Author Donna Levin’s New Novel Encourages Advocacy & Empathy For Kids On The Autism Spectrum

By Donna Levin

Some women are born advocates; some achieve advocacy, and others have advocacy thrust upon them.

I’m in the third category; I was minding my own business, writing semi-autobiographical fiction, when a cause dropped on me much like the apple (supposedly fell) on Sir Isaac Newton’s head. I did not discover anything as momentous as gravity, but I have become, in a very small way, an advocate for the respect and compassion for, and the fair treatment of, persons on the autism spectrum.

Fiction-as-advocacy has an established history. An early example is the 1851 bestseller ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ that brought the evils of slavery to a wider audience—so much so that legend has it that when Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe he remarked, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great [civil] war.”

Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, ‘The Jungle’, exposed frightening working conditions in Chicago meat-packing industry, and led to the passage of Pure Food and Drug Act, and later to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration.

Until we live in a world without racial injustice or government corruption both ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and ‘The Jungle’ will remain relevant. I could list many more novels, including John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, and Erich Maria Remarque’s, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, that have had widespread influence. But two that have struck me on personal level, thanks to their powerful storytelling, are Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest and George Orwell’s 1984.

In ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, Randle McMurphy transfers from a prison-work farm to an Oregon State mental hospital, where he thinks life will be easier; instead he finds the other patients terrorized by “Big Nurse” Ratched who keeps them in line with the threat of electro-convulsive therapy. McMurphy stands up to Big Nurse in spite of the power she holds over him, not only via ECT but with the dreaded lobotomy. With McMurphy as example the other men find the courage to reclaim their lives.

Is McMurphy a troublemaker or simply a nonconformist? Kesey clearly favors the latter, and the novel asks how many real-life nonconformists have been locked up for being nothing more than the former. More concretely, ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ launched a national backlash against electro-convulsive therapy.

The effects of ‘1984’ are more difficult to quantify, but there’s no doubt that they’ve been profound, in part as a cautionary tale about what freedoms we’re willing to sacrifice in exchange for the illusion of safety. ‘1984’ centers around Winston Smith, a minor civil servant who is desperate to hide his hatred of the Party that rules his country, since, as with McMurphy’s mental hospital, nonconformity results in torture and death.

I first read it when I was thirteen, and enduring the socially-sanctioned purgatory that was then called junior high. I was not only white and middle-class, I was living in a luxurious suburb, so the harsh living conditions that Orwell describes so vividly were safely distant from my experience. But Winston Smith’s loneliness and need to dissemble were very real. “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull,” Winston thinks. At thirteen, trying to decrypt the social Morse Code filling the air with its dots and dashes, that was exactly how I felt.

I was also experiencing the first stirrings of the desire to write fiction of my own, so this early scene hit me hard: Winston is talking with a colleague, Syme, about “Newspeak.” The Party aims to create a new language, a language barren of nuance and shades of meaning. “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?” Syme asks. “In the end we shall make thoughtcrime nearly impossible because there will be no words to express it…Every year fewer and fewer words and the range of consciousness a little smaller.”

How much thought there can be without language is a question that psychologists continue to debate, but I find Syme’s arguments persuasive—and frightening. Language is freedom. Language is power. Language is change.

There’s a saying that has been variously attributed to Temple Grandin, the autistic professor of animal science and advocate for the humane treatment of livestock, as well as to the autism advocate and author Stephen Shore, and so has become one of those aphorisms that belong to the world: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

However, it is fair to say that the unifying symptoms of autism spectrum disorders are difficulty with social interactions and language. Ultimately, both ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘1984’ are about the systematic dehumanization, by those in power, of the society’s vulnerable. Who are more vulnerable than the differently-abled?

Still, as much as Orwell’s passage resonated with me, my ambitions were modest, even many years later when I first conceived my novel There’s More Than One Way Home. As a longtime instructor of fiction-writing, and especially of the novel, I’ve often used Tolstoy’s classic ‘Anna Karenina’ as an example of the importance of the element of setting, that is, the time and place in which the story unfolds.

“If Anna Karenina had been born in late 20th Century San Francisco,” I would begin, “she’d have divorced her boring husband. Her friends wouldn’t have thought any the less of her : They would have admired her guts, living with a man and all. Then she could have moved to Marin County and started a line of activewear called ‘Anna!’”

One very late night I was eating a burrito when I asked myself, why not write that novel—the story of what would happen to modern-day Anna Karenina?

And so my heroine (I use the term generously) was born: Anna Kagen, a beautiful brunette who married, when she was too young, a much older man: Alex Kagen, upright-but-uptight, a man who, like his progenitor, is involved in government (in this case, he’s the District Attorney for the City and County of San Francisco), and Val, the charismatic doctor who, when she meets him, would appear to be her soulmate.

But here’s where I left the classic behind. Unlike the Karenins, the Kagens have a son who’s on the autism spectrum. As I do. My son inspired Anna Kagen’s son Jack.

I’ve always drawn on my own experiences in writing; at the same time, I’ve always heavily fictionalized those experiences. My first published novel, Extraordinary Means, is about a young woman in a coma, who’s able to narrate the action as her family debates whether or not to pull the plug. Despite occasional appearances to the contrary, I’ve never been in a coma. Dare I call it a metaphor for someone who needs to “wake up”?

The family I described in ‘Extraordinary Means’ is largely invented—and partly not. I’m not a memoirist; I don’t have the gift of making my own life interesting. More to the point, I like making things up.

But just as I wanted to write about my own loving-but-crazy parents, ideally in forgiveness mode, so I wanted to write about the experience of raising a child on the spectrum, especially as regards the misunderstanding and sometimes bigotry that the differently-abled face. That’s what I hope to have dramatized in ‘There’s More Than One Way Home’, in which ‘Anna Karenina’ meets ‘Rain Man’.

Fiction is a heightened reality. Fictional characters are cleverer than their real-life counterparts. Events are more dramatic. Coincidences are more frequent. Alfred Hitchcock said of movies that they’re “like life, with the boring parts cut out,” and novels are much the same: if the novelist can draw the reader into a more entertaining world (even if that world isn’t a place where the reader would like to live, any more than one would like to live in a Hitchcock film) then she can make her point that much more powerfully.

At the start of ‘There’s More Than One Way Home’, Anna chaperones a field trip to an island in San Francisco Bay with her son Jack’s second grade class. During lunch, four boys, including Jack, wander off, and when they’re found, one boy is dead and the other two accuse Jack of having pushed him off a cliff to his death.

Why not? He’s the boy who, with limited verbal and social skills, can’t explain himself. Anna believes he’s innocent; other parents believe he’s guilty.

When there are children involved, parents, especially mothers, will circle the wagons no matter who that leaves on the outside. (We saw something similar in the Liane Moriarty novel and its HBO adaptation, ‘Big Little Lies’.) In my novel, local parents form a group to get Jack sent away.

That’s the heightened reality I just mentioned. Or is it? Remember the Bucky-McMartin preschool case in which parents created a modern literal witch hunt after a not-very-stable woman accused the preschool of practicing Satanic rituals? Or how about Ryan White, the HIV-positive boy who faced a long legal battle against the local school district to be allowed to attend school?

My son was never accused of murder. But there was the woman who didn’t want him in her house because he ran around and made too much noise: The fact that her own son was egging him on didn’t occur to her. There were the parents who eagerly told me that they could tell my son was “an old soul”—but then didn’t invite him to their own son’s birthday party.

Perhaps worst of all, though, was the teacher who left him out of story time because he was giggling and “he doesn’t understand anyway.”

‘There’s More Than One Way Home’ isn’t a mystery, at least no more than, as someone said (and this is another aphorism that belongs to the world), “Every novel is a mystery.” It’s about a boy who has to struggle to be understood, and the mother who tries to help, while fighting her own demons. After all, the original inspiration was ‘Anna Karenina’, the tale of a woman who, while a victim of social norms, is also pretty self-destructive.

Kesey and Orwell make us care about Randle McMurphy and Winston Smith—fictional people—and in the process, make us care about real people and real problems.

It’s a grandiose notion that my novel will change anything, but writing a novel is a grandiose act. Perhaps after reading it one mother will remember to include “that autistic kid” in her own son’s or daughter’s next birthday party. Perhaps one teacher will learn that even without the words to express herself, a girl on the spectrum is listening. That’s enough.

 

 

 

Donna Levin taught fiction writing for two decades, most notably at the University of California Extension at Berkeley, where she led the Novel-Writing Workshop. Her first novel, Extraordinary Means (William Morrow), was celebrated by Kirkus as a “a witty, clear-eyed debut,” and the San Francisco Chronicle described it as “an extraordinarily lively, funny novel.” The Los Angeles Times called her second novel, California Street (Simon & Schuster) “inventive…thought-provoking and fun to read”. Both of Donna’s novels were optioned for film. She lives in San Francisco. 

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