04/10/02
Laying Seige to Nirvana
    by John Murchek and recorded by John Cech

April is National Autism Awareness Month, an appropriate time to reflect on the story of Jessy Park as told by her mother, Clara Claiborne Park, in her two books, The Siege and Exiting Nirvana: A Daughter's Life with Autism.

For Buddhists, Nirvana is a state of serenity achieved through extinguishing alldesires and passions. Small wonder, then, that when Clara Claiborne Park watched her three-year old daughter, who had been recently diagnosed with autism, she thought Jessy behaved as if she had reached Nirvana prematurely. Like many autistic children, Jessy appeared content to crawl around one spot on the floor or to thread a chain through her fingers for hours on end. Instead of looking at the content of pictures, she focused on abstract shapes and colors. She could not speak with others, and was so indifferent to human beings that she seemed to look through them.

Park was determined to reclaim Jessy from this Nirvana, but it was not easy. Forty years ago, when Jessy received her diagnosis, autism's causes were even more obscure than they are today, and treatments were practically non-existent. Psychiatrists blamed autism on so-called refrigerator parents, who didn't love their children enough. If scientists hadn't disproved this theory, Clara Parks' example could have done so. She eloquently describes how she, her husband, and their three other children worked through trial and error, with extraordinary inventiveness, persistence and love, to draw Jessy into play, and from play into communication.

Because there's no cure for autism, Jessy can never entirely leave Nirvana behind, but she lives more and more today in the ordinary world. She takes commissions for brilliantly colored paintings. A reproduction of one of them hung on the White House Christmas tree in 1993. Most important for Clara Park, though, are Jessy's practical, "unromanticizable" achievements: working in the Williams College mailroom for twenty years, keeping a checkbook, attending aerobics classes, and struggling to understand the enigmatic emotions of those around her in a way that a person lost in Nirvana never would.

Copyright 2002 by John Cech

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Tuesday, 08-Jun-2004 14:56:45 EDT


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