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…

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Copyright © 2001 by Oliver Sacks