The Stories We Don’t Tell: My Mom On Raising An Autistic Child And Why She’ll Never Write About Me
When I’m feeling particularly frustrated with my career, I offer to ghostwrite a memoir for my mom. It’s a slightly bitter, semi-serious joke. I’m mostly taking a shot at the fact that the memoirs that non-autistic parents write about raising their autistic children have a much better shot at getting published and selling than anything that I, as an autistic person, could ever hope to write about autism. But there’s also a little part of me that just wants that payday. (I can’t extend this offer to my dad, because he’s a fellow autist and no one seems particularly interested in hearing what autistic parents have to say about these things, either. Or acknowledging that autistic parents even exist.)
My mom is a funny person, and usually quite indulgent when it comes to my humor, but she always shuts this joke down pretty quickly. Even in jest, her answer is clear. This isn’t her story to tell.
As I’ve watched the autistic community respond to the latest offerings from this wretched subgenre and wondered how I could contribute to the conversation at a time where I don’t feel intellectually or emotionally equipped to properly tackle the issue as a writer or an advocate, I kept coming back to this point. So I asked my mom to read two of the most recent and high-profile examples of the Autism Parent memoir, Judith Newman’s To Siri With Love, and the excerpt from Whitney Ellenby’s forthcoming Autism Uncensored that was recently published in The Washington Post. And then I asked her if I could interview her about them. And about us.
The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity. And I’m not so sure it helped the latter. I’m not convinced that I perfectly articulated my points, but it’s the best that I can do right now and I’m hoping you can get the general idea from what I have said.
People argue that no one represents the real autism. This, in its somewhat rambling, possibly overly earnest, and well-meaning glory, is also the real autism.
You read To Siri With Love recently. Can you give me your general impression of that book?
Jane Kurchak: OK, what I went through while reading was a range of emotions. Mostly it was anger, and then sadness. But, I guess, ultimately I felt that Gus was the punchline and he wasn’t in on the joke. And that bothered me. And I kept thinking… she’s his mother, and that individual that should be the most secure person, place, everything on earth was doing this end run behind him and telling the whole world about his bathroom issues. And it wasn’t her story to tell.
I always put you in the kid’s position. How would you feel if that were going on? How would you feel? How is Gus going to feel in ten years when maybe the reality of that book hits him? It may or may not, but it still was never her story to tell.
Another thing that bothered me were the number of people and celebrities that were gushing over this book. I kept thinking… why is nobody saying to her “Maybe you shouldn’t be telling Gus’s toilet secrets?” I don’t know. So that’s what Siri did to me. And, in that case… I never, ever questioned that she loved Gus. I just don’t think that she went about all of this the right way. And who am I to judge? But she put the book out there. It’s for all of us to read. We’re going to have opinions. And I just don’t think that was her story to tell.
Which brings us to the article in The Washington Post that we read last week, which was called “Bystanders were horrified. But my son has autism and I was desperate.” Can you give me your general impressions on that?
That made me cry. As upset as I was with the whole Siri book, that pales by comparison to that article I read. That’s child abuse. It is. And, again, I put you in that kid’s position. And never… and I’m not saying that I’m parent of the year, or any of those things. I stumbled through this. I didn’t know. But I cannot, for the life of me, ever ever imagine thinking that was a good idea. To do it wasn’t a good idea. And to write about it is as repugnant as the action.
I was thinking… what the eff is that lady thinking? “I was desperate? People were watching me?” You took him into the damned situation in the first place! This isn’t about her. It shouldn’t be about her. She wanted him to see Elmo.
What I noticed in that piece, even more than in Judith Newman’s observations, was that she kept blaming situations on her child’s autism that were actually problems involving people’s perception of her.
This is all about her. This is all about her.
I try to have sympathy. Not just as a human, but as a writer. Because I think we do have somewhat different boundaries. And yet… I am also someone who has significantly benefited from other people protecting my boundaries so that I could get to the point where I could decide to reveal perhaps too much in certain situations. But even though I am an open book in a lot of ways, there’s a lot of stuff that people don’t know.
And there’s a lot of stuff that is probably going to get weirdly meta in this conversation, where we’re going to talk around what we don’t talk about in my life, so that it can’t be Google-able and people can’t attach things that still have a lot of stigma around them to me, so that I can continue to survive and function as a person in the world and as a writer. As small as my profile is, it’s still a public profile. And none of that would be possible if you and dad had ever been more public about my life.
And we’ve talked about this before. It never occurred to me to make any of your stuff public. We talked about your sleep thing. We all knew about your sleep thing and I joked about that. “Sarah didn’t sleep! That’s why she’s an only child.” There were jokes like that.
There are other situations that we will never discuss. But they were never insurmountable and I can tell you that when some of those things were happening, I would simply say “She’s not going to be doing this at ten. She’s not going to be doing this at sixteen.” It was in the moment.
Do you remember… of course you remember wearing the Smurf hat to Pupo’s [Welland, Ontario’s most beloved grocery store].
I also remember wearing the Smurf hat in grade nine.
I do, too. But that was a bit of a dare, and you go for it. But you loved that hat. And then remember we had to convert it into a Smurfette hat, and you had those big yellow yarn braids hanging down? I loved that you wanted to put that on your head and wear it to the grocery store. You had so much fun doing that, why would I not have gone along with that?
And I do want to be clear for anyone who is going to read this and think this is just an example of someone who is quirky and not “really” autistic: This is an example that we can talk about freely. There are other ones that are way more private that we’re not going to get into. But your choices in all of these situations came from the same compassion. They all came from the same logic. And ultimately ended up benefitting me in the same way, too.
Yes, I can see where you’re going. Yes.
In this conversation, we’re talking about To Siri With Love as a book, because we’ve both read it. We have only read Whitney Ellenby’s article that was published in The Washington Post. We haven’t read Autism Uncensored, her forthcoming book, as a whole. And this is, in part, because you have asked me not to. So can we get into why you asked me not to read this book?
Your level of empathy can be debilitating. You’ve always been like this. Always. And I see your daily struggles. I see you try to function in a pull-up-your-bootsraps neurotypical world. And I know if you read this book, it will crush you. It will take a bigger toll on you, by far, than Siri did. And, as your mother, my concern is your ability to continue functioning carrying that level of upset. So it’s a selfish motive because I don’t want you to hurt and I know that what we’ve read is only a small part of what’s gone on. I don’t want you to read it.
If you were a writer, and you decided to write about me and my childhood, how do you think you would approach it versus what you’ve seen from these parent memoirs?
I have always said to you, to anybody that will listen to me, I have learned more about life in the world from you than from anyone or anything else. And if I were to write, it would be about the lessons that I’ve learned from you. Nothing that you’ve learned from me, but what I’ve learned from you. Only from my perspective. I would never, ever expose, without your permission, any of the incidences that have happened. But every one of those was for me to learn more than it was for you to learn.
So I guess it’s that. Watch your child and learn from them. Take you cues from your child. Just because I’m your parent doesn’t make me right. I would write about how you enrich my life. And people might read this and think “You have to say that. You’re a mother.” They can think what they want. My reality is that my life is a better life because of you. I’m a far more tolerant person. I’m a far more understanding person because of the lessons that I’ve learned from you. Not just because you’re autistic but because you’re autistic and the way you view things and the way you approach things has taught me a different way of viewing and approaching. So that’s what I would want people to know.
So I think we’ve already touched on this a bit but I’m going to try to get a bit more explicit because, for me, this isn’t just an issue of what we write about autism. What concerns me is that this gets to the heart of the stories that we tell about autism in daily life. And when I approach these books… I’ll admit, part of it is professional jealousy, because I want to have at least a fraction of the platform that these people have. I want to be able to write about my autistic life or write autistic characters that can make the next generation feel less of whatever the hell it was that I felt growing up.
But it goes beyond that, too, because I am someone who has benefitted — and, I would argue, only survived and reached this point — because of the stories that nobody told about me. Because I had parents who didn’t exploit me, didn’t film my meltdowns, didn’t tell people about, say, how much I lost my shit at the dentist every time I went, didn’t talk about my toilet training, my utter attachment to you to the point where you couldn’t really go anywhere alone without me freaking out. And these are all things that, again, I want to point out to anyone who is reading this, I am glossing over because this is as much detail as I feel safe revealing under my byline now. The only reason that I feel that anyone can come at me and say “You’re not autistic enough to count” or “You’re not the kind of child that they’re talking about here” is because, when I was that kind of child, no one told on me. When that happened, you would take me out of the situation. No one saw it. And then you wouldn’t talk about it later.
And it would never have occurred to me to talk about it later.
You also, I want to point out, suffered because of that. For all of the talk about autistic kids not being aware of their surroundings, I was hyper aware of the level of criticism that you and dad faced, often when I was around, for ostensibly coddling me, or overprotecting, or spoiling me. Obviously it never occurred to you to say anything, but it could have alleviated your burden if you had told people why you were doing it. And you never did.
No. I never really thought of that before. It didn’t occur to me.
We knew what worked for you. If we were to go into a situation with you, we knew what worked and what didn’t. So if we had to remove ourselves from that situation and hang out somewhere else, what was the problem?
I guess there’s a price that you pay… and people judge. We all judge. But we’re so… who wrote the damned book? Who wrote the book on how society has to function? What’s normal? We can apply it to your temperature, but we certainly don’t need to apply that to behaviour.
I think people assumed that I was a nervous, clingy child because I wasn’t pushed enough, when the reality was that you guys were like that because I was a nervous and clingy child and any steps I’ve made in life are because I have a secure home base. A safe place where I’m never going to be exposed or judged or unduly pushed into something.
And that’s what I feel like every single parental home should be, regardless of if you’re 6 or 36. You should be able to come here, to decompress, and the world doesn’t get to peek in.
My main point that I wanted to discuss here is that I’ve been protected by what you and dad didn’t share, but I also want to say that I think I was really nurtured by the fact that you didn’t bring any outside measurements to my growth and development. Ever. You always always wanted to work on my terms and do what actually made me succeed or survive, or grow. I bring up that shoe story that was in Refinery29 to parents a lot, because I think it’s a great example of how practical you were. The modifications didn’t help. They made me sad, because they ruined my shoes. So you were like “That’s not the solution.”
Unfortunately, because of the narrative that we have around autism now, so many parents are so scared of screwing up and so scared of having these autistic children who won’t be “normal” in the future that they just keep hammering away at one thing, even if it’s not working, even if it’s harming their child, like it’s the only answer.
So again we get back to society’s expectations is driving these parents to make these ridiculous decisions. It’s all of these benchmarks. Why are those the rules?
We should probably wrap this up, but one last thing that I want to say is that I am not just concerned about what these books reveal about their subjects and how that harms them, but I’m also dubious about the purpose of them at all. These are books that are intended to expose the “real” autism or shed a light on the plight and what I wonder is who this level of awareness serves. It seems to me that, as long as the actual issues that they’re talking about have stigma attached to them, we’re not helping autistic people by talking about them in this way. We’re helping carers, because people will sympathize with them. If using a diaper is still stigmatized, then talking about an autistic person who uses a diaper is only going to make people sympathize with the person who might have to help them with it, as opposed to helping people accept that some people just happen to use diapers.
Until the actual autistic needs and behaviors are accepted, I don’t see any purpose to this kind of awareness beyond narratives that peddle in tragedy and the lionization of non-autistic people.
That’s it exactly. I don’t know a catchy phrase for it. But they put it out there, you see how the public eats it up and it’s permission to be the victim. So that’s why it’s going to sell. And I bet there are a lot of… I have no idea what the statistics would be, but there’s no way in the world that Dad and I are the only two who let it play out this way. There have to be a ton of people like this, but those stories just aren’t as exciting.
I’ve become associated with a lot of great parents through Twitter, and I know they’re out there. Unfortunately, part of what makes them great parents is that they don’t dominate the conversation, so you don’t see them.
So you’re going to write a story. You know, when you write that story, you’re going to expose yourself to more criticism.
And I’m not going to lie. I think about that. And I wish it wouldn’t happen. But I have to say, in this case, you’ve taken it upon yourself to help someone that can’t really speak for themselves and I’m so fucking proud.
It’s not that they can’t speak or communicate, it’s just that I am lucky enough to have slipped into a platform that… you know, I might have a higher profile career if I weren’t autistic, but it’s still more than a lot of great autistic writers and bloggers are afforded. And I’m just… I don’t know… what is any of this for if the next Sarah has to live all of this the exact same way?
OK. And I just want you to know that I’m proud.
I’m wondering if it’s going to seem incredibly self-serving if we end on my mommy being proud of me.
Well, you can decide whether you want to put that in or not. But I’m not just throwing that in. I am.