Tuesday, July 27, 2010

In Memoriam: Clara Claiborne Park

"One of the first personal accounts of autism, and still the best." Oliver Sacks' assessment of Clara Claiborne Park's The Siege is as true now as it was when he made it. Clara passed away on July 3rd, 43 years after publishing this classic memoir about her autistic daughter, Jessica Park (now an acclaimed painter), and 9 years after publishing its sequel, Exiting Nirvana.


Great works of literature on many levels, these books offer two special things to those connected with autism. One is a living, breathing character, in all her fascinating, maddeningly baffling autistic glory---something that autism memoirs rarely evoke. The other is a host of insights about the world of autism. Extremely observant, intelligent, and reflective, Clara showed, in her one-on-one work with Jessy; in her observations about Jessy's autistic traits, linguistic deficits, and cognitive strengths; and in her spot-on critiques of the autism therapy world, that a wise and good person, regardless of formal credentials, often has more to offer to those touched by autism, and those interested in autism, than many of the most highly trained experts. If you are among these autism-affiliated people and haven't yet read Clara's work, I strongly urge you to do so. My students have to--it's required reading for two of my courses.

For me, one of Clara's most memorable observations was Few people are wise and good, occurring at the end of a section of The Siege that described her various frustrations dealing with autism professionals. Having had some experiences that were eerily similar to Clara's, I was inspired, especially by the passages that culminated in Few people are wise and good, to write the one fan letter I've ever written.

Clara responded and we soon became pen pals. She was one of the last people with whom I regularly exchanged handwritten letters. She invited J and me to visit, and we did--a number of times over the years. Despite all of J's mischievousness, they--Clara and her wonderful husband, David, and Jessy, too--welcomed us into their home, appreciated J, shared their lives (and Jessy's art) with me, and engaged me in all sorts of mind-bending, mind-broadening conversations.

Few people are wise and good. Clara Park was among them. I will miss her on many occasions.

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