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.


  1. Thank you for sharing Antoinette with us.

    Another book from the same time or nine years before is Cathy's Secret Kingdom which involves Anne who has a brain injury. When we meet her she is twelve years old. Cathy is her stepsister. Faber was its writer. And it is very much about Cathy's development as a writer and how Anne plays her part in it.

    I love the way the foster mother reads Antoinette interesting-sounding words.

    Another unsentimental text is Welcome Home Jellybean by Fanta Shayer. Jellybean is Geri and her brother Neil writes about her.

  2. Thanks for the recommendations -- I will check them out.