Clara Park: Groundbreaking Writer on Autism

Laurie says:

Clara Park died this week at 86.  She wrote The Siege, in 1967. The book was about her eight-year-old daughter Jessica, who had been diagnosed with autism.

For many years autism had been blamed on “refrigerator mothers,” cold uncaring women whose children became autistic in response to them. You can imagine the havoc this wrought for the mothers and the families of autistic kids. It was part of the simplistic Freudian lens from the 50’s that made mothers responsible for almost anything that went wrong in the family. (One of the Freudians’ favorite terms for describing women in many contexts was frigid.) This belief system supported the rigid 1950’s ideology of the family

I was raised to see the world through this simplistic Freudian lens.  By the time I read The Siege in 1967, I had recovered from most of it. Because at that point, I didn’t know very much about autism, the “refrigerator mother” explanation had unthinkingly stayed with me. I don’t remember much about the book except that it was profoundly revelatory.

Quotes are from the New York Times.

Mrs. Park, a college English teacher, wanted to tell her daughter’s story, and the book she wrote, The Siege published in 1967, did that and more

My mother knew early on that something wasn’t right,” Paul Park said. “Jessy didn’t show classic signs of retardation: she was coordinated, there were certain tasks she performed efficiently. She spoke very hesitantly by the time she was 8.”

Still, in measured, often poetic assessments, Mrs. Park’s books describe how Jessy recoiled when touched, screamed in desolation if a washcloth was missing from the bathroom and performed abstruse mathematical calculations. Mrs. Park told of how difficult it was to find professional care and of the turmoil the entire family faced.

… In the first edition of The Siege, Jessy was called Elly because Mrs. Park, hoping that her daughter would someday be able to read, did not want her to be embarrassed. That concern dissolved, and Elly became Jessy in later editions, as well as in a sequel, Exiting Nirvana (2001), which recounted the agonizing but steady progress of the girl and her family.

The second edition of The Siege says, “I write now what 15 years past I would still not have thought possible to write: that if today I were given the choice to accept the experience, with everything that it entails, or to refuse the bitter largesse, I would have to stretch out my hands — because out of it has come, for all of us, an unimagined life.”

…Jessica Park, now 51, can read, is an accomplished artist and has worked in the mailroom at Williams College, in Williamstown, for 30 years. Her mother was a lecturer in English studies at Williams from 1975 until 1994.

…Bridget A. Taylor, director of the Alpine Learning Group, a school for autistic children, said…“The book really set the stage for families to search for answers; to no longer accept ‘no’ from the establishment, to have higher expectations for their children,” she said. “In many ways it decreased the isolation that families felt, and for many young professionals in the field, the book was an invaluable reading assignment to learn what the experience is like.”

Clara Park’s writing is a powerful reminder of how often the established explanations for “different” children and adults are dangerously wrong. We no longer have the 1950’s Freudian lens. Instead we have the lenses of our times that work to support the structures that run our world, and still serve to obscure the realities and complexities of human lives.