Excerpt from Exiting Nirvana by Clara Claiborne Park, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Exiting Nirvana

A Daughter's Life with Autism

by Clara Claiborne Park

Exiting Nirvana by Clara Claiborne Park X
Exiting Nirvana by Clara Claiborne Park
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Mar 2001, 225 pages
    Mar 2002, 240 pages

  • Rate this book

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt

These conceptualizations were not available when Jessy circled her spot; now we see how well they explain the challenges she, and we, lived with. For overwhelmingly these challenges were social. As she grew, we were to discover how little trouble Jessy had with sequencing, cause and effect, induction and deduction. But "joint attention"? It is such a simple thing. A mother and a baby look at a picture book together. The mother points; soon the baby will too. Or they play clap hands or peekaboo; mother and baby laugh. Yet learning cannot take place without these "critical features of human thinking." We learn by imitation; imitation is a social act. It does not occur in Nirvana, where there is neither need nor opportunity for joint attention.

By the time Jessy was six and seven she could put two or three words together; she heard, even understood a little of what we said to her. How could we teach her to understand more, speak more intelligibly? Further, how could we motivate her to do the simple activities it became clear she was capable of doing? She could count, even subtract; the washcloth anxiety proved that.

She could notice the slightest deviation from a pattern. Clearly she could set the table. But why should she? To imitate her sisters? To please her mother? Such natural, social motivators are meaningless without "attribution of beliefs, desires, and emotions to others," without a "theory of mind." At two and a half she had drawn a closed circle, an X, even, astonishingly, a J. Once; six months later she wouldn't even pick up a crayon. Why should she? Why should anybody do anything? She could distinguish the most subtle shades of color; she did not utter her first adjectives until six, but when they came they were not the common-place "bad" or "nice," laden with social value. Rather (of two VW's side by side) she chirped, cheerfully, positively, correctly, "Peacock BLUE car, peacock GREEN car!" Yet later, after I had lured her back into drawing, she would take the first crayon available. Yellow on white? Why not? She drew for her own purposes, not to be visible to others. Sometimes she would even cut up what she had drawn, to join the other three-quarter-inch squares in her sifting carton.

Colors were easy. Numbers, even arithmetical processes, were easy. They were there in her head already, waiting for names. The year she turned nine we sat together as I filled sheet after sheet with rows of renditions of valentine heart-candies, things she knew and liked. They could be counted, grouped in twos, threes...fives...nines...which could themselves be grouped: three groups of nine heart-candies clearly made twenty-seven. Or I drew circles and divided them into halves, thirds, fourths, fifths --fractions! Or I added pentagons and hexagons to the triangles and squares she'd recognized before she was three. With her still rudimentary speech she asked for the series to continue: "Seven sides? Eight sides?" Heptagon, octagon, dodecagon -- she learned those words as soon as I spoke them. We could share attention when I entered her world, an abstract world of order, repetition, all that represented intelligibility, security, in the bewilderment of talk she could not understand, body language she could not read, social clues she could not interpret. Two years later she would spend hour upon hour in solitary, not to say compulsive, multiplying and dividing. We watched her cover sheet after sheet with divisions by 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, identifying primes and prime factors, happy in a world of number.

Jessy still retains her capacity for autistic delight. What makes her happy today? Once she'd exult over her discovery that "70003 is a prime!" Then numbers became what she calls "too good," so good that she would speak them only in whispers, or refuse to say them at all. Then her interest subsided; other things evoked her secret smile. Stars. Rainbows. Clouds. Weather phenomena. Quartz heaters. Odometers. Streetlamps. A strange procession of obsessions, for a year or two eliciting an intensity of emotion approaching ecstasy, then subsiding into mere pleasure. Wordless once, now a word, a phrase, could thrill her. "Asteroid explosion," "digital fluorescent number change." Recently it's anything to do with banks, checks, above all, fees. "There's a fee in feeling! And feet!" We know that special smile, that faraway gaze. But don't, don't ask her, "Why are you smiling?" The phrase itself (and there are others) invites desolation, the banshee wail; we don't know why. Was she punished at school for daydreaming? Does she resent the invasion of her secret world? She won't say. Could she if she would?

Copyright © 2001 by Clara Claiborne Park

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Call Me American
    Call Me American
    by Abdi Nor Iftin
    As a boy growing up in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, Abdi Nor Iftin loved watching action ...
  • Book Jacket
    Driving Miss Norma
    by Ramie Liddle, Tim Bauerschmidt
    In my cultural life, I've met and been awed by two Normas: The demanding, clueless, fiercely ...
  • Book Jacket
    Driving Miss Norma
    by Ramie Liddle, Tim Bauerschmidt
    In my cultural life, I've met and been awed by two Normas: The demanding, clueless, fiercely ...
  • Book Jacket
    The Last Ballad
    by Wiley Cash
    A hundred years ago or so, farming land west of Charlotte, North Carolina was given over to giant ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

From a dazzling new literary voice, a debut novel about a Palestinian family caught between present and past.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    A Place for Us
    by Fatima Farheen Mirza

    A deeply moving story of love, identity and belonging--the first novel from Sarah Jessica Parker's new imprint.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win If You See Me, Don't Say Hi

If You See Me, Don't Say Hi by Neel Patel

Patel's stories introduce a bold and timely new literary voice.


Word Play

Solve this clue:

A P Saved I A P E

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.