Online Edition: Fall 2001

Exiting Nirvana

A Daughter's Life With Autism

Clara Clairborne Park

Little Brown & Co. ($23.95)

by Thomas P. Kalb

There are quite a few books which detail the lives of autistic people. Some of them tell tales which are heart rending. Some of them relate stories of victory. Both of these types are useful in their own way, I suppose, but as the father of two autistic children I have found that it is useless to give way to despair and unhealthy to wait on miracles. That is why Exiting Nirvana , like Kenzaburo Oe's A Personal Matter, has become so important to me. Forbearance may be the key to living with autism--and perhaps the key to living itself.

Clara Park--the mother of Jessy Park, who is the subject of the book--says, quite simply, "Autism is a lifetime condition." Those words struck me quite powerfully. Jessy's story is not one of great victory. She is now in her forties, and continues to have difficulties in her day-to-day living. Sometimes she'll berate a stranger who is sitting in "her" seat at a restaurant. She does not seem to understand love in a romantic sense. She becomes frustrated or overwhelmed at her job in the mailroom.

On the other hand, Clara Park makes it clear that Jessy's life is full of joy and humor and beauty. I laughed aloud several times during the course of Exiting Nirvana, and was often stopped in my tracks by Jessy's observations on the world (e.g., "The hangman hangs by the clothespin because of new politeness"). Four reproductions of Jessy's paintings are included in this book (five if you count the cover), and they too are striking to behold. The colors are oddly wrong, yet interesting, and the attention to detail (a common attribute among people with autism) is stunning.

This is not just a story for people who have autism in their lives, however. It is a story for anyone who has a kind heart and a sincere joi de vivre. I read this book aloud to my eleven-year-old (and ostensibly normal) son over the course of a month and a half, and though there were times when we had to stop to discuss some of the more difficult and semi-technical passages, what he took away from this book was well worth the time we invested: a sincere appreciation for the humor and beauty of a woman named Jessy Park.

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Fall 2001 Table of Contents