Priscilla Gilman’s new memoir, The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), is this week’s recommended reading. It is mostly about Gilman’s struggle to help her son Benjamin overcome a set of developmental disabilities that make him sound quite charming and interesting — as well as a challenging child who gives intricate meaning to that imprecise phrase “special needs.” While she gestures at specific diagnoses, she resists the comprehensive and categorical workup with which so many of my students arrive at college. She also refuses medication, which seems to be the go-to solution for the vast majority of kids who see a neurologist nowadays, as it seems to affect Benj’s brain chemistry in dramatic and unhelpful ways. Intensive therapy, however, helps, and that story is going to be very instructive and encouraging for parents who are finding their way with similarly challenging children. As the book argues implicitly, it matters less what is “wrong” with Benj than it matters to cultivate his talents and strengths as an individual, give him access and connection to a world of feeling, and give him a way to live in the world as a creative and unique person.
Benj is high end (fill in the blank — any neurological diagnosis is a menu nowadays) which means that, with a lot of hard work on the part of his parents and therapists, a child who is clearly brilliant by any standard but lacks the capacity to interact empathetically, receive affection in recognizable ways, or function in a standard social or learning environment learns to do so by the end of the book. The larger, and very compelling, theme of The Anti-Romantic Child, however, surpasses the particularities of Benj and his upbringing: it is about the romance that everyone needs to have to imagine a life. It is about what it takes to hold onto that romance and also grapple with the realities that clash with it. Gilman positions herself as a particularly romantic person (she becomes a Wordsworth scholar), but also creates a compelling perspective on that for the reader. The romances we develop about childhood, she proposes, are a healthy mechanism for choosing the parts of our upbringing that we want to honor and reproduce, while vowing not to pass on our own parents’ shortcomings. And while the family romance in particular sets the stage for disappointment — since, after all, people are dealt children quite randomly, and fully able children are bound to simply be themselves rather than made-to-order progeny — Gilman learns that romance is also really about joy. As she watches Benj learn to live for himself, overcome simple difficulties that can be paralyzing for him, and actualize his humanity, she discovers in herself a whole new capacity for experiencing joy.
Perhaps it is no accident that Gilman has to recalibrate her romance about herself at the same time: her marriage ends, tested by circumstance and the deepening knowledge that two adults can acquire about the nature of intimacy. A second theme in the book is her path into, and out of, academia. For a variety of reasons, Gilman’s career as a literary scholar had seemed pre-ordained. She gives birth to Benj while still in graduate school and, incredibly, is able to leverage a tenure-track job at Vassar as well as a part-time job for her husband. Particularly because they have a special needs child, being near family and friends, as well as avoiding a commuter marriage, seems to be the miracle they need. Increasingly, however, as she struggles with launching Benj, she also grapples with the knowledge that she has taken a wrong turn even as she has lived out a cherished romance about herself:
Vassar was a wonderful college, but my doubts, my dissatisfactions with academia remained. I would find myself warning my students against my path; I couldn’t in all good conscience encourage them to go to graduate school when they said they wanted to read great books all the time and teach great students like I did. They were so idealistic; they had starry eyes and great hopes. I wished one of my professors had been more honest and blunt with me early on; I wish I’d known what I was getting into, that being an English major bore little or no relation to being an English professor. I was reading much less literature, especially world literature, now that I was a professor. I had to read endless scholarly articles, book reviews, and student papers. I had to immerse myself in the minor writers of my period. And, of course, there were virtually no jobs; my career was an aberration, not a model that could be easily replicated.
Love for literature did not necessarily a career as a teacher-scholar make. While having a developmentally disabled child was a huge challenge to that career, and to ordinary life, it may have also allowed her to speak the things to herself that many people feel but do not act on.
I would sit in interminable department or all-college faculty meetings where minutiae would be debated for hours, people got up in arms about the smallest matters, and both the bickering and the venom bore no relation to what was really at stake….Once I got to Vassar, I no longer had the anxiety about the unknown, but a new problem emerged; I realized that I had been so fixated on the elusive brass ring of a tenure-track job that I hadn’t faced the fact that I wasn’t truly suited to scholarship…..I knew what I had to do to get tenure, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
So she chucks it, moving to New York to have another literary life:
…it felt good to write to the head of the Vassar English Department and tell him I’d decided to leave academia after the coming year’s teaching responsibilities were over; the father of a special needs child himself, he accepted my decision with great graciousness and understanding. Stepping off that tenure track felt like an enormous liberation, and I looked forward to beginning at the literary agency the following summer.
Gilman’s book is a must-read for anyone interested in disability studies, and a thoughtful, third wave feminist meditation on mothering, work, and the work of mothering. But it is also worthwhile for those who have made academic careers, and are beginning to wake up in the middle of the night and wonder how they got there; those on the path to a scholarly career who may or may not have come to grips with the realities of why they want it; and those who cherish the reality of scholarly life in all its parts but have found the path to a tenure-track job frustratingly foreclosed by the poor job market. Under what circumstances is it OK to change your mind? Under what circumstances is it possible to live out your dream in another way? While a special needs child might force those choices, or clarify such decisions, for any one individual, they are good questions for all of us to ask ourselves as we do the ongoing work of making a life.