By Carolyn See
Friday, October 23, 2009
COWBOY & WILLS
By Monica Holloway
Simon Spotlight Entertainment.
279 pp. $24
"Cowboy and Wills" is a charming memoir about a couple who come to their wits' end when they learn that their 3-year-old son, Wills, has "autistic spectrum disorder." Wills is extremely high-functioning; he not only talks a blue streak but picks up on jokes and uses family slang. His main symptoms seem to be an aversion to certain textures (he hates bubble bath), a fear of other kids and crowds, a hatred of loud sounds and a tendency to break down in sobbing fits when any of these things occur. His mother, Monica, and dad, Michael, learn this diagnosis from a therapist whom Wills has been seeing. Monica, the self-effacing narrator here, takes an immediate leap of faith after hearing the bad news: She goes to a fish store. She's convinced, at an instinctive level, that pets -- fish, turtles, guinea pigs, hermit crabs, a rabbit, whatever -- will have some sort of healing effect on her son and, perhaps, on her.
Monica is tough on herself, at least in this memoir. She admits early and freely to her own OCD: "My anxieties often manifested in my cleaning around the baseboards of our house at three in the morning, regrouting the bathtub while Wills napped, or obsessively picking up the leaves in the backyard." Her husband, a screenwriter, is away on location after Wills's diagnosis; she's estranged from her family except for one sister. Most of the time Monica feels desperately, terribly isolated. She can only go forward, taking Wills to his therapist, dashing off on outings that usually end in disaster and devising (unsuccessful) ways to coax Wills out of his overwhelming fears.
Some parents of autistic kids may be put off as they read this. Wills isn't violent; he's extremely affectionate, and his command of the English language is elegant and precise. This takes him out of the pool of many, many autistic children, but it doesn't affect Monica's anguish in the least. She's tormented by a fellow mom who claims that she's "cured" her own autistic child by diet alone.
In a harrowing process that will be all too familiar to aspiring upper-middle-class parents, she and her husband audition Wills at several posh private schools, with bad results. (He's already endured hellish preschool experiences, sobbing his way through sing-alongs and the like.) She does, however, finally get Wills into a private school for "typical" kids, where a nosy mom demands, "Monica, what's going on with Wills?" Monica tries to brush her off: "He's still trying to adjust to school," which is a great big whopper. The other mother replies, "Wills seems like a tiny frightened bird," then adds, "Maybe he's not getting enough love at home."
A lot of hurt feelings might have been avoided if Monica had simply said, "My son has autism," but she's not into that. As far as this narrative is concerned, Wills will become a mainstream kid or the next thing to it. His parents apparently don't apply for any specialized services. When they hire an aide -- or "shadow" -- to be with Wills in class, she's utterly untrained.
Monica seems trapped. She wants to scream at unsympathetic parents: "My son has autism! We're not trying to torture him, we're trying to make him stronger." But she doesn't say a word. She and her husband take the "drop the kid in the water and see if he swims" approach, and of course, that sometimes works, or we'd have a lot more drowned kids on our hands.
Into this agonizing dilemma comes a canine lifesaver, a darling girl-dog named Cowboy, who, over a couple of years, gives Wills unconditional love, coaxes him out of his parents' bed, comforts him when he feels bad and gives him something wonderful to talk about when he's in school. Wills begins to do much better, and, so it seems, do his parents. Cowboy gives them something they can all focus on and love to pieces -- a way out of this mental, spiritual and emotional family mess called autism.
Make no mistake: This memoir, as I said, is in many ways charming. Wills is a sweet and beautiful little boy; the photographs here as well as the text prove it. Cowboy is exemplary in her goodness. The author is forthright and winning. But my main concern is that desperate parents with autistic kids will think that a visit to the pet store will effect a miraculous cure. It (probably) won't. Just as diet alone or chelation therapy or mainstreaming or any other one thing probably won't. A better way to say it might be that probably everything works -- sometimes, a little. Ingenious parents will try everything, eliminating what the kid hates, keeping what he likes.
My other concern can be found on pages 68 and 69, when Monica lies about her son's autism and thus turns everybody else into villains. There's nothing to be gained by lying about autism! People notice. That's really the whole point here.
See can be reached at http://www.carolynsee.com.
Sunday in Outlook
-- Eight centuries of financial folly.
-- The only perfect baseball game.
-- The man who threw eggs at Mao.
-- The fire that tested our Forest Service.
-- And the haunting of America.