Thursday, July 15, 2010

About a teacher

A friend on Facebook posted this obituary for Clara Claiborne Park, who wrote two memoirs about raising a child with autism - The Siege and Exiting Nirvana. Her daughter today is an acclaimed painter.

Professor Park, which is how I remember her, taught a class on Dante that I took as an undergraduate. I remember that she talked with feeling, but also articulately and precisely. I think I must have said hardly a word in the class. At the time, I had some vague knowledge that she had written a book about her daughter. Years later, I bought a copy of The Siege, which was published originally in 1967, long before there was "autism awareness." I started to read it several times, but never could continue, due to some distraction or another. After learning about Professor Park's passing, however, I retrieved it from the shelf and sat down with it.

Just like in her Dante class, I think I must have felt out my depth the first few times that I started the book. This time, it has caught me completely. The book describes with feeling, articulately and precisely, what it is like to be a mother, including the fears and misgivings, which in Professor Park's story become confirmed. "It is hard to remember the first stirrings of doubt about a baby, but I remember a day when I took Elly to the supermarket," she writes, describing how, as she watched a friend's child, also 19 months old, point to a box of candy, a realization comes to her: "I thought then that I had never seen Elly point."

To point is so simple, so spontaneous, so primary an action that it seems ridiculous to analyze it. All babies point, do they not? To stretch out the arm and the finger is, symbolically and literally, to stretch out the self into the world - in order to remark on an object, to call it to another's attention, perhaps to want it for oneself. From pointing comes the question "What's that?" that unlocks the varied world. To point, to reach, to stretch, to grab, is to make a relation between oneself and the outside. To need is to relate (6).

The book, then is, about more than autism or a mother and daughter. It is about the needs and encumberments that after all make us who and what we are. Professor Park describes Elly's autism as a perfect kind of "aloneness" that has been created, sought, and guarded, and that requires dismantling:

She dwelt in a solitary citadel, compelling and self-made, complete and valid. Yet we could not leave her there. We must intrude, attack, invade, not because she was unhappy inside it, for she was not, but because the equilibrium she had found, perfect as it was, denied the possibility of growth (12).

Disquieting as it seems, I think Professor Park quite deliberately chose the images of the citadel and of intrusion - the book is titled The Siege. She acknowledges that there is something aggressive, even hostile, afoot:

We had not demanded; now we must. We had accepted; now we must try to change. A terrible arrogance, for what had we to offer her? Which of us could call ourselves as content as Elly was? The world we would tempt her into was the world of risk, failure, and frustration, of unfulfilled desire, of pain as well as activity and love.... Confronted with a tiny child's refusal of life, all existential hesitations evaporate. We had no choice. We would use every stratagem we could invent to assail her fortress, to beguile, entice, seduce here into the human condition (12).

What this story calls to our attention, then, is that to be and become human is a struggle. It is not a condition to be taken for granted. This is a lesson that we can learn from the poetry of Dante, from anthropology, from our mothers and fathers and our children, and from the passing of a teacher.

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