Which version shall I tell? And who’s truth? Am I telling my truth or John’s truth? Jonah’s or Gabriel’s?
Writing daily about personal experiences, I can’t help but consider the way I represent myself, my husband and my children. I’m a newcomer to the advocacy/self-advocacy issues passionately debated in the autism blogosphere, but I have been thinking a good deal about the way I represent Jonah, in particular. And what’s even more important than represent is the way I regard him; the way I interpret his behavior; the way I respond.
Jonah’s issues can be tricky, because he is so high functioning. Take last night, for example. We’ve gotten into the habit of “watching,” as J like to say, at suppertime. This started with the special event of experiencing the entire Star Wars saga but has become more of a coping device since then. John finds something on Netflix we can all moderately agree on, and we settle in. It’s a little sad, I know, and not my ideal way to spend what little daily time we have together as a family, but it helps Jonah eat his food without regular prompting. It helps him focus, or seems to, counterintuitive as this may be. Often though, it’s too much for me. Overstimulating. I don’t like being sucked into a story (many of which are mediocre at best) when my attention is already scattered. I get snappy and overloaded. The opposite seems to be true for John and Jonah. G’s okay either way (though his attachment to Bob the Builder has been bordering on obsession). So last night I said, “No watching.” Trouble is, Jonah was extremely tired (he’d been up since 5:15 a.m.) and hungry. He also has something of a cold, which mostly involves a hacking cough. Not such a good time for me to take a stand. Things were bound to get ugly.
They did. Get ugly I mean. Jonah wouldn’t touch his food. He cried and yelled, irrational things like “stop saying that over and over” (we kept reiterating that there would be no watching) and “I want to live in a different house,” to which John responded, “That would make me so sad. I don’t want you to live in another house,” to which Jonah shrieked, “I don’t want to life in a different house. I want to live in this house!” That said, it still felt more tantrum than meltdown to me, the line between the two being very hard to discern. Both are usually precipitated by lack of sleep or hunger, but the meltdown seems to involve the way Jonah understands or doesn’t understand things. If a situation doesn’t adhere to the way he orders his world, all hell can break loose. It doesn’t always; sometimes he can be remarkably flexible. Other times, he is immovable. The situation last night seemed centered on him not getting what he wanted, pure and simple; I categorize this as a tantrum.
I was at my wits end before this incident, and John could tell. So, trying to be helpful, he and Jonah took their food to John’s office along with the iPad. My ire began to rise. Within minutes Jonah was perfectly happy, chatting away about some anime feature they’d found. G and I were alone in the dining room reading the same truck book over and over and over again. About ten minutes later John and I had it out in the kitchen. In short, my bullheadedness butted up against Jonah’s (yes, I know I said I had it out with John, but John is absolutely the least bullheaded person I know. He is water—he bends and moves with the tide—and in these situations, he usually takes up Jonah’s cause with admirable evenhandedness and pragmatism). Some days, I just get sick of catering to Jonah’s needs first. And I tantrum a little bit myself.
When what is overwheming to me is in conflict with what is calming for Jonah, I usually try to accommodate J, but not this time. I chose to make my stand for better or worse. Call it selfishness. Call it self-preservation. Call it self-advocacy. All depends on which truth you feel like telling. I caught a segment of an interview on Fresh Air last week that struck me with some force. Terry Gross was interviewing the author Jeffrey Eugenides about his new book The Marriage Plot. They got on the subject of truth-telling, and the differences between memoir and fiction. You can click HERE to read or listen to the interview entire, but below is the bit that lit a match for me:
EUGENIDES: The hardest thing is writing about yourself.
GROSS: A lot of people would say the opposite, that, you know, writing about yourself is easier because you know the details of the story. You know the essential truth of it. You’ve lived it.
EUGENIDES: Well, you need to write about yourself in terms of how you feel and the things you’ve seen. But when you put it into someone else, another character, you don’t—you free yourself from having to be accurate and truthful. You can actually make a different kind of truth, whereas if you write about yourself, there is an actual truth that you’re trying to get to that you can never get to.
I think that people who write memoirs must constantly really secretly be fearing that they’re not saying the truth about what happened. But with a novel, whatever you say is true. And of course it’s just as—I think it’s more true than memoir. You’re still putting your thoughts and emotions and beliefs about the world into the character, but the facts don’t all have to line up.
Getting to the actual truth is hard. He’s saying impossible. I’ll say incredibly difficult, in part because of another passage I came across, from another novelist, the Nobel Prize winning Gunter Grass. And it’s ironic, because this comes from his memoir, Peeling the Onion:
An imprecise memory sometimes comes a matchstick’s length closer to the truth, albeit along crooked paths. It is mostly objects that my memory rubs against, my knees bump into, or that leave a repellent aftertaste: the tile stove…the frame used for beating carpets behind the house…the toilet on the half-landing…the suitcase in the attic…a piece of amber the size of a dove’s egg…If you can still feel your mother’s barrettes or your father’s handkerchief knotted at four corners in the summer heat or recall the exchange value of various jagged grenade– and bomb splinters, you will know stories—if only as entertainment—that are closer to reality than life itself.
Grass is writing about a kind of personal fiction we tell when we write or speak about ourselves and those around us. I think he’s spot on about memory being grounded in material things. We are humans who live in bodies who see/touch/hear/taste/smell our way through the world, sensing our way through just about every encounter and task we come upon. Because this is the way we know, we can get at reality. We can get at the truth, as imprecise as we may be. I may have been “right,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean I was being true. What my memory rubs against is Jonah’s eyes that night—the anger and the pain. The confusion from me changing the rules. His version of the truth was decidedly different; and this time I think it trumps mine.