Monday, December 28, 2015

Finding Neurodiversity in Fiction: The Innocents by Margery Sharp

Content Warning: use of R word

The Innocents, published in 1972, has been one of my favorite books since I was a teenager. The narrator is an elderly woman in a small English village who, because of World War II, sort of accidentally adopts a young girl named Antoinette who is intellectually handicapped. She becomes very fond of Antoinette and finds herself going to extreme measures to protect her.

It is absolutely fascinating to me to examine this book as the person I am now. My first thought was that it holds up surprisingly well to a modern reading because it's very unsentimental about disability. Antoinette is not "inspiring" or sweet or attractive; she loves dead things and poop and has a tendency to throw up when stressed. Her foster mother (I don't think she's ever named, which is interesting) nonetheless loves her just as she is. The more I think about it, the more I realize the book is actually a fabulous blueprint for loving and accepting a neurodiverse person.

Antoniette's foster mother fulfills her needs for quiet and routine, while gently encouraging her to develop without pushing or forcing. She lets her enjoy her solitary pursuits, puts up with Antoinette's love for keeping dead frogs in her pockets (only making sure to wash her hands well before meals), and even plays tiddlywinks with Antoinette's preferred pieces:

"Tiddlywinks, played with rabbit-droppings instead of ivorine counters, is naturally a slow game, in fact not the same game at all, but suited Antoinette all the better, who needed in everything to go slowly."

She finds a way to introduce Antoniette to the company of other children in a non-intimidating way, though horseback riding (something now often used as a therapy for disabled children), and encourages her to speak by reading her interesting sounding words. A perfect example of how she modifies the traditional upbringing of children is that she always recites a bedtime prayer to Antoinette, and is thrilled when the little girl starts chiming in at the "amen" with "vermin," one of her favorite words and a term of affection.

Antoinette, who is almost completely nonverbal, is specifically diagnosed as "simply retarded, not autistic." Having read Neurotribes, (which everyone needs to read!) I understand now how meaningless that diagnosis was, because the definition of autism at the time was extremely limited. If Antoinette were diagnosed today, I think the outcome might be quite different.

Either way, I think Sharp was outlining a wonderful example of how to parent a neurodiverse person with love and acceptance. And to make it more fascinating and still relevant, the danger that Antoinette is faced with, from her returned biological mother, is that of living with someone who refuses to accept her needs and will attempt to force her to conform to societal convention. Without spoilers, this is a danger taken very seriously by the book, the narrator, and by Antoinette herself -- who may not be verbal, but who clearly does have feelings, thoughts, and agency. The story's ending is morally ambiguous but an absolute validation of Antoinette's rights as a human being.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Put On Your Yamulke...

I grew up with the knowledge that I was Jewish, a fondness of Israeli dances, and a small vocabulary of Yiddish exclamations and curses. That was pretty much it. Although I've tried at various times to add more Judaism into my life, it never really took. My husband took "how to Jew" classes with me when we were newly married, and he's the one who remembers stuff, so he's the one who cooks the latkes and explained the concept of Tzedakah to our son this year.

When our son was in a Jewish preschool, it was much easier to remember and celebrate the holidays. But he's in high school now and we've gotten pretty lax.

The one thing we always do is the very minor holiday Hanukkah, and it's not to compete with Christmas, which my husband utterly adores. I think it's partially because it's easy, and partially because it's pretty -- lighting candles and singing blessings, what could be nicer? -- but also because as I get older, Christmastime is the time of year when, paradoxically, I feel the most Jewish. I'm always grateful when they fall sufficiently far enough away from each other that the Menorah lights aren't overshadowed by Christmas tree lights.