If you’re going to write a post about your new BFF, it’s totally helpful if they’re famous, because then you can find lots of pictures of them from which to choose for the post. Oh … Andrew is the one on the left.
A week and a half ago, I’d never consciously heard of Andrew Solomon.
I say “consciously” because I now realize that I’d seen his name countless times, yet hadn’t had reason to register it. But in my mind, even when I hear it, I conjure up an image of it — the letters set in the distinctive font that fellow New York Times Magazine readers recognize as the comfort of Sunday morning in an overstuffed chair with a strong cup of coffee and something new to think about.
But the man himself was not on my radar.
And then there was the TED talk. The one that well over a half-million of you out there have now seen. The one that captured our attention and forced us to think.
The one that I talked about with an autistic friend. “I’m captivated by it,” I said, “but there’s something that I can’t put my finger on that just .. I don’t know. I just don’t know yet.”
And he said, “I’m bothered by it because it’s yet another — yet another — instance in which OUR differences, OUR lives are viewed through the lens of what it’s like to parent us.”
And that was it, wasn’t it?
It was the same old feeling that, yet again, we were summarily, even if unintentionally, dismissing the first-person narrative in favor of the second. And that, at the same time, we were celebrating so much progress in our societal acceptance of difference — and by God, yes; I don’t want to minimize the distance we’ve travelled — but I worried that as we congratulated ourselves on our job well done, we would allow ourselves to lose sight of how far we’ve yet to go.
Just a day later, I found myself alluding to Andrew’s (yeah, I call him Andrew now; we’ll get to that) talk and touched upon both themes in my post, How Do We Get From Here To There? about the murder of Alex Spourdalakis and the media coverage that followed.
Later that night, I got a text from my friend, the awesome Miss T (but you can just call her Miss T). The conversation went like this ..
Her: So will you go to see Andrew Solomon on Monday night?
Me: Ummmmmmm what??????
Her: I’ll e-mail you. I assumed you knew. He’s speaking at a high school just outside the city.
Me: Had no idea. You going?
Me: Want a date?
Her: Yes!! Let’s get you a seat – QUICK!
And so it was that now, just days after he’d first landed on my radar, I had plans to see Andrew (though he was still Mr. Solomon at the time) live and in the real.
The next day while running around with the kids I got a comment on How Do We Get From Here To There? It read as follows.
I just want to say what a moving post this is. I, too, have been devastated about Alex’s death, which is part of a larger pattern of autistic people being killed by their parents and the press focusing on the suffering of the parents before all else. I also want to make clear that while I think we’ve come a long way on both gay rights and disability rights, we still have a long, long, way to go–in both those categories and even in the categories that “came first” such as women’s rights and race rights. I didn’t mean for my talk to gloss over them, only for it to reflect that we have moved in a positive direction. An event such as this one, however, is an agonizing reminder of how very far there is to go.
And I had this fan girl moment where I was all “OH MY GOD HE READ IT!!” and then I had this other hooray for blogging moment where I was all “OH MY GOD I LOVE AL GORE CAUSE HOW COOL IS IT HOW THE INTERWEBZ TOTALLY WORK!?!” and then I started humming “We Are The World, We Are The Children” except not really.
And then I got it together and acted like a grown-up just long enough to write back to him.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful response to my post. The tragedy of Alex’s death has weighed heavily on our community (meaning autistics and those who love them.) I very much appreciate you taking the time to write what you did.
Incidentally, I’ll be coming to see you speak on Monday night. I’d love to say hello if you have time before or after. I really look forward to hearing you speak.
And then he wrote back some equally grown-up stuff in which he said that he’d be honored and delighted to meet me and that he was thrilled that I’d be there, at which point I may or may not have giggled just a little. And then he signed it “Warmest, Andrew” and I was all, “Dude, I get to call Andrew Solomon ‘Andrew,'” and then I noticed the ‘Warmest’ in response to my ‘Warmly’ and wondered if maybe he wasn’t being just a little competitive, but whatever.
And then I went to hear him speak. And as I waited for him to begin, I worried about how I’d feel about the talk. Whether I’d have the same uneasiness that I’d had when I watched him for the first time. Whether I’d be forced to think as much, feel as much, question as much. (To cut to the chase — No. Yes. Yes and yes.)
Seeing him live was like settling in at home to watch the DVD of a movie that you enjoyed in the theater — more intimate, more interactive, and most importantly, with bonus features.
My concerns about the missing first-person perspective were put to rest thirty seconds in in a way I mightn’t have imagined. Before Andrew (yep, Andrew) said a word, he played a video trailer for his highly acclaimed book, Far From The Tree. It was there that we saw Jackie Roth talk about her deafness and Clinton Brown expound on the challenges and beauty of his life with dwarfism. There that we heard Susan Weinreich talk about her schizophrenia in her own words. There that we watched the tender and loving interactions between Bill and Chris Davis and Catherine and Deirdre Featherstone. There that I was reduced to a tearful, simpering mess, and Andrew hadn’t even said a word.
And so it was also there that I exhaled. Because he was beginning not with his own impressions or parents’ narratives, but with people’s own words, from their own perspectives, about their own experiences. And though the book, and therefore the talk about it, is built around an examination of the relationships between parents and their children (both young and adult children) as a conduit to our greater relationships with society, the tone was set by an undeniable acknowledgement that those relationships, as all do, go two ways.
When he arrived at the portion of the talk in which he celebrates how much progress we’ve made in recognizing and accepting the spectrum of sexual orientation, he added, “though we certainly have a long way to go …” He even touched specifically upon the still tragically high rates of suicide among gay youth. I allowed myself the audacity to think I might have had something to do with that. Yeah, sometimes my view of my own awesomeness far over-reaches the reality of it. Let me live in my delusion, won’t you?
During the talk itself, I vacillated between wanting to take notes to catch it all and insisting to myself that I be present and simply absorb it. I managed a largely unsuccessful hybrid of the two, but not for lack of trying.
Here are some of the things I was compelled to write, in no particular order.
The evolution of acceptance … Cure –> Accommodation –> Celebration
Three categories of parents —
- Accepting but bewildered
- Outright celebratory
(Note to self: I’d add 4. Celebratory despite lingering bewilderment)
Family acceptance <–> Self-acceptance –> Larger community acceptance
Identity vs Illness
There’s a gap between love and acceptance. It can be difficult to get from one to the other. One of the goals of love has to be acceptance — but acceptance is a process.
Thanks to the Internet, there is community for everyone who has the resources and the skills to find it.
Ed note: Yay, Al Gore!
On why autistics tend to think of autism as an identity — “autism is so profoundly central to who a person is from an early age.”
Vital for parents to connect with adults who have the same differences as our children – both for us and for them.
The stories of extreme parenting illuminate the reality of all parenting.
When asked about the effect of economics and education on outcomes … “While the effect of higher economic and educational status are as one would expect them to be, I have found that very often those with more resources, who have lived lives in which they have been typically able to control their circumstances, tend to have a propensity to first try to fix their children’s differences rather than accept them.”
Ed note: MIss T is a special education teacher and inclusion specialist who has worked in extremely varied socioeconomic environments. She nodded vigorously as he said this.
When the talk wrapped up, Miss T and I went to buy our books and then wait on the EXTREMELY long line to have Andrew sign them. It seems that Andrew fandom is not a particularly novel idea.
For the sake of efficiency, the event organizers were passing a pad of sticky notes down the line with a pen. We were instructed to write down what we would like Andrew to write. I joked with Miss T. “How about, Dear T, I would be nothing without you. Love, Andrew.”
She wouldn’t go for it. And given my particular proclivity for encouraging others to speak for themselves, I couldn’t fathom telling him what I wanted him to say either. So I wrote only “Jess” on my sticky note and passed the pen back to the front of the line.
As we waited, folks around us chit-chatted. I was asked three different times what brought me to the talk. And each time, I said essentially the same thing. “Apparently this is where I was supposed to be.”
When we got to the table, I handed Andrew my book. I told him how touched I was by his comment and he told me that since leaving it, he’d become a reader of Diary. And when he handed my book back to me, inscribed as follows, I couldn’t have been happier that I’d left my sticky note blank.
With thanks for your insights and your work,
There are people who talk about changing the world and then there are those who get off their arses and go do it. Andrew is doing it. And it is a wonder and an honor to behold. The circular gratitude? Well, that’s just icing on the cake.
P.S. I still think he’s being a little competitive with the superlative salutations, but I’m willing to overlook it.