Toward the back of the huge lecture hall, a young man in green leotards raised his hands and shook them sporadically. A blind man in the second row cocked his head sideways, angling one ear toward the stage. The sound technician, his earphones barely visible through his long hair, tapped his foot nervously each time he adjusted his audio-equipment. An impeccably dressed professor, sucking on his pipe passionately, smiled and nodded his head. Suits and ties mixed with panchos and jeans. Though my talk had been sponsored by the university, concerned individuals from the immediate community had also been invited.
I tried to humanize the nine hundred faces by focusing on one individual at a time and giving my thoughts directly to him or her. Vibrant eyes called to me from the fourth row. A soft smile beckoned from the front of the balcony.
“Could you explain in more detail what you see as the connection between attitude and health?” asked a spunky woman in her seventies.
“Perhaps the most effective way to answer your question,” I began, “is to share the experience of one woman.
“Her voice trembled at the other end of the phone, as she discussed her traumatic visit to the doctor earlier in the day for abdominal and lower back pains. The physician diagnosed, after elaborate tests and X-rays, a huge kidney stone obstructing her urethra. Her fury and anger focused on the professional for treating her like a ‘piece of meat’ and on her fear of operations and hospitals. Her self-indictment formed the most intense part of her unhappiness; seeing herself as a bad person who abused her body through improper diet.
“As I might do with anyone, I asked her questions about her unhappiness. Though she did not eradicate all her fears and judgments, within an hour, in an accepting environment, she uncovered and discarded some old beliefs. As a result, her unhappiness dissipated and the panic disappeared.
“‘Now that you feel more in control, more comfortable, what do you want?’ I asked her.
“‘I want the whole situation to just disappear, to just go away,’ she snapped.
“‘Okay,’ I acknowledged. ‘If that’s what you want, what could you do to get what you want?’
“Following a minute of silence, she asked, ‘What are you saying?’
“‘I’m not saying anything … I merely asked a question.’
“She never answered the question in that moment. When we ended the conversation, she decided to read more about what we discussed, particularly a section in one book which raised questions about our personal power in terms of body balance and well-being.
“A week later, her husband appeared at the door. ‘I have to tell you both something very incredible about what happened to my wife. After you talked to her she stayed up all night. In the morning, well, she was different … not hysterical. The difference stayed with her several days; right up until I checked her into the hospital. When she walked into the doctor’s office, she kind of elbowed him and said, “I took care of it, Doc.” Then she winked. Now I gotta tell you how out of character that is for my wife, Well, it gets even wilder. When the doctor returns with her new X-rays, he compares them with the pictures he took four days ago. You had to see his face. The stone was gone … the one he said could not pass. Not only that, he couldn’t believe that the urethra had a perfectly normal curve. The infection was completely gone. He kept shaking his head, saying it would have taken weeks and significant doses of antibiotics to have eradicated that infection.’
“A miracle? Perhaps, if that’s the word we choose to use for things we don’t understand. This lady could not specifically account for what happened, but the phenomenon she did discuss later was her change in attitude about seeing herself so impotent and her body disconnected from her will.”
A woman in a business suit stood up rather abruptly. “You are obviously adept at telling inspirational stories but I seriously question the practicality of your ‘attitude,’ as you call it, and your methods. I’d like to go back to another one of your inspirational stories … about your son, Raun. As the mother of an autistic child and a member of the National Society for Autistic Children, I think your story does a disservice to all parents of similarly handicapped children who could not do what you did. You have now placed upon their shoulders an added burden of guilt.” Everyone’s eyes riveted on this woman and the open hostility changed the mood in the lecture hall.
“We have always shared the story of our son, Raun, and his journey, in an effort to show other possibilities, never meaning to, in any way, suggest that what we did is or was a commentary on anyone else or what they might have done with their child. Each person does the best he or she can. The choices other parents of autistic children made for their families are certainly not diminished by what we did. In some ways…”
“Are you suggesting,” she interrupted, “that other parents who didn’t sit in the bathroom with their child from morning to night didn’t love them as much as you?”
“He never said that,” a young woman in the balcony shouted.
“I’m not sure I would ever want to compare people’s love,” I continued. “What we did came naturally from our attitude and understanding. Other parents, wanting the very best for their child and themselves, might choose completely different alternatives. The reason we share our story is because it worked for Raun and, in varying degrees, with other children we’ve worked with.”
“What about the guilt? What about all those parents who will think they haven’t tried enough or that they did the wrong thing? Don’t you think that’s a terrible burden to inflict on them?”
My head bobbed up and down. What am I doing here? Stay with it, I counseled myself. “I think guilt is a very personal matter. Nobody makes another person feel guilty. People decide that for themselves. If I said to you that you did something wrong and you disagreed, you would not feel guilty about it. Only you have that power to make such a decision based on your beliefs. The suggestion implicit in your comment, I guess, is not to tell the story. But if one person, in Des Moines or Denver, looked at her child and felt she could love him easier or more freely, then for that one person it was worth telling.”
A woman sporting a huge Afro leaped to her feet. “I’m a special education teacher working with profoundly disturbed children at one of the city clinics. Several of us have been influenced by your work. I’ve been working with one little boy for three years with no eye contact. The day after I read your first book, I thought to myself … Jesus, this is so simple it’s stupid. I came into work the next day, threw all my books and materials aside and just loved Kevin and joined him. That was three months ago and his eye contact and other skills have improved dramatically since that time-more things happened for him in the past three months than in those past three years.”
The chairman of the psychology department stood up. He smiled at me, then spoke very softly.
“What you have presented here is quite fascinating, certainly an alternative to confront existing positions and therapeutic approaches. Though I understand the implications of our attitudes and judgments in working with others, I find the absence of a strong theoretic base to be quite disconcerting. Rather than argue polemics, I’d like to ask you a simple, straightforward question stimulated, in fact, by the comments of the lady in the audience who has an autistic child.” He turned toward her and nodded. “Have you ever worked with a self-destructive child?”
“No, I have not,” I replied.
He smiled; a minor victory. “Your method sounds possible enough to implement with children like your son, who are peaceful and withdrawn. But what about the violent child? What would your approach be for a self-destructive child?”
“No different than with any other child.”
“I am asking you what you would do?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“You don’t know. How could you help others when you yourself have no firm grounding as to how to handle situations other than those which you have already dealt with?”
“One of the things we’ve learned is to be open, to trust ourselves and the children we work with. I cannot tell you in advance what I would do with a child. Our whole perspective begins with watching and acting on the child’s cues, being responsive and respectful of that other little person. There are no theoretical abstractions for that … each person is different.”
“Yes, yes …” Dr. Brewster said impatiently, “but if a child came into the room and banged his head against the wall, would you let him do it and then, in accordance with your ‘perspective,’ would you do it with him?”
“Again, I don’t know. And it’s okay with me not to know. To have an established plan before you see the child is not to see the child.”
Brewster raised his eyebrows, obviously disconcerted. “I’m a man of science, Mr. Kaufman. And psychology is a science whose premises are comprehensible and provable. Perhaps, we are speaking different languages.”
“Miracles, again, Dr. Brewster,” I said. “My experience has taught me not to limit myself only to what I understand. To be able to prove something tells me much about the tenacity of my own mind, but does not necessarily tell me about all there is and all there could be.”
Though I had enjoyed the talk, especially the questions of Dr. Brewster, the woman with the autistic child became my focus of attention as I crossed Waverly Place in Greenwich Village. Gusts of wind whipped my face when I turned south along Seventh Avenue. Air currents looped and whistled through narrow alleys like a shrill chorus of nervous witches. Old posters, clinging limply to the walls of unoccupied buildings, flapped in the stiff breeze. I kept thinking about that woman. She wanted to make it ugly so she could dismiss it. I reviewed my answers to her. Somehow, I knew she hadn’t heard them. Then why did I persist in responding? Why?
A tall, statuesque woman holding the leashes of two white Russian wolfhounds guarded the entrance to the building. A man wearing black leotards leaned against a nearby brick wall. Several groups of well-dressed people huddled together like teams preparing for a football scrimmage. I climbed the steps rapidly after nodding at familiar, but nameless faces.
In the darkness, I found a seat by the center aisle. The whispers and hushed chatter ceased as the lights abruptly illuminated a rather stark, impressionistic room. A gray-haired woman, named George or Sister George to be precise, dominated the stage with her aging, plump form clothed in a drab, sexless dress. Deep lines around her eyes and mouth cut bitter gullies in her face. She glared at the other two women beside her, particularly the younger one, who recoiled instinctively.
“Don’t, George … don’t…” she whimpered.
“Look at you,” Sister George snapped with seething contempt. “Whimpering and pleading! Have you no backbone, can’t you stand up like a man?”
“I can’t … help it.”
George raised her eyebrows and mimicked her young friend sardonically. “‘I can’t help it!”‘ Then she turned to the other woman. “She’ll never change-feckless, self-indulgent” She fired the words from her mouth like deadly bullets, heightening the verbal combat as the scenes progressed.
The play ended with a strange, heart-wrenching sound emanating from the major character. Applause enveloped the theater. The actresses paraded back onto the stage. The stiff, matronly walk and stern visage of Sister George mesmerized me. Only when she smiled and removed her gray wig, revealing her long blond hair, did I begin to recognize the softness of Suzi. Her ability to submerge herself in that character dazzled me.
Even when we left the theater, I had to keep looking at her, unable to find any traces of the sad and bitter woman she had just portrayed. As we walked crosstown, the Sotos and their early morning telephone call pierced my thought but I decided to wait until later before broaching the subject. I didn’t want to break the spell for Suzi, who seemed especially beautiful tonight. Though only five feet three inches tall and barely one hundred and ten pounds, the power of her stride gave her a much taller appearance. Her peasant outfit, which had been lovingly fashioned by a friend, outlined the prominent curves of her breasts and clung to the inside of her thighs as she walked. Suzi smiled and laughed each time she looked at me; little girl giggles surfacing on sensuous lips.
She had waited thirteen years to return. The highlight of her adolescence focused on her dreams of acting, which helped her survive the pain and bitterness of warring parents who ultimately divorced and created new families, depriving both her and her sister of a sense of belonging. Having lost her home at twelve years old, she shuffled between different houses clinging to her invalid grandmother and to her dreams.
Alone, in an empty room, she recited speeches and acted roles from famous plays. The characters she portrayed became her friends.
When she applied to the High School of Performing Arts in New York City, she confronted her fantasies. She watched her reflection self-consciously in the mirror as she practiced day and night for her audition. The nausea and vomiting began two days before the performance, curtailing her private rehearsals as she sat on the floor in the bathroom hugging the toilet bowl. The day of her presentation, she felt exposed, naked and vulnerable in front of strangers. She had risked her dreams. Without them, she had nothing. A week later, the committee notified her of her acceptance.
The fantasy finally had more substance. She studied and worked at developing her skills until her early twenties. Then, in a dramatic decision, she walked away from everything she had worked so hard to develop. Marriage and a professional acting career seemed incompatible. Suzi still wanted the family and the home, the sense of belonging so long absent in her life. Following the birth of our son, our third child, Suzi decided to go back to her studies and training. But within a year, Raun drifted into the pit of autism, diverting her for yet four more years until she could again take up the banner of an old dream.
Tonight, with her performance of Sister George, she celebrated her return. Although she segmented her time between the theater and working with adults and children, her commitment to acting had found a practical outlet in school, workshops and experimental presentations.
We walked in silence, but the intensity of our clasped hands kept us close. I knew what this night meant to her. I almost didn’t want to tell her about the Sotos. As we turned into Spring Street, a man in hunting boots, carrying a worn knapsack, waved to us with a silly grin. Old factory structures mixed easily with health food stores and art galleries. Modern glass and metal facades blended with the ancient stone and chipped bricks of another century. The mecca of Soho charmed us.
Sawdust cushioned our feet in the small restaurant. Joshua, one of the chefs, greeted us by bowing with clasped hands from behind the simple butcher-block counter. We sat at a corner table by the front window. Across the street, a neon plaque blinked its message: “Learn to drive to get away.”
Suzi pushed the vegetarian menu aside. “Let me call home and check on the kids,” she said.
“Everything’s fine. I already did that before I met you at school.”
She rubbed the top of my hands. “Bears, do you think I could do it? If I really tried and put energy toward acting, do you think I could establish myself?”
“Uh-huh,” I said, “but do you want to?”
She eyed me cautiously. “Of course.” A pause. “Why did you ask that?”
I picked at my beard, collecting the words, trying to choose the exact phrase.
“Somehow, it’s an old dream. But you’re a new Suzi, a very new Suzi. Everything about you has changed in the last four years.”
“I know that.” She bent over the table and peered directly into my face. “I always feel you don’t quite think acting is up to snuff.”
“The problem I’ve always had with acting is that you’re saying other people’s words.”
“But I’d pick and choose,” she insisted,
“If you have the chance,” I said.
The waiter interrupted, taking our order.
Suzi shook her head. “I never asked you how the talk went today.”
“Good. But I had to cancel four sessions today to make it into the city on time.”
“So maybe spending four hours with four people who want to learn and help themselves would be more fruitful than making presentations to nine hundred curious people,” I said.
“No, not really-except a parent of an autistic child who was very uncomfortable happened upon me.” We shared a look of recognition. “Autism,” I sighed, then I thought about Roby and Francisca again. “Suz, the Sotos telephoned today.”
Her eyes opened wide. “Really? God, I’m so glad they finally called.” She searched my eyes. “Okay, tell me.”
I told her of their journey to Kansas, of their inability to continue working with Robertito and about the little boy’s further withdrawal.
“Bears, they’re such wonderful people. I really thought they could do it.”
“Wait, I’m not finished. They feel that our approach is the only one which ever produced real changes in Robertito. They want us to help again. In fact, they want to come to New York, put their life savings on the line and live here, literally, so they could have our input. So I asked them what kind of input they wanted. Roby suggested several hours per week, if possible. I refused.”
“Bears!” Suzi exclaimed.
“I didn’t feel that would be meaningful. I told him we would only do it if we went all the way. Set up a program seven days a week. Do sessions with both of them as well as train a staff of five others. Observe everyone throughout the week. Do everything we did for Raun.” I smiled at Suzi. “I guess what I offered was all or nothing. Then I told them I’d have to think about it.”
Suzi’s eyes glazed. “You’re such a wonderful fool.”
“But we can’t afford it,” I retorted, challenging my own suggestion. “Between us, it would take at least fifty hours a week. I’d have to cancel a lot of students. I couldn’t start working on another book. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“That’s why I like it.” She winked, “What about the grant? This time, they’re really receptive. Bears, they practically wrote the proposal with us. If we get the grant, then we’ll make it.”
“If. But if we don’t, not only will we have trouble paying the mortgage, but we’d have to send them home.”
“Suddenly you’re the pragmatist,” Suzi countered. “That didn’t stop you from dumping your business when you wanted to work more with Raun and teach Option.”
“Somehow, that was different,” I said.
“Somehow, it’s the same.”
“Suz, you want to do it, don’t you?”
“I think so,” she said. “The acting is really important … God knows how important it is to me.” She sighed and forced a smile. “I’ve waited thirteen years to go back. I guess another six months won’t kill me, but another six months might just bury that little boy.” Suzi stared down at the table. “It’s hard to imagine withdrawing from school again. Sometimes I get scared I’ll never go back.”
The following day before school, we had a breakfast conference with Bryn, Thea and Raun. We tried to explain all the possible effects the program might have on our time and resources.
“Daddy, if we don’t help them, nobody else will,” Thea said.
“That’s probably true,” I replied. “But hundreds of people call and write us each month. The most important thing is that it has to feel right inside … for all of us.” Thea tucked her little eight-year-old hand under her chin as she considered my answer.
Bryn looked back and forth between Suzi and me. She grabbed her mother’s hand. “Whatever you guys think. We trust whatever you’d decide.”
I shook my head, awed by the presence of my own children. Suzi kissed her daughter’s hand; then bestowed the same affliction on Thea and Raun. “How about you, Thea?” she asked.
“I think we should help them,” she replied.
Noting Raun’s pensive expression, I said: “Hey, Raunchy, what are you thinking.”
He turned, giving me one of his starry-eyed, penetrating glances. “Could I work with him too?’
“Sure,” I answered.
“And,” Raun continued with a mischievous smile, “could I squeeze his fat cheeks?”