Part II is titled “The Blame Game,” and now that I’ve finished reading it, that title makes me want to laughcry in extreme fashion.
Here’s what I mean.
Part II starts with an exploration – okay, a takedown – of the “refrigerator mother” theory of autism. This theory prevailed throughout most of the 1950s and 1960s, was based on a quasi-Freudian approach that assumed autism was caused by mothering so crappy it caused the child to withdraw traumatically from life itself, and was championed at various times by both Leo Kanner (who would later retract his support) and Bruno Bettelheim.
The authors do a really brilliant job here of getting the reader to side with the parents against Bettelheim. In fact, they manage to do it in a paragraph and a half, without once mentioning Bettelheim’s name or the words “refrigerator mother.” By the time we’re introduced to the concept, we already think it’s outrageous. It’s an entirely pathos-based rhetorical move, and it’s very well executed.
It is, in fact, one of the best rhetorical moves in the book, and one of the most dangerous for autistic people.
The authors make some noticeable ethos-based slips as they develop the story of Bettelheim’s “mom did it” theory and the parents’ reactions to it, however. For instance, they repeatedly fall back on the stereotype that autistic children have, in Uta Frith’s words, “a haunting and somehow otherworldly beauty.” They also seem oblivious to the fact that Bettelheim, for whom they show no sympathy, did a great deal of work on the question of feral children, including Victor, the “Wild Boy of Aveyron,” for whom they showed a great deal of sympathy in the preceding chapters. Bettelheim’s theory of stories being necessary to childhood development they mention not at all, even though that theory is crucial to understanding “the story of autism.”
And their attempt to explain what it’s like for an autistic person to go to the dentist is, while valiant, entirely non-autistic in its assumptions and entirely off the mark. (For a book that purports to be about autism to get one of the most commonly-shared autistic experiences this wrong displays what Simon Baron-Cohen would call a severe impairment in Theory of Mind.)
These slips severely undermine the ethos of the authors’ arguments – but the authors are interested in tugging our heartstrings, not establishing their credibility. And they assume the “our” whose heartstrings are being tugged are non-autistic parents of autistic children, or people who could imagine being non-autistic parents of autistic children.
Part II of this book is written for parents. Period. Its focus is on parental attempts (including those of Ruth Sullivan and Bernard Rimland) to challenge the prevailing “refrigerator mother” theory of autism and to find other resources for their children – everything from chromosomal testing to access to public schooling. Aimed toward that audience, it is entirely engaging and absorbing. It is nearly impossible not to identify with, and to feel for, these parents. (I know. I tried.)
Which is precisely what makes the final chapter so powerful, and so powerfully dangerous.
[Trigger Warning: Murder of an autistic person at the hands of their caregivers. Many of my readers know this story, even if they don’t know this particular version of it. A list of people murdered in similar circumstances can be found here. It takes over an hour to read aloud.
If you need to stop here, know this: there is nothing in the last section of this review that you do not already know, or cannot already deduce from the information given above.
If you’re not sure why someone would want to stop here, please keep reading. The rest of the review will make it clear.]
The last chapter in Part II tells the story of the murder of 13-year-old Dougie Gibson, in 1971. As the authors tell it, on the last day of his life, Dougie’s father, Alec, took him to the local McDonald’s for Dougie’s favorite meal (fries and a Coke). Then they returned home, where Alec shot Dougie in the head, put the gun on the kitchen table, and waited for the cops to arrive. Alec was later sentenced to life imprisonment.
If the authors had merely recited these facts, this section might not be so dangerous. If the authors had recited these facts and strongly condemned them, or reported ways in which someone (anyone!) took strong steps to prevent such an event from occurring again, this section might actually be helpful to autistic people. It might actually help to stem the tide of murders of autistic people by the family members and caregivers they are supposed to trust.
The authors do neither of these things.
The authors, instead, sympathize with Alec Gibson. They portray other non-autistic parents of autistic children as sympathizing with him as well – as “understanding” why he would do such a thing. They portray Dougie as an eternal child who, if not entirely “out of control” at the moment of his death, soon would be – and this “fact” as sufficient to justify his murder. By so doing, they implicitly condemn the life sentence Gibson received.
And if this endorsement of Dougie’s murder existed in a vacuum, it would be terrible enough. But it doesn’t. It exists within the context of several connected chapters that are each powerfully constructed to make us sympathize with the parents. By the time we get to Dougie’s death, only the most critical (or autistic) of readers will even hesitate. Most won’t. They’ll see Alec’s actions as the authors want us to see them: as sad, but justifiable. They’ll see Alec’s life sentence as the authors want us to see them: an overreaction by an uncaring court system that doesn’t see the “real tragedy.” And they’ll see the “real tragedy” as the authors want us to see it: as having an autistic child, not as being murdered for being autistic.
Every media portrayal of an autistic person’s murder as sympathetic or justifiable leads to more deaths. This isn’t hyperbole, it is fact. Jillian McCabe ran Internet searches for exactly such stories while hatching her plot to throw her six-year-old son, London, off a bridge. Stephanie Rochester murdered her six month old son Rylan – and then claimed it was because she thought he had autism.
Every media portrayal of an autistic person’s murder as sympathetic or justifiable leads to more deaths – and this media portrayal is particularly well-crafted to encourage parents to sympathize with a parent who turned to murder.
Part II of this book will keep me up at night. It should keep you up as well.