The XX Factor

DoubleX Book of the Week: The Anti-Romantic Child

Despite having a child with autism, I don’t like to read books about others in my situation. So many autism memoirs end with a miracle curing of the child (but only that child; if they were how-to books, I’d be the first in line). The other, more common storyline is a trudge through catastrophe; often gripping, but with little insight.

So when I began Priscilla Gilman’s The Anti-Romantic Child, my first impulse was to be skeptical. But I was surprised and pleased to find that Gilman tells her story with such freshness, I both related to and experienced anew the “autism-disability-special-child-parenting” theme.

Gilman’s child technically has hyperlexia, a developmental condition that is often included in the autism spectrum because the disorder has many of the social and developmental hallmarks that are common to autism, including sensory and behavioral issues. Her story begins when she is a graduate student in English at Yale, where she meets her husband, a brilliant but slightly scattered fellow student. They decide to proceed with family-making even though they’re both facing the huge challenges of dissertations and a dismal job market. On their first try, she becomes pregnant with their son, Benjy.

The larger contours of the story have to do with expectations. Gilman, having had a very imaginative upbringing filled with creative people, expects a similarly romantic childhood for her own son. (Fittingly, her academic specialty is Wordsworth.) The grand irony is that Benjy’s eerily precocious reading choices—at two-and-a-half years of age, he can read aloud a page of the author’s dissertation—end up being a marker of a communication disorder: He reads, but does not always understand the emotions behind the words. Gilman intersperses her narrative with literary excerpts, primarily Wordsworth’s poetry, and this elevates the memoir, giving it a rich feel. The strategy also effectively conveys not only the expectations and dreams she carries for her son, but also the romantic ideas she has about marriage and her future career as a literature professor—a setup that makes it all the more poignant when those dreams turn into dust. 

Many disability memoirs participate in a sort of tragedy oneupsmanship, and from a totally clinical perspective, the disabilities Benjy faces at the “high functioning” end of the spectrum are relatively mild. I’ll put it this way: If my son had Benjy’s level of impairment, I’d rejoice. But this is also where I admire the book. Gilman trusts her writing; she doesn’t ratchet up the drama or force things, and thus I still related to her panic as she realizes that her son is not like other kids, her frustration with well-meaning but clueless doctors, her feeling of being at-sea as a first-time mother getting bombarded with conflicting advice.

The story of a privileged woman with an elite education who has a child with “issues” may not seem like the most interesting of memoirs. But the book is full of moving moments, like the one in which she describes how her mother—who is “not a soft person at all” and never once took Gilman to a movie as a child—now goes to all manner of kiddie films with Benjy “uncomplainingly…because he want[s] to.” It is in these quiet scenes, led by a writer with prodigious gifts (Gilman’s hours of literary study do not go wasted, even though she ultimately leaves academia), that as a reader, I’m most with her. And for those who have read my essays on using cannabis as an alternative to the powerful neuropsychiatric meds that others are trying to foist on our son J, I was keenly interested in—and grateful for—her inclusion of a scene in which Benjy ends up dangerously overmedicated on the recommendation of an overzealous school psychologist. Gilman decides to stay away from the medications and learns that the “experts” cannot always be assumed to have your child’s best interests at heart.

One of the Wordsworth excerpts that appears near the beginning of the book equally describes the feeling one has when finishing this lovely work:

                        What we have loved,
Others will love, and we will teach them how.

In this memoir, Gilman succeeds wildly at letting us into the family that produced this unique and wonderful boy, Benjy.