The child closely monitored, probed, examined, and questioned. The stares from bystanders when the screaming begins, when the parents are unable to explain what prompted the outburst. The folders filled with medical reports. When children aren’t what we conceive of as normal, their lives, and their families’ lives, become more complex and difficult. From the moment of diagnosis, there are questions of what is best for the child. What remains seen and unseen is always mediated through that child’s difference. Who really has agency? So much remains unknown about the diagnosis and the child. But sometimes we forget that diagnosis and child are not one and the same.
What a family knows, sometimes in stark contrast to the institution or what the public records, serves as the impetus for Maria Mutch’s memoir Know the Night and Sara Biggs Chaney’s poetry chapbook Precipice Fruit. Both works serve as a keeping of records beyond the official and into the intimate. Mutch and Biggs Chaney record in lieu of larger systems that, according to these mothers, are still unable to fully understand the intricate relationships between condition, child, mother, and family. Subtly political, deeply personal, and engaged with the lives and value of children and mothers, as well as their literary craft, Mutch and Biggs Cheney reinforce the need for empathy and understanding.
Know the Night chronicles Mutch’s two-year bout of sleeplessness while caring for her child, in between “a mesh of silence, shrieks, and spaces where words are supposed to be.” Mutch crafts her densely rich memoir with all the nuanced details of her son Gabriel’s birth and subsequent diagnosis with Down syndrome, his gain and loss of language, his autism diagnosis, and all of the moments in between, although not necessarily in that particular, or even chronological, order. Mutch parallels her own sleeplessness to that of polar explorer Richard E. Byrd, who survived for months miles from the main base in Antarctica during an expedition. In Gabriel’s room, Mutch writes: “The enclosed feel of the room with the contrast of the Ice bears some resemblance, in only a symbolic way, to my childhood forts.” Mutch contemplates her mounting obsession with the loneliness and desires of these explorers:
I understand Byrd’s decision to stay alone in the hut, to have complete ownership and feel utterly enclosed … He understands the nature of this place, the night and the void, and that only he has been invited to this particular spot, these exact coordinates. (It is true that, whatever the justifications we may use in electing our cohorts, we are often compelled to bring some people along with us and leave others firmly behind; we say the knowledge is for us, with the us being so narrowly defined it can become a unit of one. I know this because I, too, have fallen victim to this way of thinking, erecting a fence around my piece of the night, even as I say I want companions.)
Acknowledging her own desire and conflict, Mutch bares her own inner turmoil within the spaces of the night, where she must try to comfort both herself and her son until the nights pass.
This dual narrative of polar explorers and isolated mother is complicated through the skillfully interwoven moments of interactions between mother and son in attempts for both to get through the night. Gabriel’s tenuous grasp on language is juxtaposed by Mutch’s rich descriptive prose. They visit jazz clubs as a way for Gabriel to express himself: “He rocks back and forth in his chair, making a soft, high sound of approval when the sax solo comes.” At the beach, her family sees “the light turn peach and gold and the illuminated grasses hold back the dunes.” Mutch “stroke[s] these moments like rosary beads.” And, throughout it all, Mutch always insists on her love for Gabriel. This memoir threads together strands of memory, speculation, and the internal struggle of how to negotiate the outside world beyond sleepless nights that become a world of their own.
Perhaps less narrative driven but no less poignant, and bridged through a love of jazz, Sara Biggs Chaney’s chapbook, Precipice Fruit, documents her daughter’s birth, autism diagnosis, and school reports. She imagines poems in the voice of her daughter and draws from children’s television programming and music. In “TV Talk, I,” Biggs Chaney uses lyrics from the Backyardigans, a popular children’s television show, to contrast to her daughter’s experience of watching the show. Inspired by the lyrics, “A mission is what we’ve got / A really significant goal” Biggs Chaney writes “Later, when she scales / The darkest pass of right talk, / she’ll learn. Yes.” The moment of speech and recognition, though, as Biggs Chaney reports is soon forgotten.
However, as Biggs Chaney notes in the Afterword, these poems serve as “a work of imagination, grounded in experience.” Within this experience of being a mother to a child diagnosed with autism, Biggs Chaney crafts metaphorical powers that serve to empower, not diminish. In “Blason for Jenna (II),” the speaker intones “Every word incants fear / as if we didn’t have enough,” which spills into the final stanza, where the speaker defines “Echolalic—echo voice / Your mouth, a seashell / speaking the ocean’s story.” Biggs Cheney remains steadfast and committed to her daughter.
Mutch’s memoir and Biggs Chaney’s poems patiently interrogate commonly held beliefs on conditions seen and unseen. Rather than having institutionalized systems speak for their children, both Mutch and Biggs Chaney offer steadfast resistance to simple explanations and categorizations. As Biggs Chaney asks in her Afterword, which acts as a guiding question for those who make assumptions about someone else’s child and experiences: “What should matter to us more? The institutional story of the child, or the child’s story of herself?” These works value the child’s story, guiding the reader to look beyond the official and into the crucial retelling of the personal.