Notes from the Spectrum


Katherine Hauswirth


There’s a catchphrase that goes around elementary school parenting circles quite a lot, at least in my part of the world. When there’s ongoing concern about a child’s behavior, official diagnoses begin to get considered. In the more worrisome cases, words like “autism” and “Aspberger’s” get tossed around, and then there’s the overwhelming label of “Pervasive Developmental Disorder.” All of these diagnoses and, by extension, these children, are “on the spectrum,” meaning that there’s at least some degree of autistic tendency.

Early on in the novel The History of My Body, it’s apparent that protagonist Fleur Robins is a strong spectrum candidate. When she’s upset, she flaps her hands, and she secretly pinches herself. She doesn’t have any friends her age. Fleur seems to lack any instinct for social expectations. She’s also exceedingly brilliant.

As if all these idiosyncrasies aren’t enough of a perfect storm in the face of her burgeoning adolescence, Fleur’s family and social network is unusual and goes through several iterations. There’s money, so there’s staff, and over the course of the story they play as important a role as do Fleur’s actual relatives. Fleur’s rabidly pro-life father and alcoholic mother cast long shadows, although a surprising change makes one of them much more of an ally as the tale unfolds. In fact, Fleur and the reader are in for quite a few surprising turns of event.

The story is told in Fleur’s words, and a lot of them made me cringe. There’s an unforgettable incident surrounding her dead grandfather’s testicles, a major award acceptance speech that leaves her audience shocked, and many references to the status of her lower female anatomy, aka “tweeter.” My own reaction is a microcosm of how much cringing goes on in the real world when a child turns out to be a “square peg” that just won’t cram into those smooth-edged round holes that are comfort, convention, and compliance.

And yet, there’s some allure to Fleur’s jarring oddity, if you can keep up with her ricocheting and unfiltered thoughts. One particular two-page spread alludes to the theoretical science of dematerialization, encapsulates the story of Fleur’s seduction and deflowering, and introduces the concept of synchronicity, which immediately overtakes Fleur’s ever-expanding imagination. The opening quote from Leonard Cohen gets at what the author, a Jungian analyst who no doubt has experience with all sorts of perceived abnormalities, is reaching for—“there is a crack . . . in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” Fleur’s imperfections create space into which enlightenment can fall, and those around her—when they can accept her—also benefit from the illumination.

Perhaps in my own moment of synchronicity, the next novel I picked up had me peeking into the mind of another complex and troubled child. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close features the thoughts and adventures of nine-year-old Oskar Schell, whose grief over the loss of his father in the 9/11 towers collapse seems fathomless. Oskar is like Fleur in several ways. He’s financially well off, very bright, lacking in friends his own age, dotted with self-inflicted bruises, and perplexed by what the world has thrown at him.

His father left several phone messages just before the building collapsed, and he also left behind a mysterious key that sends Oskar on a mission across the New York City boroughs to find its owner. The key becomes everything to Oskar; he hopes to unlock a place where his many questions will finally be answered.

Extremely’s author, Jonathan Safran Foer, is known as a whiz kid among the literati. The book’s a bestseller for many reasons, among them the myriad ways in which he comes at the story. The story’s in letters from Oskar’s grandfather to his father; it’s in Oskar’s “Stuff that Happened to Me” scrapbook; it’s in photos interspersed throughout the book. At times I found the varying voices and formats, though clearly emanating from a brilliant mind, a bit difficult to follow. But perhaps that’s the perfect format, because Oskar himself is also difficult to follow. On the one hand, he makes some decisions that are likely to make matters worse for him. On the other, he’s got a funny, active mind that can be very charming. Here, he’s trying to sleep, and it’s easy to see why that might be a challenge:

I invented a postage stamp where the back tastes like crème brûlée. I still couldn’t sleep. What if you trained Seeing Eye dogs to be bomb-sniffing dogs, so that they’d be Sniffing Eye Seeing Bomb dogs? That way, blind people could get paid for being led around, and could be contributing members of our society, and we’d all be safer, too. I was getting further and further from sleep.

It’s a wonder Oskar ever sleeps, with the roller coaster of his thoughts and the untold secret he carries around until the end of the book. His mother must also find it hard to drift off. She’s got him going to a psychiatrist and is, of course, going through her own grieving process. Ultimately, despite (or because of?) all this restless mental energy, Oskar gets some answers, although they arrive along a convoluted path. He has many allies in his journey, including his mom and grandmother and a cast of many that he enlists on his own. There’s a beauty in the unwavering acceptance exhibited by those around him. There’s also a beauty, albeit a sad one, in the struggles throughout the book to cope with loss. Perhaps it’s the love behind the loss that bathes it in such a tender light.

On the spectrum or not, it’s easy to label children (and adults) who think and act in unusual ways as diagnoses rather than individuals. It’s easy to push away from the uncomfortable and create neat categories of “us” and “them.” But both these books had me thinking—perhaps there’s a much larger spectrum we are all on together. We can teach each other there.

Books mentioned in this column:
The History of My Body by Sharon Heath (Genoa House, 2011)
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (Mariner Books, 2006) 

Katherine Hauswirth is a medical writer by day and a creative writer by stolen moments. She writes creative nonfiction and poetry. She is the author of the book Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey and contributed to the anthology Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough. Katherine has been published in many venues including The Writer, Byline, The Christian Science Monitor, Pregnancy, The Writer's Handbook, The Writer's Guide to Fiction, Chronogram, Women of Spirit, Wilderness House Literary Review, Poetry Kit, Eat a Peach, Lutheran Digest, and Pilgrimage. A Long Island native, Katherine lives with her husband and son in Deep River, Connecticut. Harriet’s Voice: Home Base for Writing Mothers is her personal website. Contact Katherine.



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