Maxine Rosaler’s heartbreaking novel in stories pays stark testament to the chronic stress of being a mother of a child with autism.
Mimi Slavitt knows that something is deeply different about her son Danny: “Something was growing in our emotional lives, something terrible that we couldn’t put a name to.” She and her husband Jake are briefly reassured by an incompetent therapist who tells them their son “[doesn’t] have ‘anything you could pin a label on.’” She attends a series of seminars on child discipline, and it slowly dawns on her that most of the other parents’ children are autistic. “I decided that I had been sent there by mistake. There was no denying I had a difficult child, but he was nothing like these children.”
Danny’s diagnosis plunges Mimi into an alternate and lonely universe. In chapters told from alternating points of view, we see the lives of the women she befriends, each complicated and often disturbingly unprepared for the work of parenting a child with special needs. There’s a familiar saying in the autism community that “once you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.” Each child is unique; so is each parent. Often these mothers have nothing in common except their child’s diagnosis. Desperation affects each one differently; they seek miracle cures from snake oil salesmen, hire advocates and therapists who mislead and cheat, consider shocking treatments and solutions. All of them lay siege to the byzantine bureaucracy of the special education system, chillingly referred to simply as “The District,” an omnipotent, Orwellian force whose policy, thinks Mimi, is to scare parents into submission.
A New York Jewish sensibility informs much of the book. Mimi and her family live in the Jewish enclave of Washington Heights; their landlord is a Holocaust survivor. Mimi, who was raised in a Conservative Jewish home, decided at the age of twelve that she was an atheist. “If anything could have driven Mimi to seek comfort in religion, Danny’s diagnosis would have. But it didn’t.” Still, she sends Danny to a special education yeshiva, rationalizing that people with autism love rules, and Orthodox Jews live strictly. When they can no longer afford tuition, though, she’s forced to send him to public school where he is thrown together with Howard, a student with whom he has nothing in common except their status as social outcasts.
On the eve of Howard’s bar mitzvah, Howard’s mother Aviva is dismayed to realize Danny is the closest thing to a friend her son has ever had — “it horrified Aviva to think of her son being identified with a child who was so clearly impaired.” This scene illuminates that even on what should be a joyous occasion, parenting a developmentally disabled child is fraught with tension, missteps, and painful consequences.
Though credible and complex, many of these characters are deeply unlikeable and judgmental of each other’s children and choices, with backstories that suggest lives that were broken long before they became parents. This is a world that Rosaler, herself the parent of an autistic child, knows intimately. At times the book — which skillfully evokes the isolation and ambivalence of parenting a child who is different — reads more like memoir than fiction, blurring the line between the two genres.
And yet, despite the betrayals, disappointments, and rampant anxiety, Rosaler wonderfully evokes the physicality of early motherhood, and offers moving moments of relief — the lilac bush on Mimi’s street in full bloom, a ragged street musician playing a jazz tune she loves, a young soprano on the subway platform in a tutu with fairy wings singing an aria. “Mimi would stop and listen, and for those few moments, everything else in the battlefield of her existence would disappear and the only thing that would exist for her was all this beauty.”
Raw, candid and deftly written, Queen for a Day crackles with trenchant observations and edgy gallows humor. Though Mimi makes choices the reader will question, we never doubt the deep, fierce love she feels for her son.
Liane is a nationally-known writer and advocate for the autism community. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, The Huffington Post, Tikkun, Kveller, and Parents Magazine. She is a co-author of the Autism Speaks Advocacy Took Kit.