Sunday, March 30, 2008

Autism and Abigail Adams

I'm composing with pen and notebook by candlelight because it's Earth Hour. I've even suspended the teakettle on two overturned cups over a candle. Don't laugh; the water is starting to steam. Maybe because I'm using the tools I started journaling with 30 years ago, I'm not stumbling in fits and starts tonight. It could also be the lubricant of my passion-fruit margarita with dinner. Cause it was before that drink that I mumbled to Randy how leaden the writing has felt this week and it was after the drink that I realized the sympathetic connection between the beleaguered mothers of Autism: The Musical and Abigail Adams, as portrayed by Laura Linney in the HBO miniseries I've been grooving on.

(I just looked out the front window - I think most of our block missed the Earth Hour memo.)

Director, cinematographer and producer Tricia Regan's documentary Autism: The Musical follows a group of autistic kids as they take part in the Miracle Project, a theater workshop that helps them use their often unappreciated talents to write, rehearse and perform in their own show.

Elaine Hall, the Miracle Project's director, uses guided improvisation, creative movement and cooperation in an environment of acceptance. "I don't know what will happen," she confesses to the parents at their first meeting and this open-mindedness leads to some pretty amazing interactions between the kids and some displays of surprising talent. Fourteen-year-old Lexi may not be able to cross the street or wash dishes by herself, but she sings lyrically and melodically sophisticated songs with the voice of an angel. She's riveting to watch and listen to, especially as she sings Stephen Schwartz's "I'm Not That Girl," a song about the uncrossable distance between reality and "what-might-have-been."

I watched the film and shed plenty of tears, (apparently not an uncommon reaction.) (note to me: I've got to write another post about my tendency to use tears as a criterion for excellence in movies...) I mean, it's one thing to hear the stories of autistic children losing their communication skills; it's another thing entirely to watch the home videos of smiling toddlers cuddling with their parents, then see footage of the same child, slightly older, withdrawn, blank, growing unreachable.

We do see stirring scenes of hope. The children build friendships, show perseverance and joy. Elaine Hall's son, who we have seen utter nothing more than syllables, uses a talking keyboard to offer a piecing and perceptive request to his mother. The final wonderful performance is no more moving than the small moments of closeness we've witnessed with these remarkable children.

There's much courage shown here and some of it is not pretty. The film gives voice to a father's complaints about how mothers of autistic children often turn megalomaniacal as they pursue advocacy for their children and so drive their husbands away. The mothers battle despair, fears for the future of their vulnerable kids, frustrations with their children, their spouses, inadequate support systems, schools that underestimate or misunderstand their children. We watch marriages fall apart.

One mother talks about the possible causes of her son's autism. "I'm one of the people that believes it's like the kettle of beans. You know, you throw in a bean: Here's the vaccinations, here's the antibiotics, here's the toxic environment, here is the mercury in the fish his mother ate while she was pregnant. You throw enough beans in a kettle and it's going to tip over."

Other than this perspective, the film steers pretty wide of the controversy over the possible contribution of childhood vaccinations as a cause or contributing factor to the disorder. A wise editing/directorial decision - these parents have misgivings enough about the care, education and the uncertain future of their children.

Which brings me to Abigail Adams. So far in the miniseries, she is essentially a single mother, raising her children alone as her husband, the statesman and ambassador John Adams travels to Philadelphia to found the country and then to Europe to find funding for its war of revolution.
Abigail works the farm, keeps up the home front and in episode two, makes the agonizing decision to inoculate her children and herself against smallpox. In a horrific scene, we see the doctor, without the aid of antiseptics or anesthesia, cut Abigail's arm and inserts matter from the open sores of a dying boy.

Abigail is aware the procedure will result in a mild, yet miserable, case of the disease with some risk of death. David McCullough writes with some restraint, "the ordeal of the patient could be considerable." As Linney portrays her, Abigail suppresses her own pain and fear and asks briskly of the children watching, "Done. Who's first?"

Agonizing over the social responsibility, the safety and the efficacy of vaccinating my children, what I supposed was a thoroughly modern problem, suddenly is revealed to be ancient. The time comes so soon when we know we cannot protect our children from pain, when we need to lead them towards it for the greater good. What Olympian leaps of faith, leaps into the dark, are required by motherhood.

Read "10 Things I Learned from Abigail Adams" by Urban Momma here.

1 comment:

sevnetus said...

When I was young I was vaccinated and I turned out... well... I am sorry there seems to be a lot of autism going around. Even in good times, maybe there's tension between kid care and hubby care, and wife care of course.