A Tough Nut To Crack: reflections on control

This week I decided to re-read Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal . When I went to look for my copy of MacNeice’s collected poems, however, it was missing. I once heard a psychotherapist compare the feelings we experience on losing a book with the realisation that we no longer love someone. Later, I turned this into a poem.

How It Happens

autumn journalLike you might lose a book from your shelves –
not noticing for a while (three years perhaps)
until one day you look for it.
Confident at first, you become uncertain,
discomfited. Later – frantic, obsessed –
you climb on high stools to reach
impossible shelves.
There might be questions asked.
Not just what you did with it
but when you had it last –
whether you were careless,
mislaid it perhaps.
Or did you give it away?

You might want to accept it.
Not be sure anymore,
what you liked about it or why
it was important to you once.
But something must have made you look.
A passing reference on the radio,
that small detail in an obit in The Times.
Or were you reminded by eyes or chance face
passing by? Did you hear words spoken
by another mouth – like seeing a copy
of your book on someone else’s shelf?
When you realise it’s gone can you find it again?
Get it back? I don’t know how. It happens (perhaps).

Afterwards I took to filing my books alphabetically. They’re not the only thing in my life in order now: my music is arranged Armatrading to ZZ Top; drafts of poems are kept chronologically; documents are filed by theme. My life wasn’t always like this however; as a student I lived in typical disorganisation. I remember being torn off a strip by my supervisor, in the run-up to submission of my doctorate, for not having kept my research records in better order.


books 001My use of alphabetical systems to order the environment is partly about supporting Dylan. Dylan doesn’t know the alphabet but he can memorise objects visually. He needs books and music to stay in the same place, however, if he is to locate what he wants. As I don’t have the ability to memorise the position of things on shelves, the only way I have of keeping books and music in the same order is to use the alphabet. Although Dylan doesn’t read my books he is interested in their covers and has favourites; my Blake books and collected James Wright, for example, are particularly loved (Dylan likes men with beards and there is a splendid photo of Wright on the back cover of Above The River). Dylan organises his books by a system other than the alphabet but he has memorised the position of each one and it is important that I don’t disrupt this by moving them.

books 002This organisation of the environment goes further than books and music however. As far as Dylan is concerned, everything in the house has its place. His view of how things should be is inch-perfect; if I stand up from a chair and push it aside then walk away, Dylan will re-position it exactly as it should be. His systems apply to all sorts of objects: a video case left open on a particular item of furniture overnight; a DVD case placed behind a sofa cushion; a hair brush on a specific shelf; some papers in my writing room which must not be left out on my desk. Dylan’s sorting is a major part of his autism. Although some of his habits are fixed his organisation of the environment continues to evolve. At the moment, for example, he sorts holiday and steam train leaflets using a system based on whether or not we have visited and how much he would like to (a sort of queue system). His methods are becoming increasingly sophisticated; if I can’t find something I assume that Dylan has found a new place for it.

books 004Parents and carers often make adjustments to the way an environment is organised in order to make it more comfortable for an autistic child or adult. Although Dylan likes being out and about, the community is stressful for him; coming home to an environment which is predictable helps him to relax and feel safe. While initially this required a conscious effort on my part, I have been making adaptations to the home for so many years now it has become second nature to me. In a previous post I noted that we tend to take on the characteristics of people we live with and observed that there’s no reason why this should be any different for those of us who live with people who are neurodiverse. I would certainly admit to having ‘gone native’: I control the environment for my benefit now as much as for Dylan.


‘Control’ is one of those concepts that can be used both positively and negatively: children shouldn’t be out of control but being controlling is frowned upon; we don’t want to lose emotional control but stiff upper lips are unhealthy. It is also a subjective concept – how much control people consider too much varies. Control is, however, used as the basis for judgement; complaints about people being ‘controlling’ are frequently made in the workplace and home. Criticism is also often made of environments which are controlled; I find it puzzling that it is considered OK to comment on someone’s house being tidy, but not on one being messy. A boyfriend who teased my alphabetical shelves rankled so much I put him in a bluesy poem:

My lover mocks the way I file a book;
the order against chaos that I keep.

For me, writing a poem is a process of discovery as well as a technical challenge; I don’t think I realised until I wrote those lines that my keeping order was a way of keeping at bay the forces of disorder. But I realised, afterwards, that this is partly what I am doing; a controlled environment is one in which we reduce risk, be it debris from an explosion or rogue measurements from complex variables.


Dylan has been assessed at home recently by potential providers of residential care. After one care home manager had completed her assessment we were chatting about transition from child to adult services. She had recently visited a children’s respite provision, she told me, and had been dismayed by how controlling the environment was. The adult provision she was responsible for, she said, supported young people to have control over their own lives. I had no reason to argue with that. But then: ‘I sometimes think’, she said, ‘ that if parents were less controlling fewer adults would end up in residential care’.

I felt as if I were the centre of a controlled explosion. I was speechless. Did she think a residential place a failure then, second best to continuing to live in the parental home? Was she criticising my parenting? Had she clocked my alphabetical bookshelves perhaps? Afterwards I reflected that none of these were likely to be the case: she wouldn’t have shared them with me if they were and, besides, I liked her. I decided that she wasn’t talking about controlled environments so much as controlling relationships. I let myself off the hook: I wouldn’t berate myself for having a tidy house. Parents of autistic children don’t need any more sticks to beat themselves with; we already have plenty. Alcohol in the first trimester. A poor diet. High stress levels. A prolonged labour. That vaccine shot. I didn’t plan to add ‘controlling mother’ to the list. And besides – isn’t that just another version of ‘refrigerator mother’?


Berger and Conrad youtubeThe film Ordinary People (which I’ve referred to elsewhere) is a study of the impact of loss on a family. Buck, a much-loved oldest son, dies in a boating accident which his younger brother, Conrad, survives. The movie opens in the aftermath of a failed suicide attempt by Conrad who is struggling with survivor guilt and Post Traumatic Shock Disorder. Conrad agrees to see a therapist, Dr Berger, but at an initial meeting is reluctant to engage.

Why are you here then? What do you want from me?

I don’t know. I guess I’d like to be more in control.

Why do you want to be more in control?

I don’t know. So that people can quit worrying about me.

Well let me tell you something: I’m not big on control.

ordinary dinner   youtubeWhen Conrad balks at Berger’s suggestion that he will need to attend for therapy twice a week Berger shrugs: Control’s a tough nut to crack. Control, it turns out, is a key theme of the movie; as the focus shifts to the impact of Buck’s death on the wider family, we realise that this is the way Conrad’s mother, Beth, copes with her grief. Beth manages the environment and those around her obsessively: she lines up cutlery, makes lists and runs a perfectly-ordered house. She controls schedules, organises family trips and manages the behaviour of Conrad and her husband, Calvin. On the morning of Buck’s funeral, it transpires, Beth had asked Calvin to change his shoes and shirt. Conrad tells Berger that his mother had never forgiven him for getting blood all over the new bathroom tiles when he tried to kill himself. Berger knows that what Conrad actually needs is not to feel more in control but to feel; Berger helps Conrad but Beth’s refusal to let go ultimately causes her to lose everything.

I’ve watched the film dozens of time but never fail to be moved by the mother’s situation; grieving deeply for her dead son, the only way she can cope with life is to erect defences against further loss. Haven’t I had enough surprises? she yells at Calvin when he tries to persuade her to see Dr Berger for family therapy; her response to grief is to want life to be a settled, private place. Beth’s determination that nothing should ever again disturb her world means she appears cold and detached emotionally: if she is not incapable of loving Conrad and Calvin, then she is unable to show it. In a previous post I have reflected that this is an understandable response to trauma; while keeping an ordered and controlled environment is helpful for Dylan, there is probably a sense in which it helps me too.


whatculture.com conrad and bethAlthough Conrad tells Berger that his mother hates him, his father sheds a different light on the relationship between mother and son; the problem, Calvin suggests to Berger, is that Conrad and his mother are alike. I have been thinking, recently, about the ways in which people are similar, not different. Spectrum, a manuscript of poems I’m working on currently, considers autism as an integral part of a family. Instead of focusing on the things which mark Dylan out as different, the poems in the manuscript find connections between his autistic world and the neurotypical world around him. Rather than dwelling on paradox, these poems look for pattern. In the title poem, I reflect on possible links between three generations of family; here I show my father and I attempting to impose some control on our respective environments, as Dylan does on his.


He calls me on Sunday morning at 8.
There are 72 out, he says: 3 more
to come by the end of the day.
Dad has been counting daffodils.
I picture him in the garden
stooping over them, moving stems
between his hands in groups of 6.
My son is getting anxious;
he is clutching his second DVD of the day,
needing help. This call should only take
5 minutes, I tell myself, if I just say Yes.
My guess is perfect for once. I correct
the angle of a vase on the table
as I pass: fast rewind, select play, press.

Mathematics is something which I think of as linking myself and Dylan as it is associated both with autism and poetry. The film Ordinary People shows us that control can be functional in helping us to overcome trauma and deal with situations we find threatening; I use numbers in my poem to express this positive side of exercising control. The film also, however, illustrates the dangers inherent in such control and I try to hint at these in the poem. It may be that Dylan’s current behaviour (which you can read about here, here and here) is related to control; perhaps he is testing out boundaries or struggling to manage new feelings. If emotional control can be both enabling and disabling, then my task is perhaps to provide Dylan with the freedom to explore his emotions in a place which, while not risk-free, is stable and safe.


I’m still wondering what happened to my copy of Louis MacNeice’s Collected Poems but my money’s on the boyfriend who mocked my alphabetical shelves πŸ™‚



  • Elizabeth Barrett (2013) ‘Spectrum’ in Turbulence, No. 13
  • Elizabeth Barrett (2005) ‘How It Happens’ in The Bat Detector. Wrecking Ball Press
  • Robert Redford (1988) Ordinary People [VHS]


All photographs by Liz except for the cover image of Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal (Faber and Faber) and the movie stills:

  • Dr Berger (Judd Hirsch) and Conrad (Timothy Hutton) is from Youtube.
  • Conrad, Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) having dinner is from Youtube.
  • Conrad and Beth in the garden is from whatculture.com

Here’s a trailer for the movie:

4 thoughts on “A Tough Nut To Crack: reflections on control

  1. Control helps me not to have to deal with physical aggression, as no one else provides any solution, besides “call the police”, fill in the blank should CONTROL fill in the blank. Control helps me to have a wee bit of life living that might sort of in a round about way allow ME to have a life. Everyone is so concerned about the labeled one! Everyone is so concerned about their own need to find a reason for blame–because Autism isn’t fixable, there is an endless cause effect blame cycle going as to the why that normally applies to a person’s choices and behaviors. The idea that Autism is a Neurological condition and NOT NOT NOT a behavioral one is a right pain in the ass. Every day is a reinventing of the wheel trying to duplicate what works, what appears to make an Autistic individual look or be more normal. Both from outside views and judgements but also from the people that love them, hoping and wanting them to have a fulfilling and meaningful life.

    Maybe I was venting and I hurled the book somewhere…. πŸ˜€


    • Venting is good πŸ™‚ Thank you for the observation that control allows you to have a ‘wee bit of life’ (nice to hear a bit of Scottish English!). I hadn’t thought about that but you’re absolutely right – I can’t imagine managing to write and do some of the other things I enjoy without it…


  2. I loved this, especially the poem about losing the book. Having “fallen out of love” after many years of marriage, I could very much relate to that sense of wondering when and how it happened.

    I’ve remarked before on the similarity between your strategies for supporting Dylan and some of the strategies that help my daughters manage anxiety– being very particular about the s
    arrangement of their possessions, and needing to have predictable patterns and routines. My eldest struggles with the catch-22 of anxiety that needs to have orderly surroundings, and depression that saps her energy to maintain that order. When she is going through a low patch, the support she most wants and needs from me is help to clean and tidy her apartment.

    I think the need to exercise control is a pretty common defense against emotional chaos. I associate nearly every major family crisis with doing dishes– somehow when the world is falling apart it is comforting to know that at least you can keep the kitchen under control.

    When I read your posts, I always feel a little sad that you are so far away and I can’t call you up and say lets go have coffee and a chat πŸ™‚


  3. Hi Anna – thank you for your lovely comment. If I am ever in Winnipeg (did I get that right?) I will give you a call! I wrote that poem for just that reason actually – realising after years of marriage and not being sure quite when it had happened or whether anything could be done. I don’t think you can fall in love with someone again after you’ve fallen out of it – or at least I’ve never been able to. Doing dishes! Yes of course. I must be in a permanent state of crisis because my house (which I bought in 2008) has a dishwasher which I have NEVER used. I sometimes think that’s really weird (when I viewed the house I found the idea of having one quite attractive) but having read your comment I realise that I just don’t want to give up the therapeutic benefits of doing dishes! I am so looking forward to that coffee πŸ™‚


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