autism becomes a burning building that he must escape --- that Melanie has to lead him out of.

All of these metaphors work to convey several things that I think Marti Leimbach was trying to emphasize with them --- Melanie's desperation, her constant feeling that something of life-or-death importance is happening in her son's life, that will determine the course of her son's life, that she cannot figure out how to wade in and help him. Her repeated use of images of battle, of sacrifice, of terrible, outsized, Herculean struggles waged on his behalf, seem like they reflect the gap between what she can do for him --- what she is doing for him --- and what she wishes she could do for him. She reaches for life-and-death scenarios to compare her efforts to, and most often she returns to the battlefield for her metaphor of choice.

While I am sure Leimbach chose these metaphors to highlight her character's sense of living under extreme circumstances, and her frustrated desire to help her son, I also see something in these metaphors that I'm not sure she meant to imply.

What all of these metaphors --- of war, of individual combat, of fleeing a collapsing, burning building --- do is they separate Daniel from a part of himself, and set that part in conflict with the whole person. To save her son, Melanie makes war on ... her son. She doesn't see it that way; she sees her war as being against the thing that has taken her son from her, but Daniel hasn't been taken from her at all. He's still there, he's just not the way she wishes he could be.

This conflict Melanie sees between Daniel and Daniel's autism reminds me of the autism-as-prison metaphor I described in my post about spatial metaphors and autism:
One thing the autism-as-container metaphor tends to leave muddled is where the autistic person dwells in this metaphorical space. It's quite eloquent on the position of the parents, peers and teachers trying to relate to this strange being --- we're given to understand quite clearly that they feel locked out and exhausted from battering at the door --- but what's not always clear is whether the autistic person is in the metaphorical Fortress of Solitude, or whether they are it.

Judy and Sean Barron's 1992 book There's a Boy In Here makes it unusually clear: Sean is inside his autism, his thoughts, feelings, desires, and self obscured from his mother's sight by his intense anger, his tantrums, his reckless, aggressive and often destructive behaviors. But in other books, like The Siege (which I haven't read) and Bruno Bettelheim's mother-blaming opus The Empty Fortress (which I likewise haven't read), it's not clear whether the walls that the authors advocate tearing down imprison the child, or whether they constitute a part of hir, like a protective cocoon or exoskeleton. The act of trying to "break through" to an autistic child becomes a violent one if the latter construction is implied ...

Melanie's understanding of her son's autism in Daniel Isn't Talking is, as I mentioned above, stuck in "But this is not my child!" mode. For her, Autism is a hostile Other that has taken, and changed, her son. Her son's autism might be a part of him, but it's a dangerous, diseased part that Melanie believes Daniel will be much better off without. Because she sees Autism as a separate, hostile entity and Daniel as its victim, she can cast herself as Autism's implacable foe without seeing any tension between that role and the unconditional love of Daniel that the maternal role demands.

Other reviews of this book: Sharon at The Voyage, Kristina Chew at


Unknown said...

Thank you for writing this! I actually read this book shortly after my diagnosis, and while I was aware that it wasn't a particularly good book, I didn't realize how offensive it was. Your post has jogged my memory, and I agree with you about how it reinforces all the toxic stereotypes.

What's especially interesting is how you point out the connection to war, and how Autism is The Enemy. The terminology is sickening, especially since it doesn't even involve poor Daniel. I've often seen my own life as war with myself and my handicaps, but recently I've come to believe that being autistic is being put at war with the basic social framework of society. And then I think that, if I could magically take a cure for autism, I'd never do it because it'd be a cowardly surrender.

It's also interesting for me personally because my webcomic takes a completely opposite approach from Daniel Isn't Talking, where disabled characters (some of whom are autistic) are super-soldiers at war with the rest of the world, and only have each other to rely on, while the villains talk about curing human weakness.

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Anonymous said...

That book sounds nauseating.

I mean, I can understand being worried about your kid and learning to deal with your kid having a disability being stressful, but the language she uses is just so overwrought.

And where's the father in all of this?

Unknown said...

Eternal stranger,

The dad turns out to be a deadbeat who draws away due to the stress of taking care of Daniel. This is supposed to make the mom look stronger for doing it all on her own, until she falls for the charismatic behavioral aide Andy. So it's not just treating autistic people badly, but fathers as well. ( this is a common part of the warrior mom narrative, also seen in Jodi Picoult's House Rules, and Jenny McCarthy's account of her experience ).

Lindsay said...


Oh, I see Nitz the Bloody beat me to it.

Yes, Daniel's father is absent for much of the book; that was a deliberate choice by the author. Daniel's father/Melanie's husband, Stephen, is portrayed as a huge jerk who never really cared that much about Melanie, who's always carried a torch for another woman even after he married Melanie, and who leaves as soon as things with Melanie and Daniel get a bit rough.

Amanda Forest Vivian said...

gosh, you're a great person for reading this book because I would probably cry/barf if I read a book like that. thanks for reviewing it so other people don't have to.

Daisy Deadhead said...

Did you ever read Susan Sontag's "Illness as metaphor"? I am surprised people are still talking about "wars" on diseases and conditions, which after all, are part of US, you know?

I *hate* that terminology.

Lindsay said...

@Daisy - I actually just got a copy of Illness as Metaphor recently --- haven't read it yet, but I will!