Exiting Nirvana: A Daughter’s Life with Autism
By Clara Claiborne Park. Little Brown and Company, 8 March 2001.
ISBN: 0-316-69117-8. 240 pp. $US 23.95

Reviewed for OAARSN by Lucie Milne

Exiting Nirvana is an account of the life of the author’s autistic daughter. The story unfolds forty years of Jessy’s life, starting from the almost mute eight-year-old she was in 1967. Jessy’s first eight years are related in Clara Claiborne Park’s first book, The Siege: A Family’s Journey into the World of an Autistic Child. Neither book is a clinical account of an autistic person’s development. Each book is written from detailed records that Jessy’s mother kept of every stage of her daughter’s development: her language, her emotions, her interests and moods. Included is Jessy’s social world and understanding /misunderstanding of other people, her capacities for logical and systematic thought and her strange obsessions. Oliver Sacks suggests that “there is more data on Jessy than on any other autistic human being who has ever lived.”

Jessy’s obsessions, or enthusiasms, as she calls them, have embraced numbers, colours, sounds and words to radio dials and heaters to roads and houses to elements of weather and astronomy. From her obsessions Jessy has constructed intricate systems of variables, all interconnected and correlated. Yet Jessy is blind to social meanings, facial expressions and intention in voices. Jessy’s obsessions find form in her paintings that are detailed, accurate in line, and multicoloured with a brilliance that suggests surrealistic art.

Jessy has had a privileged and highly stable life, with parents who were supportive and loving. Except for two stays in Europe with her family, Jessy has lived in one house. She has not experienced the changes and uncertainties of institutional or group home existence; she has attended local schools. Her life has known the encouragement, interaction and attention of her three older siblings, as well as that given by caregivers and many young house mates/friends. Very likely Jessy’s temperament or life mood has been generated by her family’s intellectual and creative environment, her mother a teacher and writer, her father a theoretical physicist, and then there are her intellectually accomplished siblings.

Emotion and feeling in an individual, autistic or not autistic, develop with maturity, mainly out of pain, tragedy and suffering of living. Exiting Nirvana is not a sad story; it is upbeat. Jessy has certain feelings toward others, but they do not appear spontaneous. Her emotions and feelings have been taught to her, in a sense programmed into her. Her mother says it was important for Jessy to have manners, to look normal and to act accordingly. In order to learn responses to situations, Jessy was given role playing and she used cue cards to identify what her responses should be to questions and conversation directed to her.

I wonder about the title of this book. Nirvana is a Buddhist concept, a goal and state of having arrived at total Enlightenment. If an autistic individual lives in Nirvana, as the title suggests, they are already in a state of being enlightened. So how can or why would one exit into the enlightenment of a normal world? It is a strange oxymoron!

This book is for every reader, those who live with Autism as well as those who do not. For the story demonstrates the meaning and need for our world and all its people to be the human beings we have been created to be, giving love and compassion, dedication and hope.