Over the past year I have read Priscilla Gilman’s memoir, The Anti-Romantic Child, twice. As a former English professor, lover of Romantic poetry and current writer, Gilman writes lyrical, mesmerizing prose. Her story, which is, in part, about her own childhood and upbringing, is mostly about her relationship with her first son Benji who is diagnosed with autism. It is told intimately and sincerely. In the prelude to the book Gilman writes:
“This book began as a lump in the throat, as a homesickness for the magical world of my childhood and for the home life I was looking forward to with my child. It began with a sickness of love for a child I adored but did not understand, a love searing in its intensity, overwhelming in its sense of longing and vulnerability, a love I feared would never be reciprocated, and worst of all would never make an impact…at its heart, this book is a love story: a story of two very different people learning to accept and affect and make space for each other in mysterious and powerful ways.”
Gilman, exceptionally smart and beautiful, hails from the American East coast upper crust. She dated Mia Farrow’s son, attended Yale as a student and worked there as a professor. Her parents were well known among New York’s intelligentsia. While it could be easy to write her off as privileged and entitled, her openness about her wounds and disappointments means that the reader is always on her side. An idyllic, fairy tale childhood, for instance, is ripped away from her when her mother divorces her beloved father. “It became clear to me…that my father had had another life, another side, a secret life of affairs and indulgence in drugs and hard-core pornography even as he was playing the role of the good family man and daddy who watched Sesame Street with me and presided over my innocent imaginative world,” she writes.
Throughout the book, Gilman weaves a rich tapestry of her triumphs and failures. She puts her all into her academic studies, obtaining her doctorate and giving every ounce of herself to her research, writing, teaching and her pursuit of tenure. Until it dawns on her that academia is not for her. Gilman becomes increasingly dissatisfied and disillusioned – the cut-throat competition for the few jobs in her field, the direction of her field, the insecurity of academic life, the way all it impinges on and threatens her well-being and family life. Set amongst the perilousness and instability of her career is the birth of Benji. Not only does Gilman struggle with being a working mother, but it soon becomes apparent that her son has special-needs, adding another layer of complexity to her life.
Benji comes to be known as ‘brilliant but quirky’. Gilman and her husband struggle to support him and find themselves pushed to the limits in their never-ending quest to meet his needs. His unpredictable nature and inability to cope with new situations and in new settings takes its toll on the family. Despite access to the best doctors, psychologists, therapists and teachers, it is only after myriad visits to such specialists and exhaustive research that Benji is given a diagnosis of autism.
This is set against the chaos of the birth of Gilman’s second child, her increasingly strained and rocky marriage, the long illnesses and eventual death of her dear father and in-laws and a transition to a new career working with her mother as a literary agent. In a short space of time, they move house, cities and schools. Over time, and with unflagging commitment and persistence, Gilman is able to find the right care for her autistic son and care for her family as a single mother after she and her husband separate. She begins to think about their experience as a journey, one in which she doesn’t have a map but is dedicated to scoping out the territory as she goes, never giving up, always finding a way to be resilient and keep on moving forward. Gilman revels in the unexpected delight of her son’s intelligence and musical talent. She never sees him as a burden, but as a precious gift. Eventually, while not part of the book, Gilman soon remarries and becomes an advocate and spokesperson for autism awareness.
After both readings of this text, I was struck by the fact that while Gilman had access to what is probably the best care in the world for a special-needs child and the resources to access it, it took so much time, effort, energy, persistence and sacrifice on her and her family’s part to find the right combination of care that has allowed Benji to thrive. It is a sad reality that many special-needs children around the world do not have access to the same care and are therefore unable to achieve their potential.
Gilman concludes her story by writing that: “In parenting Benj, I have gotten more in touch with a profound kind of romanticism; I have been given access to a transcendent sense of mystery and awe and wonder…While initially Benj presented as the contradiction of romantic ideas of childhood – he defied and rebuffed every expectation I had – ultimately he has reaffirmed, in a deeper and truer way, my romantic ideals and given me ‘more than all the other gifts’ [to quote Wordsworth].”