In a recent post reflecting on the causes of autism I referred to ‘magical thinking’. By this I mean explanations for disability which aren’t based on scientific rationale or evidence but which acquire narrative status across a cultural group or society. In this post I present four poems which represent a mother’s changing view of autism in the years immediately following diagnosis. The post opens with a poem in which I try to make sense of autism through magical thinking. It then traces critical shifts in my understanding through poems written within the first five years of Dylan’s diagnosis and published in my collection, The Bat Detector.
Responding to my son’s autism through poetry has, I believe, shaped my thinking about disability. Writing a poem is a journey and in the course of it I frequently discover things I wasn’t previously aware of. Furthermore the act of writing is transformative; I am changed not just by what I have written but through the process of writing itself. In this sense poetry can be considered as epistemology (i.e. a ‘way of knowing’) as well as a form governed by aesthetic and other principles.
Poetry is not, of course, my only way of knowing but it is important to me as a creative approach to thinking about autism. Partly this is because poetry allows me to adopt other voices and perspectives, something I have referred to in a previous post as ‘ethnographic practice’. This can be particularly illuminating as a way of knowing about parenting and disability. In this, of course, it is not unique; researchers also engage with other perspectives. However, poetry also allows us to engage with affective (emotional) material and gives us permission to explore our magical as well as scientific thinking. This post considers the contribution which such an epistemological approach can make to our understanding of autism.
In the poem below I consider magical thinking as an explanation for autism through reference to an English folk belief that boys born on a moonless Monday become ‘idiot children’ (as they were known in the 19th century). Dylan was born by the sea and that landscape makes an appearance in the poem. In the first section I use female mythology of the moon in the mother’s attempt to gauge her fertility by lunar cycles. In the second section of the poem I refer to the baby missing its opportunity to be born while the moon is visible in the sky (by the time Dylan put in an appearance it had gone).
The third and fourth sections of the poem refer to a trip to France the year after Dylan was born (see also this post). Dylan was 15 months old and beginning to show symptoms of autism though we didn’t realise this at the time. I remember joking to my husband about the full moon shining on Dylan’s cot at night and us laughing about Dylan emptying the cupboards in the holiday home and arranging the pots. We had no idea of the significance of this. The day at Carnac (a megalithic site aligned with the moon) became legendary in our family history because of the severity of Dylan’s crying that day and our inability to calm him. In the final section of the poem I reflect that the lives of mother and son are somehow bound up with and controlled by the moon.
Mother know’d ’twas no moon, for she asked another woman that had an almanac, as she did whenever a boy was born to her, because of the saying, ‘No moon, no man’ which made her afeard every man-child she had… Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native
i. Moon Dates
I timed my eggs by the moon,
knew that when it bellied in the sky
my linings would break to maddening blood.
There must have been fog over the sea that June –
something to obscure that bony annulet from my view,
to wrench from my miscounting on it
an alternative computation.
I converted lunations to trimesters,
waited, patiently, for a March moon.
ii. No-Moon Child
Waters lapping at toe and fist, cast out on a hawser,
syllables form, echoing in the stabbing dark:
I will be the moonstruck man you never wanted,
the boy feared beyond imagined daughters.
The sea heaved, spilling spring tide
from a silver moon, shivering a swatch of light
to fill the emptiness, the silence of my due night.
Tick, tick. Its fullness splintered back to blackness
and the month stitched a no-moon Monday to his cry.
As I set the child to sleep that night in a white cot
beneath the eaves of a manor house in France
I shuddered at the sight of moon
pooling full through un-curtained glass,
said that I had read this could send a person mad.
What lunacies beamed from that stark land
into his dreaming no-moon skull?
What fingers of leaching light softly thread
around my shuttered sleep into his exposed head?
iv. No Man
The megaliths at Carnac point to the moon.
How he cried that day at those lunate bones
divining time from the sky’s light –
gouged the terrible sight of those stone fingers
(their silent, commanding point) from his eyes,
then emptied cupboards of annular things,
spread cups and saucers, pans and bowls in complex order
across the floor, moved his planets inch by inch into a
mooncalf heaven, mapped his constellation from these stars.
v. Moon Life
And now, wordless, inhabiting a world as strange
and far away as moon he greets its mad latescence
with howling wails and wakefulness,
meets the coldness of its hoary stare through fingers
spread across the glass shredding silver,
minting slivers of no-moon in the sky.
His life and mine still timed by moon he lives
within the darkened days between its blooming,
breathes in space between its lunatic albescence.
Moonstruck is an example of magical thinking about autism in that it locates cause in folk mythology and nature. The philosophy of the poem is that the mother and child are victims of something which was inevitable and for which they were marked out by a force unknown and larger than them. The mother and child have no power, or ‘agency’, in this process; they will not resist what has happened or attempt any change and, in this respect, there is an acceptance of the autism. However, this is not a positive acceptance; the actors are passive onlookers, constructed as victims.
In the following poem, by contrast, the mother-narrator does not accept her child’s autism. Although the representation of her son is loving, autism is depicted as something ‘other’ to him; it is an alien force which has taken over the child’s body and stolen the son from the mother. There is no acceptance of autism – rather the mother is resistant to the idea that autism could be part of her child. However, it is magical resistance she engages in rather than scientific challenge; the rescue narrative she dreams for her son is as romantic as the explanation she offers for his autism. A section of the poem is presented below.
When my son was less than two years old –
just before his autism was diagnosed
and my whole world fell apart as the child
I thought he was (and would become)
slipped suddenly away from me,
like the death of someone known, familiar –
I had a dream (or vision) in the night.
As I slept, became aware of someone
watching me – woke to see at the entrance
of my attic room, standing at the top of the stairs,
a blond-haired boy regarding me silently,
wise and sad-eyed. I knew it was my son –
though older (maybe seven or eight).
Then a voice – not his, but in my head,
like Aslan’s: Wait, be patient, it said,
I have to go away but will come back
to you one day. I sat up straight –
anxious, wanting to hold on,
not let him slip away, be gone.
Then a flicker of breath against
my cheek as he disappeared.
That was years ago: my son is seven now.
Sometimes I turn – try to catch
him at the top of the attic stairs
looking the way I dreamed he would –
try to conjure from his absent eyes
an answer to the patient watch
I’ve kept for his delivery back.
In the opening section of Breath (not included here) the mother-narrator reflects on her previous loss of a daughter through stillbirth. Breath, then, becomes a poem of sudden loss in which children are stolen away; these losses take place overnight when there is permeability between the living and spirit worlds and souls can cross over. In this sense the loss of the son to autism is constructed as an ‘othering’. The absent-eyed child is an imposter who has taken the place of the lost (non-autistic) child who the mother-narrator prefers. The non-autistic child is constructed as superior not just to the imposter but to the mother; in this poem, it is the lost child who takes the explanatory narrative (‘I have to go away’) and who is charged with responsibility for managing his own return. The mother simply has to wait. This abnegation of maternal responsibility is part of a construction of the mother as passive victim who has to endure magical fate (Moonstruck) and mystical crime (Breath).
Dylan in his helmet
In the next poem, instead of magical thinking the mother embraces scientific explanation. The poem uses the language and vocabulary of genetics. Through this, the mother begins to construct herself as part of her son’s autism. This is not a positive involvement however – rather she fears her potential responsibility for the wider family and future generations. The poem explores fertility and reproduction and I relished the opportunity to write about menstruation, ovaries and eggs. However in other respects the poem was difficult for me to write. Reference is made to the mother’s new daughter as well as to the daughter who died; this living daughter is seen as the only ‘normal’ child, with both the dead daughter and the autistic son described as carriers of genetic ‘abnormality’. In this, then, the mother continues to privilege normalcy over diversity.
I wanted to try and capture the reality of being a mother to an autistic toddler – the days when it’s a struggle to keep going until the release of sleep. While I was writing the poem I forced myself to be very detached about Dylan. At the time he had a policeman’s helmet (not a real one) which he insisted on wearing constantly and which makes an appearance in the poem. I don’t know who bought it for Dylan but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have. I came to really dislike that helmet.
The morning brings stench of broken linings,
blood like a butcher’s shop, thick and liver-brown.
Menstruating again – shedding another
of the last surviving eggs
from the store I was born with.
A geneticist assured me once it was all
a bit of a lottery; told me that in every
woman’s cargo of eggs there are some
that are bad – chance statistics of
abnormality or spontaneous abortion.
One of my long-shot eggs grew hardly
human. Today he is a monster on a train,
wearing a helmet. He emits strange shrieks,
makes bizarre grimaces with his face.
Except for providing food
I cannot connect with him today.
This defect cannot be detected
or tracked back, with certainty,
to the egg. But I know the possibilities –
the endless varieties of bad ovum.
Recall how, years ago, the geneticist
talked me through my still-born
daughter’s post-mortem. The shock of it:
sheer extent of things gone wrong –
impossible – inside her.
I’d held her: committed her to memory,
through unstoppable tears. She’s beautiful,
she’s so perfect I’d said. I remember
how the doctor had touched her left foot,
showed me the odd splay of her toes –
said it sometimes indicated things gone wrong.
Later, the confirmation of ugly words:
fixed flexion deformities, syndactyly,
webbing, micrognathia. It was the egg,
the geneticist said, that failed to divide:
an extra set of chromosomes –
Triploidy Karyotype XXX.
The only thing normal
reported about her: female genitalia
and reproductive system intact.
Now I have another daughter: she is
my bright and bouncing perfect egg.
Today, mourning my losses, feeling
ache and cramp of blood (the odds
on my eggs being good lengthening)
I fear the gift I have bequeathed:
wonder what the clutch of eggs
inside her holds, whether time-bombs
are already ticking, waiting to release
their hair-sprung triggers and go off.
Although the language of the post-mortem report is monstrous the mother finds her daughter ‘beautiful’ and ‘perfect’. While she cannot connect with the monster on a train we are (twice) told that this is her experience ‘today’; the implication is that, as with ‘ordinary’ parenting, there are good days too. Here, then, there are chinks of light: the mother finds the disabled child beautiful and claims disability as part of her life history.
The final poem in this post, Frog Prince, captures further change in the mother’s views as the narrator reflects back on herself over a three year period. The trigger for these reflections is the appearance of a frog in the garden. The poem recounts a real incident which offered a way for me to address perceptions of disability; through the narrative of the tadpoles I explore feelings of denial, responsibility and guilt, as well as raising the issue of the ‘invisibility’ of autism and its emotional impact on parents. By the end of the poem the mother realises she has moved beyond acceptance of autism to celebration of difference: ‘I no longer wish for transformation’, she reflects, ‘would not plant the kiss’.
A frog visited me this morning –
sat still as brown stone in the rockery,
rain falling on her pointed head.
I assumed, at first, this frog was there by chance,
her appearance not to do with me.
But she bulked big as a fist until I had to admit
it was probably her third summer,
could date her hatching to the year we’d stashed
a greedy harvest upon our bathroom windowsill.
As the spawn crammed in the plastic boxes, jars and pots
grew inky dense, we’d looked on aghast
at the wriggle and bud of tadpoles
sprouting extra limbs, additional heads –
stood by while some grew monstrously
as they fed on the weakened, selected the grotesque.
Witness and accused in this fishy metamorphosis
I’d closed the bathroom door on the alchemy,
tried to ignore my part in it.
But then, the night the comet came,
I’d rushed to wish into transfigured sky –
one more try for my miracle,
for something to unravel and re-thread
the tangled wires in my son’s head,
for a word, a gesture, a touch of human love
to issue from his perfect lips, his gilded arms.
But tadpole-skulled, head full of frogs,
I’d imagined, instead, this simplicity –
that my son had grown two heads, no legs,
been eyeless, deaf – that some strange growth,
or absence, had marked him out, made difference clear.
And in this horror I’d turned them out – stumbled in
to the stagger and slosh of stairs, the weeping garden,
stood beneath a tail of light, frogs falling from me,
their mutant bodies sliding through guilty hands.
Next day I watched birds come at dawn,
their derrick heads bobbing, clean-picking the lawn.
The escaped frog that visited today
brought me in a leap of time to realise
that, since her freedom, things were changed.
The difference this – that I no longer wish
for transformation, would not plant the kiss.
Looking back at these four poems years later I can detect the shifts in thinking which I perhaps wasn’t conscious of at the time but which poetry helped me to explore. Mapping models of thinking about disability onto these poems, you could say that the mother moves from ‘primitive’ beliefs about autism (Moonstruck and Breath) through a Medical Model approach (Monster) to a position more akin to that of Neurodiversity (Frog Prince). While parents may not find it helpful, in the aftermath of diagnosis, to think in terms of philosophical models, applying such thinking retrospectively can be illuminating. The practice of writing creates a reflective space which allows us to record our journey through difficult terrain, thus supporting a process of discovery and transformation.
Elizabeth Barrett (2005) The Bat Detector, Wrecking Ball Press
Thomas Hardy (1878) The Return of the Native, Penguin Books
Source of images of frog, tadpoles and moon unknown but appreciated.