Portrait of the Autist

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One might expect a mother's memoir about a handicapped daughter to be a tale of tragedy or an account of a miraculous breakthrough. Exiting Nirvana (Little, Brown; 225 pages; $23.95), Clara Claiborne Park's new book about her autistic daughter Jessy, is neither--or perhaps it is both. Jessy's autism is incurable, but her story is nonetheless one of triumph, of a thousand small skills arduously acquired and a thousand more yet to be mastered.

The publication of Exiting Nirvana, about Jessy's adolescence and adulthood, coincides with the reprinting of The Siege, Clara's 1967 account of Jessy's first eight years. Together these two volumes constitute what may be the best-documented case history of an autist. Without doubt it is the most readable.

When Jessy was found to have autism at the age of about three, little was known about the neurological disorder. Clara became psychologist, teacher and anthropologist, sieving through the evidence of Jessy's odd behavior for clues to her mysterious malady. As a child, Clara writes, Jessy sometimes seemed to neither see nor hear--she gazed through people as through glass--yet her visual perception was so acute that she could assemble puzzles picture-side-down, and her ears detected the faintest buzz, hum or click of a household appliance. Though she did not acquire a usable vocabulary until she was five, a few years later she effortlessly mastered arcane mathematical concepts and Morse code. Indeed, her facility with patterns and order led her to create--and be ruled by--her own obsessive systems. Jessy's calculations based on the weather and the phases of the moon, for example, long dictated precisely how much juice she poured into her glass at dinner. And the word typo inspired her to invent a vocabulary for other errors: speako, cooko, bake-o, painto.

Assisted by a succession of mother's helpers, or "Jessy- friends," Clara painstakingly tutored her child to read, write, say hello, look people in the eye, refrain from bizarre behavior--flying into tantrums, mumbling nonsense words--that might alarm them, and tolerate deviations from routine.

Three decades ago, I was one of the Jessy-friends. She was 11 when I first met her at her parents' home in Williamstown, Mass. Hunched over a cardboard carton filled with tiny squares of paper, she would grab handfuls of paper bits and let them sift down through her fingers--a repetitive activity that could absorb her for half an hour at a stretch.

What a long, long way she has traveled. The last time I saw Jessy, now 42, was a month ago at the opening of an exhibit at the Margaret Bodell Gallery in New York City. On display was a series of 10 unusual architectural paintings. The lines and angles of each facade were rendered with photographic accuracy; the colors, on the other hand, were blithely surreal. The artist: Jessy Park.

With observation as keen and detail as truly rendered as Jessy's buildings, Clara has documented her daughter's journey from the isolation and limitations of her early years to the vastly increased social integration and competence she enjoys today. Not only does Jessy paint those exquisite paintings--some of which are reproduced in Exiting Nirvana--but she also works as a clerk in the Williams College mailroom, maintains her own bank account, reads the newspaper (of special interest: stories about disasters and deficits), and cleans the house she still shares with her elderly parents.

As Clara tells of the never-ending process of providing Jessy with the tools of everyday living, she illuminates what it is to be human. Though Jessy has not achieved full independence, her growth and development into her fifth decade are cause for celebration, not just for families with disabled children but for everyone. For all of us can see refracted in the image of Jessy Park our own inadequacies that we labor daily to correct and our own genius for which we seek the best expression.