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Leaving Nirvana

In 1967, a remarkable book was published, The Siege, by Clara Claiborne Park, an account of her daughter’s first eight years. It was remarkable on several counts. It was the first “inside” (as opposed to clinical) account of an autistic child’s development and life; and it was written with an intelligence, a clearsightedness, an insight, and a love that brought out to the full the absolute strangeness, the “otherness,” of the autistic mind. It also brought out how much an empathetic understanding could help to lay “siege” to autism’s seemingly impregnable isolation.

Jessy Park—or “Elly,” as she was called in The Siege—is now forty years old, and Clara Park has now given us a sequel which is, to my mind, more remarkable still. The Siege could only relate the beginnings of a life, whereas Exiting Nirvana1 gives us a story forty years long, the whole of Jessy’s unfolding from the almost mute eight-year-old she was in 1967 to the richly gifted, though still clearly autistic, human being she is today.

Over the years Clara Claiborne Park and her husband, David Park—both professors at Williams College—have studied as well as loved Jessy. They have kept detailed records of every stage of her development—of her language, her emotions, her interests and moods; of her capacities (or incapacities) for understanding other people, the social world; her capacities for logical and systematic thought, and her moments of anger and loss of control. And, not least, of her varied and singular (and sometimes hugely complex) obsessions and “systems.” There is more “data” on Jessy, I suspect, than on any other autistic human being who has ever lived. And from this richness, Clara Park, a superb observer no less than a devoted parent, has distilled a lucid and beautifully written narrative, full not only of her own observations and thoughts but of poignant and funny anecdotes of every kind (“a book should consist of examples,” wrote Wittgenstein), and the strange, mad poetry of Jessy’s own words. It reveals the life and mind and world of an autistic person with a depth and detail never before achieved.

It shows, too, how at least some of what might be called the defects or strangenesses of autism can also become strengths. Jessy is incapable of lying—or detecting lies. The concept of deceit is unavailable to her; she herself is such an innocent that she cannot comprehend the concept of innocence. She is extremely literal-minded. She was wholly incapable at first—though she is now capable to a small degree—of putting herself in others’ shoes, of sensing their positions or perspectives. Though Jessy is now verbal, even loquacious, there is a strange quality to her conversation and choice of language, an insistent factuality, a lack of any modulation or adaptation to the particular conversational situation she is in.

Two types of autism are now generally recognized. In “infantile autism,” so called—the sort that Jessy has—the vast majority of those affected never develop any language at all, and a considerable number are intellectually retarded. The term “low-functioning” is sometimes used here. David Park, who has also written about Jessy in a most sensitive way, once remarked to me that she was “the highest-functioning low-functioning” autistic person he had ever heard of.

Other autistic individuals acquire fluent and grammatical language, and a variety of intellectual skills, and a considerable power to “simulate” social normality (though they are still bewildered about what other people are actually thinking, and how and why they behave as they do). This “high-functioning” type of autism is sometimes called Asperger’s syndrome—it is the sort which Temple Grandin has, and has written about.2

As with many autistic people, Jessy has special vulnerabilities; she may, for example, suddenly feel panic or rage. Once when I was visiting the Park family Clara told me that Jessy would be happy to make me dinner. “She has a repertoire,” Clara said, “of eighteen dishes, which she makes perfectly. But don’t ask her to try anything else.” I could, she said, talk to Jessy about anything whatever, so long as my questions were specific or concrete: “Avoid any questions starting with ‘why’ or ‘how,’” Clara warned me, “or Jessy will hit you.” One such question was asked, inadvertently, in a film later made with Jessy,3 and then Jessy, perfectly calm the moment before, lunged at the director in sudden rage. Later, when she was shown the rushes, Jessy was embarrassed, and asked for this scene to be removed from the film. (Ultimately, she changed her mind, saying, “Keep it. It’s me.”)

Jessy has been subject, from an early age, to sudden enthusiasms (her word) or obsessions (the medical word, which she has happily embraced)—going from numbers and colors and unusual sounds and words to radio dials and heaters, to certain roads and houses, to atmospheric anomalies and the night sky. These obsessions—elaborated by an incessantly active and systematizing mind—have led Jessy to construct amazingly intricate systems in which weather, mood, flavors, colors—a dozen variables—are all interconnected and correlated with one another. Jessy can instantly learn a word like “correlation,” because this is already a concept she possesses, while, in contrast, she cannot read the expressions on people’s faces or the intentions in their voices, cannot comprehend why she cannot instantly evict someone from a restaurant table she considers “hers,” and is generally blind to social meanings. Though idiosyncratic, Jessy’s systems bring to mind the elaborate pseudoscientific systems of numerology and astrology.

In the past twenty years, many of Jessy’s obsessions have been transformed, or transmuted, into paintings—paintings, at first, of radio dials and heaters (very fresh, brilliantly colored, a sort of Pop Art), and now exquisite paintings of houses and churches, in which an uncanny accuracy of line is combined with colors of surreal bril-liance. Night scenes are her favorites, in which buildings stand out incandescently against a dark sky—cobalt, or ultramarine, or (her favorite) “purplish black”—and in which every major star is portrayed in its exact position and magnitude.

Exiting Nirvana is never sentimental, but it is often lyrical, and even allegorical in the universality of its themes. All of us, perhaps, have to move from “Nirvana,” a primal Eden of self-sufficiency, self-absorption, changelessness, timelessness, into the vicissitudes and frustrations and unpredictabilities of the world, a life which may be full of growth and adventure, but threatens continual contingency and risk. It may be—this is certainly a central theme of the book—that this sort of Nirvana can achieve in the autistic an overwhelming, engulfing, annihilating intensity, shutting out the world, in effect, by a timeless absorption in monotonous and repeated activities. Clara Park, in some of the most memorable passages of The Siege, described just this with the eighteen-month-old Jessy. Temple Grandin (who once called herself an “anthropologist on Mars”) tells us in Thinking in Pictures how she, too, as a child would “sit on the beach for hours dribbling sand through my fingers and fashioning miniature mountains,” blind to the human beings, the human activities and interactions, all around her.

We have all, perhaps, dribbled sand in this way, but for the autistic there is a very real danger that such dribbling of sand will engross an entire lifetime. It was this sort of enraptured, timeless, self-stimulating nothingness which Jessy’s parents had to put under siege in the first place; but then the siege became a journey into the possibilities of coexisting in the world—partly by understanding it (which is still only possible for Jessy to a very limited extent), more by learning its (to her) unintelligible rules and customs and values by rote, while at the same time keeping, even strengthening, her own autistic singularity and identity, that immediacy and purity and simplicity of mind which lies at the core of her character and art.

Though Jessy cannot live independently (and will never be able to), and though she requires supervision at work, she does work, with extreme competence and absolute reliability, as a mail clerk; she balances her checkbook and prepares her tax returns. And (the most difficult, perhaps, for anyone who is autistic) she has come to appreciate something of the feeling of other people, other minds, and of the nature of friends and friendship. And if she has left or renounced Nirvana to some extent, she can recapture it in the stillness, the timelessness, the beauty of her strange paintings. This may, indeed, be as crucial in balancing her life as anything else.

For many years autism was seen as a defensive withdrawal from the world on the part of a child neglected and alienated by cold, remote parents—Leo Kanner, who identified the condition and named it, spoke here of “refrigerator mothers.” But there is nothing whatever to support such a notion and everything to refute it. Jessy, the “baby” of her family, has been dearly loved, not only by her parents, but by her siblings, since birth, and continues to live at home with her parents. She has perhaps had less trauma than most of us and gives the impression, for much of the time, of an odd (and, as it were, secret) happiness. Clara Park speaks here of Jessy’s continuing capacity for “autistic delight”:

Once she’d exult over her discovery that “70003 is a prime!”… Then her interest subsided; other things evoked her secret smile. Stars, Rainbows, Clouds, Weather phenomena. Quartz heaters. Odometers. Street lamps. A strange procession of obsessions, eliciting for a year or two an intensity of emotion approaching ecstasy, then subsiding into mere pleasure. Wordless once, now a word, a phrase can thrill her….

Asteroid explosion,” “Digital fluorescent number change.” The obverse of this—and rarer—are piercing cries of desolation which Jessy sometimes emits. The causes of these, Clara Park writes, were

as unintelligible as the causes of her delight. Perhaps her milk was served in a glass instead of a cup. Perhaps some of the six washcloths in the family bathroom were missing…. It was, we could be sure, never anything that would make another child shriek. It was always trivial, or what normal people would call trivial—trivial in everything but its effect on Jessy…. By the time she was twelve or thirteen she could tell us. But what good did it do to know that a lighted window had disrupted the darkness of the building across the street, that a cloud had covered the moon, that she had accidentally caught sight of Sirius?

These sudden raptures or desolations, though occurring in such trivial (but to her passionately charged) contexts, bring to mind some of the raptures and distresses which creative artists and scientists sometimes have—the ecstatic “Eurekas!” of discovery or insight, the sudden feelings of calamity when things do not go right. This is all infinitely far from the emotional dullness, or muting, or “indifference,” which is sometimes ascribed to the autistic.

Clara Park speaks of Jessy’s strange happiness as characteristic of her condition. I am not sure that this is so—that autism itself generates such a temperament or life-mood—for I know many autistic people who are anxious, wistful, or depressed. (There is indeed a significant incidence of suicide among autistic people at adolescence, as they start to realize, more sharply and painfully, aspects of life, of social intercourse, of work and love, that they may miss out on.)

Knowing the Parks somewhat, I can perhaps say what Clara Park herself is too modest to say: that this is a most extraordinary family—the mother a gifted teacher and writer, the father a theoretical physicist, and Jessy’s three older siblings intellectually gifted and accomplished. The Park household is one where eager interest and attention turn in all directions, and where intellectual play and fun pervade the atmosphere, and where Jessy has her own accepted and respected identity. Surely some of Jessy’s happiness and confidence, and the diversity of her own interests, must reflect this rare family situation.

Most books about “a condition” or “an afflicted person” are sad if not tragic, even if they strike a note of heroism or bravery. Exiting Nirvana is a great exception, for while it is as deep and unsparing as reality itself, it has a joyous and lyrical quality from beginning to end.

Copyright © 2001 by Oliver Sacks

  1. 1

    Exiting Nirvana: A Daughter’s Life with Autism has just been published by Little, Brown. This essay appears in somewhat different form as the introduction.

  2. 2

    See Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures (Vintage, 1996). See also my description of her in An Anthropologist on Mars (Vintage, 1995).

  3. 3

    Rage for Order,” part of the BBC’s The Mind Traveller series directed by Chris Rawlence, 1996.

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