Sunday, March 18, 2001.
CLARA PARK CONTINUES THE STORY OF HER DAUGHTER'S EFFORTS TO BREAK THROUGH THE WALL OF AUTISM
Reviewed By David Royko. David Royko is the author of "Voices of Children of Divorce" (now in paperback), a licensed clinical psychologist, and has been a regular freelance contributor to the Tribune since 1992.
EXITING NIRVANA: A Daughter's Life With Autism
By Clara Claiborne Park
Little, Brown, 225 pages, $23.95
Hunching down in a kitchen chair, I am eye-level with my son Ben as he stands, face inches from mine, beaming with anticipation that I will honor his request. "Neigh . . . ," he intones, waiting for me to imitate a horse. As I deliver a hearty and protracted whinny, his eyes move closer to my mouth, staring inside, transfixed with fascination, his voice quivering and squealing with delight. The events quickly repeat, and this time his fingers find their way into my mouth and to the top of my tongue, and as he makes contact with the wet and slippery surface, his eyes narrow slightly with a hint of revulsion, followed immediately by more excited laughter.
Three minutes later, he is in the den sitting on the couch, his face inches from the family dog's. Ben, grinning widely, stares into her mouth. In go the fingers, reaching for her tongue. Nonplussed, she continues panting. He looks into her eyes and implores: "Say neigh to me."
Ben is 7 years old. We don't know if he will ever understand why the dog won't oblige him with a whinny like his dad will, because Ben is autistic. We do know he is intrigued these days by, among other things, mouths. But again, he can't tell us why. Such is the nature of autism, one mystery followed by another, like walls behind walls. The greatest minds in neurology, genetics, psychiatry each have their theories, but they don't know, at least not yet. Figure out the autistic mind and win a Nobel Prize.
If Clara Claiborne Park has not solved all of the riddles of such minds, she has provided us with a vivid description that is as rare for its level of insight as it is welcome for its sensitivity. "Exiting Nirvana" picks up the story of her daughter, Jessy Park, from where she left off with 1967's "The Siege."
Now 42, Jessy has developed into a renowned painter who creates brilliant works of true originality but remains autistic and will never be able to live independently. It can seem almost comforting when we hear of autistic people who succeed despite the condition, and it is also easy to overattend to such rare and wonderful stories and look away from the tragic and mundane ravages of the disorder. Clara Park's account, however, is refreshingly balanced, avoiding the easy trap of romanticizing Jessy's accomplishments, or the flip side, of lapsing into the overwhelming bleakness that can enter into the lives of families that have become hosts to autism. Along the way, she educates about autism's hallmarks--the profound impairments of social interaction and communication, the obsessions ("enthusiasms" in the parlance of the Park household), the odd behaviors, the limitations as well as the sometimes beguiling strengths, the hypersensitivities. Park maps this terrain with a style that blends the detailed observations of an anthropologist, a poet's gift for imagery, the love of a parent, and a vision that weaves those qualities into a story that is deeply moving and, finally, quietly hopeful.
Park is adept at taking concepts that can seem abstract and bringing them to life. One such idea that she returns to throughout the book is the "theory of mind," which refers to perceiving someone else's mind, and being capable of taking the perspective of another person. Autistic individuals largely lack this ability, and Park effectively and repeatedly illustrates the impact this has in the practical world:
"What motivates a child to grow? Why even ask the question? Growth is 'natural,' a child 'develops,' its potentialities 'unfold.' The words themselves, in their root meanings, proclaim inevitability. We think about the process only when it fails to occur. But consider the child born to autism, able to understand unvarying shapes, routines, rules, but lacking the ability to interpret the constantly shifting, interlocking, mutually dependent appearances that make up the contexts in which human beings carry on their lives. Such a child will have no reason to master those hard developmental tasks. The normal child has strong social reasons to undertake them, to use the toilet like Daddy, to tie its shoes like Katy, to say words, elicit smiles, hugs, approval. Praise encourages it to do what comes naturally even to our cousins the apes, to imitate and join the life around it, to grow independent, to grow up. Children want to be like other people, and when they fail they are embarrassed or ashamed. But Jessy [in her teens] had no idea what it was to be like other people; she was as immune to embarrassment as she was to emulation. Praise had been meaningless to her; it came at her out of the inexplicable universe of what other people think and want. When praised she had tuned out, or worse, stopped the behavior that elicited it."
But the Park family never gave up, and over time, Jessy learned many behaviors that typical children pick up "naturally," as an adult even taking some pleasure in social approval. This came only after dedicated, intense, laborious, repetitive, at times seemingly endless teaching. When it comes to social interaction and autistic people, very little comes naturally.
In truth, the Parks are an exceptional family of high achievers and gifted intellect (Clara is a retired English professor, Dad is a theoretical physicist, and their offspring add up to an impressive lot). Jessy Park, in her progress and accomplishments, is in many ways an exceptional autistic individual. But in many other ways, she is typical of these critically atypical people, in that she may be in with the rest of society but, in most ways we might regard as basic, will never be of it. Clara Park resists the temptation to accentuate her daughter's extraordinary attributes, which would be easy to do, and instead paints the fuller picture, giving us a rich portrait of autism in general and her daughter specifically. In the process, Park also turns a mirror on us, the more typical individuals.
As we encounter Jessy's struggles, it is hard not to consider the miracle of ordinary human development and marvel at how often things proceed smoothly. Jessy Park might mystify us, but we are far more mystifying to people with her condition. We have the solace of the rest of the world to bring us back to the comfort of our reality. For Jessy, her natural place for solace is inside herself, away from the unpredictability and incomprehensiveness of the world. The title "Exiting Nirvana" describes Jessy's being drawn out from the comfort of her rigidly structured, obsessively orderly, compulsively rule-bound internal life to interact with the world. In exiting, the challenges Jessy faces are immense, but over time they have become less difficult, sometimes even satisfying. Clara Park's description of that journey forces the reader to wonder about who we are and what enables us to ask such self-aware questions. What does Jessy's growth mean in terms of her own humanity? Reading "Exiting Nirvana" is to realize that a simple answer is a facile answer. As much as the book succeeds in bringing us into the world of autism, perhaps its greater accomplishment is in making us reconsider whatever we thought we knew about what it means to be human in the first place.