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She Woke Them Up

A large part of the process of discovery for Shawn is learning about autism, particularly autism as it was known in the middle of the last century, when Mary was diagnosed and his parents were grappling with what that diagnosis might mean. The literature is confusing. Much of what he reads, which focuses on the autistic’s inability or unwillingness to engage with others, seems not to correspond to what he remembers of his sister. Despite her inconsolable rages, friendlessness, and strange ways of talking, Mary often looked people in the eye, recalled their names, delighted in music and movies, and happily rode her tricycle through the park with her twin. Could the doctors have been wrong? “Is she truly ‘autistic,’ I ask? (Inwardly I bridle at putting Mary in a category. To me, she is simply herself.)”

Shawn mentions a persistent feeling, apparently shared by others with autistic family members, that there is a wise, observant, articulate person behind the mask of pathology, if only that mask could be removed. But then he comes across some of the initial case studies of autistic children, written in 1943 by Leo Kanner, one of the earliest autism researchers,4 and sees Mary in those pages in an indisputable way:

Naturally, Mary does not resemble each person described here in every detail…. But there is a pattern, and it has something to do with social isolation, with an inability to communicate with and understand others. Mary’s behavior, which was so highly unusual in the context of 1150 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, here finds a general context in which she is part of a kind of norm.

Is this comforting? Maybe. Whatever “survivor’s guilt” Shawn feels and has felt his entire life for being spared Mary’s fate always had been compounded by the greater worry that he may have inadvertently caused her “brain damage” through some sort of birth trauma. Finding that his twin’s autism has an organic basis relieves him of this, though nothing can erase the ruminative loop of “what ifs”: What if Mary’s education hadn’t ended when she was placed at Briarcliff, what if her own musical talents had had more nurturing, what if some of the interventions available today had been available then, what if she had been born into a more robust family?

That, of course, was precisely what could not have happened. Shawn makes it clear, as do some of the psychologists’ reports from the time, that both of his parents were extremely nervous, high-strung people who, however well-meaning and loving, were ill-equipped to handle a difficult child. “Father is a rather short, very anxious man, who is editor of the New Yorker Magazine,” begins a psychological evaluation written when Mary was first admitted to Briarcliff. “Mother is also a very anxious woman. Both parents seemed quite reluctant to convey any information about the nature of their anxiety or its cause…. I have the sense of some sort of mutually protective alliance underway. I could not discern the basis for this, or be sure who was protecting whom.”

If only he knew. When the truth of William Shawn’s enduring relationship with Ross was inadvertently revealed to his sons, they were in their thirties and had experienced a lifetime of parental dissembling. (Once their father told their mother about the affair in 1954, she made him promise never to let on to the children.) Of the affair itself, Allen Shawn is circumspect and considerably more generous than Ross was in her own memoir: maybe, he suggests, by partially turning away from the family not long after Mary was born, his father was “keeping a window open in his spirit.”

Allen Shawn observes that when his sister plays the piano, she looks exactly like his father editing a manuscript. He points out that he himself exhibited certain autistic traits as a youngster, including, he says, his obsessive devotion to musical composition. He notes that no one, observing his family, would consider it normal:

Mary’s indecipherable rituals could also be seen as parallel to those of my parents and brother, in all three of whom strange private agendas often determined outwardly sensible routines. There is no sharp drop-off point between what we deem normal in people and what we do not; the differences can be put on a sloping grade, even if at certain points the slope becomes steep.

Just as autism is now seen on a continuum, from higher functioning to lower functioning, normalcy is also arrayed on a spectrum. If nothing else, portraying Mary’s idiosyncracies as “more” to her family’s “less,” and theirs as “less” to her “more,” is a way for her twin to put her back, securely, into the family fold.

Remarkably, she gets there on her own, too. Near the end of their mother’s life, when she was ninety-nine years old, mute, wheelchair-bound, and spending most of her days asleep, Shawn risked having Mary come to the family apartment, something that had been avoided since 1957 when doctors told the Shawns that it would be too confusing and traumatic for her ever to return home. The occasion was her (and Allen’s) annual birthday lunch, a meal whose menu had always been the same because Mary, like many autistics, thrived on routine and was upset by deviations from the typical order of things. While Allen made sure that all the usual items were there, the young couple who had been staying in the apartment with Mrs. Shawn added all kinds of delicacies to the table, and rather than upsetting Mary, they delighted her. She tucked in, unrattled, pausing to exclaim more than once that she was having “a wonderful party.” “And all this occurred in the presence of a miracle,” Shawn writes.

From the moment our mother was brought into the room and saw Mary to the moment Mary left two hours later, our mother’s eyes remained open in unmistakable amazement, wonder, and joy, as she looked from one of us to the other in astonishment and gratitude, galvanized, awakened, transfixed, radiantly fulfilled by the sight of her daughter. The occasion roused her and brought her back from a kind of sleep that had lasted for years.

Autism, which derives from the Greek (autos), means “selfism.” It was meant to describe a person lost inside of him- or herself. Until Allen Shawn deviated from his own routine “mistrust of words” and wrote a book about his phobias, this could have described his situation as well. That book, in which his absent twin became, much to his surprise, a central character, begot this one, which is so open and honest that it is everything “selfism” is not. It is safe to say that Mary Shawn has woken up her brother, too.

  1. 4

    At the time, autism was also known as Kanner Syndrome. 

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