Autism spectrum/A few impertinent questions/Should "normal" be equated with average?
In 1946 Ike was discharged from the Army in New York. We spent that summer with his step-grandmother on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Grandmother's place lacked plumbing, electricity or a telephone. We seemed almost cut off from civilization. Without a car, we drove a mule and wagon down the dirt road and through the pine woods to town for groceries. The trip took up most of a day. The population of Snow Hill, about ten miles away, had grown by two during the past century. Time seemed unimportant that carefree summer Ike and I spent with grandmother and her adopted son, Rutledge, at their little house in the Maryland woods.
Séances had been a tradition in Ike's family. Grandmother hadn't participated in one for several years, but she agreed to help us communicate with Ike's deceased grandfather, Doctor Vandegrift. Rutledge had reportedly caused poltergeist activity if he were in the house during séances. Once the table flew up and stuck to the ceiling. Another time it gave Ike's sister a black eye. So Rutledge was banished from the house during séances. On this occasion Grandmother sent him down the road to the next farm to spend the evening,
Ike and I sat down to a small, three-legged table with Grandmother, a frail little lady of eighty two years. Grandfather had built the house himself. It was an OK house, except at one point, Doctor Vandegrift realized he'd forgotten to plan for stairs, which he added as a steep, spiral after-thought inserted in a corner of the tiny parlor. The room was crowded with overstuffed furniture, brick-a-brac and faded pictures. The kerosene lamp was dimmed, but I could see our three pair of hands lying on the little table. Except for the sound of insects of a warm summer evening, the silence was profound in that clearing in the Maryland woods. Until that time I hadn't believed in séances, and neither Ike nor I believed in ghosts. Nevertheless ghost stories could overwhelm me with an irrational feeling of apprehension, and I could be reduced to a state of terror by scary movies. I hoped I wouldn't giggle, as I sometimes did when nervous. We sat for a while, and Grandmother began to scold Grandfather affectionately,
“Now George, the children have come a long way to talk to you. You must say a few words to them.” Although I didn't believe in spirits, sitting there waiting for one made me uneasy. I shivered, as I peered into the dark corners of the room, wondering nervously if something immaterial was about to "materialize". Finally the table rose up on two legs.
“Is that you, George?” Grandmother asked.
The table came down with a thump, meaning "no".
"Is that you, Mary?"
"No," the table again responded.
"Are you anyone we know?"
"It's nice of you to appear," Grandmother said, "but please go away and let us talk to one of our friends."
Finally the table again rose up on two legs and responded with two thumps when asked if we were in communication with Grandfather. Grandmother related news of the family and asked a few questions requiring yes or no answers, none of which seemed significant enough that I remember them. We asked Grandfather's opinion about Ike’s and my plans for the future, but he declined to answer. (Our plans were somewhat out of the ordinary, and most people were probably a little skeptical about them.) Finally Grandmother asked if Grandfather had a message. Two thumps indicated yes. At last I was about to hear a message from this esteemed doctor who had become a legend in my husband's family. The table went up on two legs, and Grandmother began, “A, B, C--” The table came down. At the next repeat of the alphabet, it didn't come down until U. Finally the message was spelled out: “CUT THE GRASS.”
The thought of Grandfather returning from the grave to chastise Grandmother for not cutting the grass was almost too much for me, but I managed not to laugh. I glanced at Ike. There was enough light in the little parlor that I could see his face. If he thought grandfather scolding grandmother was funny he was managing to conceal it. Any apprehension I'd felt about meeting a ghost had disappeared. How could anyone fear a ghost who was fretting about the lawn not being mowed?
"I realize I haven't kept up the place the way I should lately. If I'm still alive next spring, I'll plant petunias in the flower bed on the front lawn," Grandmother promised. "Do you have another message?"
"No," the table responded with a final thump. Grandmother didn't appear offended by Grandfather scolding her for not cutting the grass, but she seemed to find the séance exhausting, and we didn't ask her to conduct another one. We participated in several with Ike's sister and her husband. The table seemed to reflect the personalities of the participants, for Ike's sister had a taste for the dramatic and would go into a trance. She would become rigid, and her breathing was slow - great, long gasps. We usually found ourselves talking to dead pirates or notorious murderesses. One evening we were all arguing about how to proceed, and the table sent the message, "Stop bickering." Ike and I later tried to get a table to move by ourselves, but no matter how long we sat in expectant silence, the table never budged for us.
I had no idea what could have moved that table, but it hadn’t actually felt menacing. Although I believed in science, I regarded nature as infinite. I am confident that science will never explain everything, and I could tolerate paradox, ambiguity and unexplainable phenomena. I don’t question the Vandegrift family-stories about séances - I experienced some of it. However I saw no way to fit séances into my view of reality at that time, and I pushed those episodes off into a remote compartment of my mind. If I occasionally told about them, I did so jokingly, not expecting to be believed. The table didn’t weigh much, and I suppose it’s possible that Grandmother or Ike's sister managed to put themselves into a trance, and physically moved it without being consciously aware they were doing so. However table tipping was a common pastime early in the 20th Century. I’m more inclined to suspect a few people besides Rutledge managed to develop a little poltergeist ability, and learned to move tables by pure volition, or some force that we don’t presently understand. How can we know what consciousness can and can't do if we don't know what it is?
Rather than return to his pre-war, newspaper job, Ike wanted to earn a living writing true-detective stories. In those days several magazines were devoted to such accounts. It was an alternative to settling down with a husband and children, something to which I'd felt an aversion. I planned to help gather information from police records and newspapers, and Ike would write the stories, as we traveled around the south eastern United States. With Ike’s Army “mustering out pay”, we bought a pre-war, sixteen-cylinder Lincoln Continental (with a cracked block, as it turned out) and a little, old, eighteen-foot, canvas-covered house trailer. Our crippled Lincoln had trouble with steep hills, and we made lengthy detours to avoid them. Re-treads, at fifty cents apiece, replaced our frequent flat tires. Our trailer had no water hook-up, and we carried water in a bucket. Living was primitive, but it offered the adventure Ike and I were seeking.
We visited small towns and county seats, interviewing sheriffs and constables. Most, flattered by the prospect of having their pictures and stories appear in a magazine, eagerly provided details of murder cases they had solved. At that time the South was more isolated than today, and it seemed almost like a foreign culture to us. Our Yankee accent was conspicuous, and caused some people to view us with suspicion, but when Southerners saw our car and trailer, they sometimes became friendlier, apparently deciding we at least weren't a couple of those “rich-Yankees” who made the trek down the coast to Florida every winter. We met a lot of moonshiners. Murder seemed to be an occupational hazard in that business. We once met a sheriff who must have had something embarrassing in his past, something he didn't want written up in a magazine. When we explained what we were looking for, he angrily ordered us to leave “his county” before dark. Southern sheriffs could exert such authority in those days, and we laughed about it as we drove away. By searching through musty old newspaper files, we found murders committed in the previous century. Ike wrote accounts of the “dastardly deeds” colorfully described in those old small-town publications. When we happened across a current case, we attended the trial to gather firsthand information. Ike was a competent writer and all of his stories were accepted for publication; I believe a penny a word was the usual payment. One day we were crossing a railroad track in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. As Ike tried to shift gears, the gearshift came out by the roots, leaving our car and trailer helplessly straddling the tracks. We had arranged for checks from our last stories to be sent to the next town, and we had only a few dollars in our pockets.
I hope there's a story in this town," I said with a groan.
"Maybe Grandfather is finally taking an interest in our lives and is trying to tell us to stop here," Ike offered jokingly.
It wasn't the first time we arrived in a town, broke, and didn't find a check from a magazine waiting at the post office. A waitress job was always easy for me to find, tiding us over until we sold another story. Waitresses worked for tips and weren't paid much of a salary, so restaurants were willing to hire any competent worker who applied. Ike was soon busy on another murder, and a couple of days waitress tips allowed us to retrieve our Lincoln from the garage where we'd had it towed. After a couple of years traveling through the Southeast, the Lincoln finally expired, and we settled in a trailer park in Atlanta. Leaving the true-detective stories to Ike, who began using public transportation, I went to work for some architects.
While living in the South, I was shocked and offended by segregation. Every aspect of it seemed irrational and malignant to me. In 1948 Henry Wallace ran for President on a platform which included opposition to segregation, and I volunteered my services to the Progressive Party. I usually agreed with liberal political views. We collected our petitions to have the Progressive Party placed on the Georgia ballot at the church of Martin Luther King Senior. I’m sure many African Americans, actually being shades of brown and tan, would have felt offended if someone had called them black. I never met Martin Luther King Junior. I suppose he was a young man off at school somewhere, unaware that he was destined to have a national holiday named for him. I once asked a young Black man to sign my petition, and he refused with a look of hatred such as I hadn't often encountered in my young life. Maybe he considered my efforts patronizing. I wanted to assure him I wasn't opposing segregation for his sake, that it offended my own personal sense of right and wrong.
Many of the young people had come from New York to work for the Progressive Party, and some of them were a little arrogant and disdainful. Unselfishly devoting themselves to liberal causes, they never entertained the slightest doubt about issues they advocated. How could such self-sacrificing idealists be wrong? Opponents could only be motivated by meanness. No one would have uttered the pejorative, nigger, but those young people often referred to Southerners as red-necks and bigots. Raised among unsophisticated people, I understood Southern resentments, and I did not believe Southerners were more immoral than other people. Northerners might question segregation, but they sometimes promoted other concepts I regarded as equally irrational. One activity I always passionately defended was freedom to debate any idea openly. I had no trouble persuading Southerners of either race that the Progressive Party, whether one agreed with them or not, was entitled to a place on the Georgia ballot.
One day as I stood on the steps of the Atlanta library collecting signatures, a man stopped and said, "I'd be interested in a serious political discussion. How about a beer?"
He appeared sincere; I couldn't detect any man-woman type of personal interest in his words or manner.
Reasonable discussion was my favorite pastime.
"O.K.," I agreed, and we went across the street to the Elks Club. I seated myself in a booth, and the man excused himself. A waiter brought me a beer, but the man never returned. He disappeared without a word of political discussion. People in the South were strange about politics, I'd decided. Bitter feelings over desegregation hadn't really materialized at that time. Most Southerners viewed opposition to segregation more as a "silly Yankee idea", rather than a real threat to their way of life. However the anti-communist hysteria was as virulent in the South as in the North, and the Progressive Party was thought to be more tolerant of the Russians. The architects where I worked obviously viewed with skepticism the big, four-inch, Wallace-for-President button I insisted on wearing to work, but they didn't forbid me to wear it. They did assign me a desk in a back corner of the drafting room where I would be less likely to offend the political sensibilities of clients. They were Jewish and probably sympathized with my liberal views, but weren't eager to attract attention. At that time Jewish people were themselves still victim of some discrimination. I sat a while in the Elks Club and finished my beer. Still wondering about the man who mysteriously lost interest in political discussion, I gathered up my petitions. Collecting signatures as I went, I made my way back to Progressive Party headquarters.
“How did you escape?” everyone excitedly asked when I walked in the door.
They explained that while I was in the Elks Club, the police had rounded up all the other party workers, took them to jail, and mugged and fingerprinted them. Full of righteous indignation, they seemed exhilarated by their arrest, rather than frightened. When I went back to the trailer and told Ike, he laughed.
"I'll bring you a cake with a hacksaw in it if you end up behind bars," he promised.
Unlike the other party workers, I was intimidated. The police felt justified in arresting people for any kind of political activism, but I was not sure I wanted to go to jail over politics. Hearing my views expounded by young radicals had dampened my liberal enthusiasm somewhat, and I withdrew from the political campaign. I've often wondered about that man who bought me a beer and saved me from arrest. Did someone among the police decide, for some reason, that I didn't deserve a police record? Maybe he was a policeman Ike had interviewed for a story, and he kept me from being arrested out of consideration for Ike.
I'm sorry I was so easily discouraged from opposing segregation. Today I hope I wouldn't be so easily intimidated, but other people would have to win that battle. I loved discussing ideas, but I had never felt much of an urge to change the world by imposing my beliefs upon anyone else; I could usually see more than one side to most controversies. People who disagree with me are obviously sincere, but emotions are involved in anything worth arguing about, and I couldn't bring myself to hurt anyone's feelings. Years in the future as I debated philosophical questions on the Internet (and in this manuscript), disagreements could be more distanced and less personal, and discussing controversies would turn out to be enjoyable pastimes during my old age.
Babies had never interested me. When Ike and I married I was unaware I wanted children. Nevertheless during our carefree journey over the past few years, I became overwhelmed with an unexpected yearning for a child. Ike had been writing true-detective stories for four years. A penny a word provided a meager livelihood but would not be adequate to support a family. Ike was collecting a few dollars a month serving in the Army reserves, and he was offered an opportunity to return to active duty when the Korean War began. I urged him to accept. Ike did not feel my desire for children, but we loved each other very much. For me, he returned to the Army. Assigned to public relations, his writing skills were useful. Our son was born a year later, and Ike was surprised to find himself an adoring father. We received orders for Germany. Every moment of the three years we were stationed in Frankfurt was an adventure. The Germans were desperate for employment, and we could all afford a housekeeper, an unexpected luxury for American wives living on an Army salary. I studied German and took up bridge. At German bridge tournaments we found opportunities to become acquainted with Europeans. Ike and I left our two-year-old son with the competent German woman who worked for us, and we enjoyed our annual leave driving around Europe in a little MG convertible. Our daughter was born in Germany. In Europe at that time new mothers remained flat on their backs in bed for two weeks after delivery. When I arrived home from the hospital carrying my two-day-old daughter, I heard our German housekeeper brag to her friends, "Sie gebart Kinder wie eine Katze. Genau wie eine Katze!" (She has babies like a cat. Just like a cat!) The words might not seem to sound so wonderful in English, but I could tell from their admiring glances what a flattering thing it was to say in German.
The Army topped off our European adventure by sending us home, first class, on one of the last great passenger liners, the luxurious SS United States.
Ike had a drinking problem when we met in Alaska. During his youth he had been fascinated by the tough, hard-drinking-reporter legend, admiring Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett, and chuckling indulgently over their swashbuckling, alcoholic life styles. Speakeasies and illicit booze were considered glamorous and exciting during prohibition. Disdain for anyone who couldn't drink was probably Ike's only macho attitude. Alcohol hadn't been a problem while we were writing true-detective stories, but it was something with which Ike struggled for most of his life. The Army, with a social life based upon cocktail parties and officers' clubs, was probably an unfortunate choice. I suspect Ike would have been more successful at that artillery school in Oklahoma if he had done less drinking and more studying. He probably depended upon me to threaten to leave when his drinking became excessive. We both knew it was an empty threat. By the exercise of will-power, Ike always managed to keep his drinking under control - except for periods when he was away from me. I hated his stupidity at those times and felt shame that anyone should see him like that. But Ike only drank sporadically. I sometimes thought it ironic that I, with an alcoholic father, had married a man who drank too much. However most of the time Ike was articulate, considerate and deep-thinking, still the only man I'd ever wanted to marry. We didn't fight or nurse resentments. I had no intention (or hope) of convincing Dr. Zircon, so I didn't mention Ike's drinking to the psychologist, but I was confident it had minimal effect upon the older children, and none upon Tony.
I was also aware that psychiatry attached great significance to guilt. I'd made mistakes during my life and I regretted them. But I think such feelings have to be more subconscious than what I experienced in order to actually cause neurotic guilt. I was usually quite aware of my disturbing thoughts. I should have known I wanted children when we married. I felt bad about urging Ike to go back into the Army, where he was exposed to all those officer’s-club cocktails. During the McCarthy era, whenever Ike applied for a security clearance I regretted my involvement in radical politics. It was an unnecessary regret, because thanks to that mysterious man who bought me a beer, Ike always got a security clearance. (A wife with a police record might have been a problem.) I remembered wanting an abortion when I was pregnant with Tony - and the moment in the middle of the night when I thought of putting Tony in an institution. Those thoughts were fleeting, and I didn't really feel guilty about them. Perhaps Dr. Zircon would regard me as abnormal for not feeling guilt. In fact I suspected the psychologists might disapprove of some of my other my untypical emotional reactions. For example Ike was sent to Germany six months before I was able to join him. A few days after I arrived, Ike confessed he'd had an affair. (After World War II, many German girls were eager to find American husbands, a situation of which many American soldiers took advantage.) Ike said the woman was trying to cause trouble, threatening to tell me. I was annoyed at Ike for his little escapade but I never doubted he loved me.
"Bring her here and let her tell me," I suggested.
Although a little skeptical of such a confrontation, Ike went and got her. A nice looking young woman, she stood just inside the door regarding me uncertainly. Ike stood by uneasily. Not sure myself how to proceed, I invited her to sit down.
"Your husband and I have been having an affair," she blurted out.
He told me," I said. "What he did was irresponsible and inconsiderate."
"I told her I was married," Ike said.
"I'm in love with your husband," she continued.
I sat down on the couch, a little stunned and moved by her unhappiness. Ike was usually kind and thoughtful of everyone, and I wouldn't have thought he'd do anything to hurt someone like this. Telling her he was married didn't excuse his behavior. I wished I could think of some way to console her.
“I'm so sorry,” I said. “He would never leave his family. But he shouldn't have. . . It wasn't right. . .” As I struggled to think of something else to say, she burst into tears and turned and ran out of the apartment. (Within six months she married an American Army officer, one who didn't already have a wife.)
I realized my reaction to Ike’s affair was not typical. Most women take such things personally, feeling they have somehow been diminished by their husband’s misbehavior. Jealousy would have been a more "normal" reaction than mine. And perhaps I would have felt offended if Ike had continued his relationship with the woman after I arrived. But while my reaction might not be average, I was convinced that it was not abnormal. Most people who knew me seemed to agree that I was emotionally stable, and an unlikely candidate for a psychiatrist's couch. Surely I could convince Dr. Zircon that I didn’t need any psychiatric treatment. Perhaps he would then discuss this mysterious diagnosis doctors seemed to suspect for Tony. Group therapy seemed as good a place as any to demonstrate my emotional stability.
- The original images may be found on this pdf copy of the book.
Current page: Should "normal" be equated with average?
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- Current page: Should "normal" be equated with average?