A girl struggles to understand her autistic brother’s demons, real and imagined
I have seen my brother’s eyes very few times. Eye contact is brief—he tries to escape it whenever possible. Merely glancing at him is an offense. Looking at him intently could result in a tantrum. His tantrums are huge, vocal, physical attacks. He is the unstable element: eyes like lithium. Just look at it and it will explode. What I know I’ve stolen through the years.
I think of the birth I wasn’t alive to witness: My mother is glistening and exhausted beneath the high ceiling of their living room. Strands of her long, dark hair stick to her forehead. She’s delirious with pain. My father has a hand on her round stomach and a hand pressing open a medical book—he’s sweating too, glancing between her face, the book, a clock chiming on the wall. It’s been 36 hours, and still no baby. Too late to find a midwife, too poor to pay for a hospital. I wanted my hands to be the first hands to hold all of you, my father often told us. I wanted you to know the hands that would protect you.
When my mother finally contracted Micah from her body, he didn’t make a sound. My father wrapped him in blankets and laid him on the bed between them. Micah didn’t cry until she touched him.
Autism is marked by abnormal introversion and egocentricity. Autistic people have an atypical sense of, and response to, fear. My brother is terrified if you approach him unannounced, but might walk into interstate traffic. It is not a personality disorder. It is a developmental disorder with a spectrum of symptoms so varied as to be almost individualistic. If you’ve met one person with autism . . . you’ve met one person with autism. If autism could create photographs, each one would be overexposed.
My mother was pregnant when she met my father. She was early on, so neither of them knew it. Micah was the culmination of a two-year love between my mother and a man named Jamie. He was from a well-off Sacramento family, deep in law and politics. She worked behind the counter of a Dairy Queen while she studied at the university. After Jamie broke up with her, my father said he liked the way she stirred the shakes and asked her out.
She learned she was two months pregnant. She told my father and he said, “Marry me.”
“But it’s not your baby.”
“Marry me anyway.”
But then Jamie came back onto the scene. He said he didn’t love her but he didn’t want an illegitimate child haunting his future political career. He wanted to fight my father.
It’s the famous scene with two men in a yard, fists clenched like fleshy bouquets. My father said, “You’re going to fight me, rich boy? Think for a minute. How many fights have you been in? How many fights do you think I’ve been in?” My father had tanned arms and shoulders, tense beneath a swath of dirt. Jamie sunk into silence, turned away.
The marriage took place in a park, everyone in embroidered muslin with flower wreaths in their hair. In the wedding slides there is a picture: my mother in a sunspot, looking down at her belly, swollen like a moon over her bare feet. She holds my father’s hand. He is in a shadow, his wild hair and eyes as dark as curling leaves. He is looking just out of the frame to something disconcerting in the distance.
It’s easy to turn away. It’s much easier than looking directly. He walks quickly with his head down, arms stiff at his sides. Or he paces the room and is unable to stop. Unable to stop making repetitive motions and sounds, fragments of sentences, noises that have no connection to the context (screech, yelp, pop, clap). He hits himself in the head. Stupid. Retard. When strangers come, he keeps to the corners, twitching and grinning wide, but unable to approach. It’s embarrassing. I’m embarrassed for him, for them, for myself. A brave stranger holds out his hand and walks toward Micah slowly, speaking evenly, as if he were a stray dog let into the house. My father says, amused, “Say hi, Micah.” Micah grins like a stray dog let into the house.
I was born. My father got a job working construction. Days they argued about the money they didn’t have, and nights he stayed out later and later. My sister, Jasmine, was born. Then Mileah.
Our mother waitressed nights at Pancake Corner. She’d come in late, smelling of nickels and butter, and kiss our elbows to check if we were sleeping.
My father came home each day red-eyed and slow, landed heavily on our sofa, and untied his construction boots. We were allowed to play in the yard if it wasn’t raining, and to watch TV if it was. Then he’d drink and keep drinking. If we were quiet enough, he’d pass out in the shifting blue light of the television and we could brush our teeth, tiptoe to bed, and lie awake waiting for our mother to come home.
What I mean to say is, my father beat him. Almost every day. It became ritual: My brother would begin his questions, or rock, or mumble, or laugh to himself. I always come back to the undertones of fault. Micah is the perpetuate. This is the voice of my father explaining himself. It got out of hand. It always gets out of hand. And then my father comes to find us girls to explain that he loves us all. When your mother told me she was pregnant I was happy. After Micah was born, he went with me everywhere. He used to ride on my shoulders and laugh the whole way. But your brother has problems. You know how hard he makes everything. And I’m so tired; I just don’t have the patience. I don’t mean it to get out of hand, but he keeps at me . . . and besides, who knows how much he remembers—understands?
My father is lovely when he’s calm. So strong and lovely. He has the voice of a magician who could wave his hand and be kind or cruel. Who would carry us on his back, or bare his teeth.
My father came home wired, ready for a fight. Micah said something, did something. I don’t know. I grabbed Jasmine and Mileah and ran upstairs with them to my room—stayed there covering their ears. I couldn’t make a complete scene of it: wailing, falling, scraping, yelling, something wooden against the wall. They moved around the house in a circle until they reached my brother’s room, where the worst of it rose through the floorboards—the breath knocked out of him, a choking sound, a dense thud.
Then it stopped, like a sharp exhale. I heard my father’s boots across the living room, out the front door, the door slamming shut. Jasmine and Mileah slumped against each other, whimpering. I pulled a blanket from my bed to cover them, then edged my way down the stairs to Micah’s room. When I opened his door, a sliver of light pointed across the dark to his pale form crouched in the corner—head between his knees, one arm over his neck, the other reaching up, flat-palmed and trembling.
I stood there a while behind the light without telling him it was me—without giving him reason to uncoil.
“It’s just me,” I said, finally. When he heard my voice he let his arms down slowly. “I’m just here to see if you’re OK.” He looked up, glossy-eyed, to a spot above my head—the light? Does he see me at all? Who knows how much he remembers—understands.
“Yeah,” he said finally.
“Yeah, I’m fine now. I’m fine.” I walked into the unlit room, shut the door, and sat down on the bed. He got up and sat next to me. The room was opaque at first, but slowly my eyes adjusted so I could see his face. A light shone in from somewhere, glossing his face in silver. I can’t remember how long we sat there in silence.
“I’m sorry,” I said, finally.
“Why are you sorry? You didn’t do anything.”
I stood in Ockley Green Middle School’s field, an expanse of matted-down grass and dirt hemmed in by a chain-link fence. My friend Keisha and I were talking to Giovanni and Alfonzo—boys from our class—when they started making fun of the retard by the fence. Micah paced back and forth beneath a Douglas fir, talking to himself, laughing, smashing his hands over his mouth. They didn’t know he was my brother. I didn’t sit with him at lunch or talk to him in the hallways.
“Actually, that’s not cool.”
“What? Like he’s your best friend or something?” Alfonzo rolled his face near mine.
“Awww, that’s sweet! You love him!” Gio said, placing his hands over his heart.
“Yeah, actually, I do.”
“You sweat that retard boy?!” Keisha’s exclamation was sincere. She’d been trying to get me to say whom I had a crush on for weeks.
“No. He’s my brother.” They stopped laughing, took a few steps away from me in perfect unison.
“Really.” But they didn’t believe me. I was charged to prove myself by going to talk to the strange, wild boy beneath the pine.
I walked across the field while Keisha and the boys followed at a distance. I spoke to him, perhaps more loudly than I needed to.
“Hey, Danielle,” he said, mimicking my tone and head gesture—one of his favorite games. He didn’t stop walking in a long figure eight, and I wondered what I would say to prove he was my brother. How strange to make theater of relation.
“Did Mom tell you what she was making for dinner tonight?”
“Um, no. What is she making?”
“I don’t know. I was asking you.”
“Oh, yeah. I don’t know. I hope it’s spaghetti,” he said in my general direction.
“Yeah, me too.”
After that, Keisha gave me updates on Micah’s progress in their biology class. She would list his behaviors and want me to explain them in clinical terms. Like everyone else’s, all my knowledge came from the movie Rain Man, which didn’t explain much about Micah.
“Did you hear what happened in class today?” Keisha asked.
“He started freaking out. Those mean white boys kept poking at him and calling him names and all of a sudden he started throwing things and screaming. Everyone had to get under the desks. It was like Desert Storm up in there. He started throwing rocks, books, a microscope.”
By mean white boys, she meant the Sidmore boys, who chased him home from school, barked at him, and threw rocks at his head. They said fuckin’ before every noun and came to school with dirty clothes and sometimes bruised cheeks.
“What are you supposed to do when he gets like that?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what he’s thinking.”
“I know what he was thinking,” she said. “I’m not gonna take it anymore.”
“Who knows what he’s thinking. Who knows how much he remembers from anything—how much he understands?”
My father left the house in December my junior year and didn’t come back. Everyone fell into a deep silence. Temperance was strange to all of us. Micah began to see a counselor—a specialist in high-functioning autism.
My mother told me one afternoon that Micah had told his counselor that he knew something was wrong with him—Something is wrong with my brain, he’d said, and I want my brain to be better. Micah began keeping a diary of progress and a list of social goals:
Say hello to people.
Ask how they are feeling.
Give someone a compliment.
Wait patiently in line.
When you are feeling frustrated or angry, go for a walk.
Do not scream at people, hit them, or throw things at them no matter how angry you are.
Common symptoms of autism: The inability to lie. Worse, not even thinking to lie. Even worse, believing what people say. The worst, not judging anyone for lying or for telling the truth. Abnormalities of social interaction: Severely stunted ability to control or manipulate social interaction. Not mindful of distinctions between race, class, gender, weight, age, disability. Lack of regard for social expectations. A memory full of sharp detail (directions, colors, dates, names).
One morning, Micah didn’t flinch when I walked into the kitchen. He didn’t sulk, or stamp his feet, or send me sharp eyes. Instead, he stared at me, anxious. This meant he wanted to speak, but I ignored him, pretended to be absorbed in pouring my cereal, milk, lifting each spoonful to my mouth, stirring my tea, smoothing my hair—anything other than give him attention. Somewhere in his head he was trying to speak to me, but I didn’t care. I said good-bye as I left the kitchen and he remained silent at my back.
The next morning we went through the same routine. I walked into the room, and he looked straight at me, his eyes huge, direct, full of speech. I ignored him—Who knows what he’s thinking?—and attended to my cereal ritual. After I took my last bite I looked at him, and he immediately looked down.
“Okay, fine. What. Just tell me. But say it quick.”
“Did you know that I love you?”
I stared at him. He stared back.
“I guess I figured . . . but you never said so.”
“Oh. Yeah. I said it now, though.”
“Because my counselor told me to write a list. See?” He pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket.
“What’s it a list of?”
“People I love. See, you’re here,” he points to the page, “because you’re my sister and you’re nice to me when Dad is mean. Remember?”
“When Dad was mean and you came to see me.” I couldn’t speak—a lump in the throat. He went on, “Oh, it’s OK. It’s OK if you can’t remember. I remember. Yeah. It’s OK if you can’t remember. I was in my room, you know, on the floor. And you were there. At the door. Inside the light.”
Danielle Cadena Deulen is a personal essayist and poet. Excerpted from The Iowa Review (Spring 2011), a literary journal devoted to discovering new voices. Originally published in Deulen’s essay collection, The Riots (University of Georgia Press, 2011).http://iowareview.uiowa.edu