This is the final post in a series discussing representations of autism in contemporary literature. My first post (which you can read here) focused on Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump; while acknowledging the contribution of Higashida’s text I noted the limitations of a singular account of autism. In my second post (which you can read here) I applied the ‘Magic 30′ theory of representation to literature, arguing that fiction should reflect social reality by including multiple representations of autism. As part of that post I reviewed Catherine Edmunds’ Bacchus Wynd, a novel which includes a number of characters who are affected by autism.
This week I review Poe Ballantine’s Love & Terror On The Howling Plains of Nowhere (Hawthorne Books, 2013). Ballantine’s book is not about autism – its presence on ‘the howling plains’ is almost incidental – and yet, or maybe because of this, it is a compelling account. Although Love & Terror involves a single autistic child (Ballantine’s son, Tom), autism is represented as a regular rather than an exceptional part of life. Here, we are in the realm of magic numbers: after a while, Ballantine writes, “everyone begins to look autistic, everyone fits somewhere along ‘the spectrum’.”
Love and Fear: Conrad and the Nun
A friend once told me, while out walking with my son Dylan in the countryside, that I had a ‘Conradian imagination’. Away from road traffic I can let Dylan walk alone providing he is within sight. On this particular day Dylan was running ahead of us. Suddenly I left my friend’s side and sprinted ahead to catch Dylan. Why my friend asked, did you do that? I explained that I had spotted a low bridge on our high trail over a river and feared Dylan might lean out over the side and fall – that the moment before I ran to join Dylan, movie camera footage of him falling had played in my head like a warning. That, my friend said, is a potent mix of love and fear: pure Conrad.
I have heard ‘love and fear’ referred to in the same breath a few times since – recently my attention was caught by one of the characters in a BBC TV drama (a nun) claiming that at the heart of our actions is always love or fear (and sometimes a combination of the two). I think that I’ve come to believe this to be true of myself; parents of children affected by autism, I suspect, find that love grows in ways we could never have imagined , as does fear.
So there was no way, really, that I was going to be able to resist Poe Ballantine’s book when I happened across an advert for it. Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere. Oh my. I can’t remember whether I got past the title to discover there was an autistic child in the book, but I suspect I did. There must have been something more than a title to warrant me spending money on a US import. Mustn’t there?
Somewhere and Nowhere
Love & Terror arrived at Christmas. It turned out to be one of those books I spend time admiring before beginning: attractive paper, typeset in Paperback, stylish publisher’s logo, that ampersand and, best of all, jacket flaps ( I love flaps). Experience has taught me not to judge a book by its cover though: the proof of the howling plains would be in Ballantine’s ability to turn his nowhere into my somewhere.
The cover blurb of Ballantine’s memoir describes it as: true crime page-turner, violently funny portrait of a tiny Western town, field guide to saving a bilingual marriage and raising an autistic child, sutra on living with open mind and big heart. The author (the front flap tells us) travelled America for over twenty years before settling in Chadron, Nebraska. In the opening paragraph Ballantine recalls his first encounter with the place:
I first came across Chadron, Nebraska, by accident, in 1994. I had borrowed a car, thrown all my meager belongings in the back, and driven west, the direction of escape after disaster, the direction of decline and the setting sun. I intended to kill myself. The farther you go west, the higher the suicide rate gets, and I thought perhaps that would give me the momentum I needed. In America we remake ourselves, though it rarely works out. (p.19)
The early chapter headings reveal the importance of place in Ballantine’s remaking: 1. Last Stop, Chadron, Nebraska 2. City of Barking Dogs 3. Olde Main Street Inn 4. Wyoming! 5. Mexico. In Zacatecas, Ballantine meets and marries Cristina, who becomes another location on Ballantine’s journey back to Nebraska (6. Cristinaland) . By chapter 7 Ballantine is in Chadron a second time, seven years after he first passed through, this time with a wife and son. The town’s ‘kooky residents’, bars and howling plains suit Ballantine – though Chadron, he tells us, is a stopover for most people as you have to be content there:
to subsist solely on friendliness, flannel sheets, books, pink-cauldron sunsets, cool summer nights, high, star-smashed skies, a cupboard full of homemade jams and salsa that your neighbours have made, deer in your backyard, Friday night at the President’s Table, and Police Beat entries. (p.126)
Police Beat is a log of calls to the Chadron Police Department and Ballantine uses extracts from these to hilarious effect as chapter epigraphs in his memoir:
7:13 P.M. Caller from the 500 block of King St. advised that somebody cut his clothesline in his backyard and hung a scarecrow on it. He advised he just wanted it on record. He also advised that he was going to keep the scarecrow if nobody claimed it.(p. 21)
Police Beat becomes less amusing, however, following the disappearance in 2006 of Ballantine’s neighbour, Steven Haataja, a maths lecturer at the local college. Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere is Ballantine’s account of his dogged attempts to find out what happened to Haataja (whose body is eventually found burned and bound to a tree in the hills beyond the town) while local police and college officials appear unable or unwilling to investigate the crime. The book becomes a sort of psychogeography with Ballantine walking Chadron and its environs, endlessly pacing hill and plain in the howling nowhere, trying to get close enough to land to learn its secret.
Prams and Pizzas
What, for howling plains sake, does any of this have to do with representations of autism? Well, something and nothing. What is striking about Ballantine’s book, and what distinguishes it from most other books which incorporate representations of autism, is the absolutely ordinary and matter-of-fact way in which his autistic son, Tom, becomes part of the narrative. This is a conscious decision on Ballantine’s part who, when asked by his publisher whether he would be interested in writing a book on autism, refuses ( I think it’s already been done seven million times). Besides, Ballantine isn’t convinced by the autism diagnosis (the jacket flap puts the qualifier ‘purportedly’ before the word).
Ballantine is not a man to accept assumed ‘truths’; just as he challenges the Chadron Police Department’s verdict on the Haataja case, so he is sceptical of the professionals who ‘red-flag’ his son for autism after he starts Kindergarten. This is not, however, a book about children being wrongly diagnosed with autism, nor a book about the way in which labels can be unhelpful (though it raises both those issues). The focus of the book is neither ‘autism’ nor ‘not autism’; it is simply life, which for some of us happens to have autism in it. It is this ordinariness – this approach to autistic neurology as absolutely quotidian – which characterises Ballantine’s book. The fact that Tom is represented as Ballantine’s son, rather than as his autistic son, has a profound impact on the philosophy of the book. Here is our first meeting with Tom:
Tom walked like a little sailor, erect, chest out, arms swinging freely. He was cheerful, quick with a smile, and when the music came on, he danced…He had an extraordinary memory and could count to 124 at age three and a half. He talked and asked a great deal of questions about the wind, the moon, and storms. When he grew up, he told us, he was going to collect spoons. Tom was the sort of child, as all parents will tell you about their children, who was truly exceptional. (p. 57)
Ballantine does not deny the reality of autism or the behaviours and characteristics which lead to his son’s diagnosis. He tells us that, as well as a facility with number , Tom had repetitive, ritual, sensory and social behaviours. Rather than consider these deficits, however, Ballantine represents them as part of Tom’s personality. Perhaps the ultimate stage in living with autism’s passions is to accept them, recognising their importance to your child’s happiness. Tom has a special interest in elevators and fire exits (he has numbered the doors in his home and designated his bedroom door a fire exit) and owns two rubber skeletons called ‘Thing’ and ‘Baby Love’. Ballantine refers to Tom’s interests in the easy way which parents of autistic children may recognise; his narrative is punctuated by detours to check fire doors and ride elevators, with rubber skeletons in tow, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. On these trips, Tom usually brings along his pram:
Wherever we went in those days, whatever the weather, Tom liked to push his old stroller. Once a passenger he was now the driver, and carried a number of his prized possessions, rubber lizards and skeletons, clothespins, ring boxes, a taped swizzle stick, a belt named ‘Poopy’, a Spongebob Ball cap, a clipboard, and a weed he’d just pulled from the ground, all piled together in the seat. (p. 89)
The walks which father, son and pram take around Chadron are beautifully observed:
…the boy and I travelled together. We tramped about town, visited our friends, shopped for good-looking -tomatoes. We walked along the railroad tracks. He’d often wear his ‘singing shoes’, Mexican black dress shoes that could not have been comfortable but held important meaning for him because he’d been in a school performance with them and loved to sing. He’d gotten in the habit of saying, ‘Let’s dine out, ‘ and then in a tone as if withering from starvation: ‘I need some junk food.’ Everywhere he pushed his stroller full of rubber lizards and other prized possessions. (p. 173)
There is a sense of easy companionship and understanding between father and son as they bond over Daylight glazed donuts, side orders of bacon and Old McDonald’s. Ballantine and his son share a love of the outdoors, a non-linear thinking style and a tendency to word play. Ballantine delights in renaming things and places; the nearby town of Alliance is Alliance and Tigers and Bears Oh My! and Tom gives back as good as his father (p. 232):
“When we get back, we’ll have lunch. What do you want?”
“We went to McDonald’s yesterday. You can’t eat that stuff every day. It isn’t good for your heart.”
“I don’t have a heart”, he replied. “I have a square.”
“Why do you have a square?”
“Girls have hearts,” he said, “boys have squares”
“It isn’t good for your square then.”
On request, Ballantine ‘makes two spiders’ for his son:
These finger spiders I made, Spidey and Whitey, were his only non-adult friends. Spidey and Whitey loved him, kissed him, crawled up his shirt and made him giggle. In turn he cared for them, made sandwiches for them, put them to bed, housed them in his tents, and made sure they got through the dark woods safely where they attended spider school and sometimes spider church. They were also the bridge when he withdrew emotionally.
I’d make two spiders and then everything would be all right. (p.99)
As a father Ballantine is attentive; his love for Tom draws him respectfully into his son’s world. As a writer Ballantine’s observations are acute and precise; he knows the importance of ‘show don’t tell’. The result is a tender portrait of a relationship which I found moving and affirming in its ordinariness. Ballantine is a fine writer – one of the best – and as well as a true crime page-turner (which it certainly is) Love & Terror is a zen guide to living with autism.
Ballantine decides, when Tom is six, that they will stop taking him to see the autism specialist in Casper (a three hour journey by plane, $165 dollars an hour). Tom had failed to meet the criteria for Asperger’s and, Ballantine concluded: If he was autistic, it was an extremely mild form, like a slice of pepperoni on a bell pepper pizza. Ballantine had stopped caring about where his son ‘fit along any spectra’ anyway: Tom was Tom. In the end, Spidey and Whitey, the finger spiders, were far more important:
…every day at least once he was attacked by the Kissing Monster or crushed in my arms with love, and I’d tell him a dozen times at least that he was the most fantastic boy in the world, the one I loved the most on earth, the one who made all the difference, and I’d nuzzle his ears until he giggled and he was once again mine. Darkness holds title to half of Creation, children are afraid of it for good reason. One day you are walking along the railroad tracks or up a trail into the wilderness or down the soup aisle at Safeway and wham there it is, nothing really that you can say except a feeble, “Where’s the clam chowder?” Love might seem a sentimental defense, but it was all that I had, it was my only light in the great dark forest below the star-crowned trees.
When I was a child my parents wouldn’t let me read during the day. They thought it was unhealthy and would send me outside to play. I used to long for bedtime to come when I was allowed ‘one chapter’ before turning out the light (and, unallowed, would read on, burrowed in the blankets with a secret torch). Nowadays I’m so busy I don’t let myself read until bedtime; if I did, stuff just wouldn’t get done and Dylan wouldn’t get my attention the way he needs. Reading Poe Ballantine’s book over the Christmas holidays, I found myself longing for bedtime in a way I hadn’t done since I was a child.
I began these three reviews with a memory of an encounter with a mother of an older autistic son who told me that she didn’t read books about autism anymore, she read ‘real books’ again. Well, Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere is a real book. If there’s one thing better than being able to read real books again, it’s reading real books with autism in them. Thank you Mr Ballantine.