Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Ralph Savarese’s "Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption" is #005 in the never-ending series called THE MAGNIFICATION OF ONE MEMORY IN MEMOIR. All THE MAGNIFICATION OF ONE MEMORY IN MEMOIR

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****Ralph Savarese’s Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption is #005 in the never-ending series called THE MAGNIFICATION OF ONE MEMORY IN MEMOIR. All THE MAGNIFICATION OF ONE MEMORY IN MEMOIR links are at the end of this piece. 

Name of memoir? And were there other names you considered that you would like to share with us? The memoir is called Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption. Its subtitle is “On the Meaning of Family and the Politics of Neurological Difference.” I wanted the title to come from something my son had typed on his computer. (He’s nonspeaking and uses a text-to-voice synthesizer to communicate.) I remember teaching him the word “reasonable” in the context of what psychologists call “perseveration.” To perseverate is to persevere too long in something, to obsess you might say. He was perseverating over what I was wearing to work. He wanted me to don the same black jeans and white collared shirt each and every morning. 
          One day, I said with some annoyance, “Be reasonable!” This led to looking up the word online and marveling together at its many meanings, including “as much as is appropriate” or “moderate.” My son later deployed the word with his aunt who had just lost her son to brain cancer and was distraught. “Do you have reasonable people to help you with your hurt?” he typed, later adding, impishly, “It makes me reasonably happy to see you reasonably happy.” As someone who had been brutalized in foster care, my son helped my sister-in-law find a way forward; he knew intimately the morass of unspeakable loss. The word “reasonable” also has a disability resonance. The Americans with Disabilities Act speaks of “reasonable accommodations.” 

          In 2017, my son graduated from Oberlin College as its first nonspeaking student with autism.

Has this been published?  If yes, what publisher and what publication date? Yes, the book was published in 2007 by Other Press.

What is the description of this memoir? The book is an account of my son’s belated emergence into language and his inclusion in a regular school. It’s also a story of alternative family making. It tries to answer the question: “Why would anyone adopt a badly abused, nonspeaking six-year-old with 
autism from foster care?”

What is the date you began writing this memoir and the date when you completed the memoir? I wrote the first chapter in 2003. I then worked on it consistently from 2004-2005, revised it in early 2006, and it was published in May of 2007.

Where did you do most of your writing for this memoir?  And please describe in detail.  I wrote the memoir in a small study in a rundown house I was renovating. It was un-air-conditioned, and I wanted out! I’ve never been able to write in a comfortable space (Right)

What were your writing habits while writing this memoir- did you drink something as you wrote, listen to music, write in pen and paper, directly on laptop; specific time of day? The rule I followed was this: write three pages and then work on the house. Some days I was working on the house by 10:30 or 11:00; other days not until 3:00 or 4:00. I did this every day for a year. Took Sundays off. Both the book and the house got built!

Out of all the specific memories you write about in this memoir, which ONE MEMORY was the most emotional for you to write about? And can you share that specific excerpt with us here.  The excerpt can be as short or as long as you prefer, and please provide page numbers as reference. I’ll choose this one, though there were many. I had been spending time with my eventual son—he was three and a half—as a kind of “big brother.” Because his birth mother was a drug addict and prostitute, he had been in and out of institutions and foster care. 
          He’d taken a shine to me, and I’d devoted a great deal of effort to teaching him the American Sign Language sign for “more.” I did this by tickling his belly and then making the sign, again and again for months. He learned it, but I’m certain that at the time he thought it meant “tickle.” Later, in his second foster home, he was attacked physically and sexually by a much older boy who had been sodomized by his father. The Department of Children and Families called my wife and me to the hospital. I’ll pick up the story in the book.

          Entering the room where DJ was being held, we spotted him pacing back and forth, frantically flapping his arms, as deeply in a fog we had ever seen him. From a distance, he didn’t look injured—physically, that is. His clothes were on; a nurse was trying to get him to sit down in a chair so she could take his blood pressure. The room—I don’t know I remember this—was pale blue, with animal pictures on the walls: realistic photographs with sweetly unrealistic captions. The fluorescent lighting made DJ’s skin and curly, blond hair seem even lighter than they were.

Upon seeing us, he stopped in his tracks, paused (as if to allow some associative chain to complete itself), and then began, to our tremendous astonishment, to make the sign for “more.” As he was doing so, a doctor came into the room, a middle-aged woman with a doctor’s slightly harried look. “What’s he doing?” she asked.

“He’s signing ‘more,’” I said, still in shock. “He wants to be tickled.”

“He wants to be tickled now?” the doctor asked.

“It’s the only sign he knows,” my wife replied, fighting back tears. “We taught it to him. I think he’s reaching for something familiar.” Again, DJ signed “more,” this time coming over to me and placing my hand on his belly. He even managed something of a giggle, while still flapping his free arm and continuing to make a sound I’d never heard from him before: what might be imagined as the sound of a gerbil being smothered by a pillow.

“I’m not sure you should tickle him,” the nurse remarked. “Have you seen his chest and stomach?” At which point, the exam began. His clothes were removed—he winced when we took off his shirt. I winced when the doctor proceeded to inspect his anus for signs of sexual abuse.

“It happens,” the doctor said casually, snapping photographs.

How can I describe DJ’s body? Irregular streaks of blue, purple, and black, along his chest, back and abdomen; his left ear kicked in, also blue, purple and black—hardly resembling an ear. (That side of his head had been turned to the wall, thus preventing us from initially detecting his injury.) His porcelain face untouched, as if the perpetrator had merely gotten careless with the ear, otherwise careful to beat him in places his clothing would conceal. His legs and arms similarly untouched….

We’d end up doing an emergency foster care placement for DJ, and when we arrived at our house, he insisted I tickle him.

“I can’t tickle you,” I said. “You’re hurt.” Not understanding me, though clearly understanding I hadn’t yet tickled him, DJ signed “more” again, becoming particularly agitated and, in fact, smacking his head. “Here, let me tickle your feet,” I suggested, bending down to untie his shoes. DJ stopped me from doing so and, as he’d done at the hospital, stubbornly placed my hand on his stomach. “I can’t tickle you there,” I repeated, agitated myself. “You’re hurt.”

DJ was now in a frenzy. He was hitting his head against the wall and shrieking and, every few seconds, continuing to sign “more.” “Go ahead and tickle him,” my wife said, standing next to me. “Just do it very gently.” Lifting his shirt, I searched for patches of white among the purple, blue, and black. Finding a few—there were only a few—I brought my fingers down and hardly moved them, hardly applied any pressure, at all. DJ, who seemed to know I wasn’t really ticking him, calmed immediately. More than once, I made him wince, and in return he proffered a sad, half-hearted giggle. He was that disciplined in his quest for familiarity and dare I say love. (Reasonable People, 52-54)

Can you describe the step-by-step process of writing about this ONE MEMORY? When I write, I look for little moments of incommensurability—things that can’t be reconciled. Those animal pictures on the wall and DJ’s terrible bruises and sexual abuse. Or his wanting to be tickled. These moments, by definition, have complexity; they can’t be reduced. I had the story, of course, but it was like a bare Christmas tree. The moments of incommensurability enrich the basic narrative and allow the reader a deeper access to what happened.

Were there any deletions from this excerpt that you can share with us? I’m sure there were, but too much time has passed for me to remember them.

Other works you have published? In 2018, I published a hybrid memoir of reading called See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor.
In October 2020, I will publish a collection of poems called Republican Fathers. This link will take you to one of the poems in that collection:

Anything you would like to add? Check out the trailer for the PBS documentary that my son stars in and co-produced. In 2018 he won a Peabody Award for it!

Ralph James Savarese is the author of three books: Reasonable People (memoir); See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor (ethnographical literary criticism); and Republican Fathers (poetry). He is also the co-editor of three collections: Papa PhD: Essays on Fatherhood by Men in the Academy; "Autism and the Concept of Neurodiversity,” a special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly; and "The Lyric Body,” a special issue of Seneca Review. A fourth co-edited collection, “The Futures of Neurodiversity,” is under contract with the Modern Language Association.
Savarese is the recipient of a number of awards: the Irene Glascock National Undergraduate Poetry Competition (the judges were Seamus Heaney and Grinnell alum Amy Clampitt); the Hennig Cohen Prize from the Herman Melville Society for an “outstanding contribution to Melville scholarship”; an Independent Publisher’s Gold Medal for Reasonable People in the category of health/medicine/nutrition; a Mellon Foundation “Humanities Writ Large” fellowship, which supported a year-long residency at Duke University’s Institute for Brain Sciences; two “notable essay” distinctions in the Best American Essay series; two Pushcart Prize nominations; and a National Endowment for the Humanities summer stipend.
       His scholarship, creative work, and opinion pieces have appeared in more than 60 journals, books, and newspapers: American Disasters; American Literature; American Poetry Review; the Atlanta Journal Constitution; the Austin American Statesman; the Baltimore Sun; Bellingham Review, Beloit Poetry Journal; Bridge Eight; the Cincinnati Post; Cream City Review; the Dallas Morning News; the Des Moines Register; Disability Studies Quarterly; Edge City Review; The Ethics of Neurodiversity; Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family; Foundations of Disability Studies; Fourth Genre; Frontiers of Integrative Neuroscience; the Gainesville Sun; Graham House Review; the Grinnell Herald Register; the Haven; the Houston Chronicle; the Huffington Post; Inflexions; Inside Higher Ed; the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies; Keywords in Disability Studies; the L.A. Times; Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies; the Louisville Courier; Love’s Executive Order; Modern Poetry in Translation; Narrative; New England Review; Nine Mile Magazine; the Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Literary Studies; The Palm Beach Effect: Reflections on Michael Hofmann; Ploughshares; Poetry International; The Poker; Politics & Culture; Prose Studies; Psaltery & Lyre; Rattle; Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities; Rethinking Ahab: Melville and the Materialist Turn; Rethinking Empathy through Literature;; Secret Sharers: Melville, Conrad, and Narratives of the Real; Segue; Seneca Review; Southern Humanities Review; Southern Poetry Review; Southwest Review; Stone Canoe; the Tallahassee Democrat; Thinking in the World: A Reader; and Verse Virtual.
He can be seen in three documentaries about autism: Loving Lampposts, Living Autistic; Finding Amanda; and Deej. The third, which appeared on PBS, is about his son’s inclusion journey. It follows DJ from eighth grade through his first year at Oberlin College, where he was the institution’s first nonspeaking student with autism. The film’s many awards include “Best of Festival” at Superfest, the international disability film festival, and a Peabody Award.
Professor Savarese teaches American literature, disability studies, medical humanities, and creative writing at Grinnell College in Iowa.


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