The Siege: The First Eight Years of an Autistic Child, 1967

The Siege: The First Eight Years of an Autistic Child, written by Clara Claiborne Park, was one of the earliest and still most important parent memoirs about autism. It describes the siege that Park mounted against the solitude imprisoning her daughter, “Elly,” during the early years of the child’s life. Park used a pseudonym out of concern for the pain her daughter might feel should she be able to read the book in the future. That concern was itself a sign of Park’s hopefulness. After The Siege was published in 1967, attitudes about autism shifted dramatically. “Elly” disappeared in writing that Park did later in her life, replaced by the girl’s real name, Jessica or Jessy.

Park was a highly educated woman who had three children before Jessy was born. She was confident in her skills as a mother. When Jessy was born in 1958, Park knew early on that this baby was different. At first, she worried that Jessy might have an intellectual disability. “I had a horror of retardation,” Park admitted. But where retarded children might try and fail to perform developmental tasks, Jessy simply ignored everything. She expressed no particular needs or desires, no interest in other children, and little or no drive. Jessy looked right through the members of her family as if they weren’t there. Jessy appeared deaf, but was not. She contented herself with obsessive solitary activities—lining blocks up in straight lines or sifting through boxes of geometric shapes—that kept her walled off from others. Because Jessy liked nothing better than being left alone, she was very easy to care for, but Park knew that her baby’s indifference to interpersonal relationships was a sign that something was wrong. Her separation shielded her from life and growth.

Jessica Park as a young child (courtesy of Jessica Park and Tony Gengarelly)

The Siege described Jessy and her family in the years before and after her diagnosis with autism. Jessy was diagnosed at age three, as Temple Grandin had been a decade earlier. Like Temple Grandin’s mother, Park refused to permit autism to engulf Jessy. During her attack on the “citadel” of autism, Park tirelessly drew her daughter into the ordinary routines of family and social life, devising ingenious methods of playful interaction to capture Jessy’s attention. Jessy’s progress was agonizingly slow, especially in the areas of speech and imitation. She would learn one word, then promptly forget it. She would copy a triangle after weeks of effort, only to abandon paper and pen entirely.

At the age of five, Jessy had a total vocabulary of 51 words. Many of those words had been spoken rarely and, her mother believed, without real comprehension. Nouns that designated objects were the easiest words for Jessy to learn. In contrast, words that described relationships or behaviors were elusive. No pronouns appeared until she was six and, even then, she confused “I” and “you.” The simplest linguistic connector of all, “and,” did not appear until Jessy turned seven, and it was unusual for her to speak more than one word at a time. Nor did Jessy name any members of her family during the early years of her life. “The autistic child is one who, having minimized its interaction with the world, feels no need for words to express opinions about it.” Jessy’s vocabulary expanded more rapidly after age five, but there remained a gulf between words and language, between speaking and meaningful communication.

To her enormous credit, Clara Park was as determined as she was disciplined in her work with Jessy. “It is seduction, make no mistake about it. You are setting out with every charm you own, unasked and uninvited, to make another person love you.” Park, who had a Masters degree in English, worked as a teacher, and was married to a physicist on the faculty of Williams College, recorded her progress with Jessy in meticulous detail. She took an empirical approach that would have made any researcher proud. Jessy learned. She played with dolls, at least fitfully, and began teasing members of her family. She deliberately spilled water on her mother and then laughed uncontrollably, or turned off the light in the middle of family dinner. Finding humor in provoking others was, by definition, not an autistic activity. Teasing was a triumph. Their siege was succeeding.

Clark Park and her husband David were academic people. They knew of Bruno Bettelheim, were familiar with the term “childhood schizophrenia,” and understood that psychogenesis located the origins of autism in parental defects. They felt “the invisible presence of Psychiatry” even in their small Western Massachusetts college town. It is hardly surprising that Park questioned the legitimacy of her constant work with Jessy. “Alone, without professional guidance, what possible qualification could a mother have for working with her psychotic child herself?” When the Parks took Jessy to Boston for a 10-day psychiatric evaluation, they encountered professionals who were judgmental and uninterested in Park’s treasure trove of stories and data about her child. They offered the Parks little beyond a recommendation that Jessy be placed in psychotherapy. Shortly after that, the Parks spent a year in England where they visited Anna Freud’s Hampstead Clinic. There, Park finally found respectful, collaborative professionals who were also “human beings.”

Jessica and Clark Park (courtesy of Jessica Park and Tony Gengarelly)

Among the many remarkable features of The Siege was Park’s ability to move from Jessy’s story to insights about autism that anticipated future directions in theory and practice, often by decades. Categorizing autism as a psychosis, or a mental illness of any kind, made no sense to Park. “What we are concerned with is not a disturbance but a lack. The screw it not loose, it is missing.” The syndrome’s main characteristic, she believed, was absence of the developmental momentum and motivation that made learning possible in the first place. “What seems impaired it not only the capacity for affect, but another capacity perhaps even more fundamental, the capacity for undertaking exploratory behavior and sustaining it.” Park described how Jessy lacked a “theory of mind” and detailed numerous activities designed to engage Jessy in “joint attention,” long before those concepts existed. She described autism as a “spectrum.” Although none of these terms appeared in the book, Park understood autism more or less as we now understand it: a condition “which renders [the child] unable or unwilling to put together the primary building blocks of experience.” Sensory processing, language acquisition, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skills were all implicated in this developmental syndrome.

More than thirty years later, Park wrote another book, Exiting Nirvana, updating Jessy’s story. Autism remained central and Jessy was still living at home. But her life also included more than 20 years of work in the Williams College mailroom and success as an artist, developments that would have seemed far out of reach during the years covered by The Siege. (Park’s art is featured on this website.) It is now more than fifty years since The Siege was published. It remains one of the most illuminating and beautiful parent memoirs ever written about autism.

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