As autism parents, we can’t help wondering if we are reading our kids accurately. They give us clues, but we don’t always put them together correctly. And we also don’t always have a way to know if they can sense how much we love them. It’s easy to scoff at these feelings, and say “Of course kids know,” but now that A is getting older, he doesn’t always want a hug or a kiss, so those cherished non verbal gestures are also becoming rarer, and those opportunities to relax into each other, parent and child, grow limited. It’s a natural outcome of time, and also a painful wrench for parents like us, who have relied on physical affection to say what words could not.
As I was reading the debut novel “Ginny Moon” by Benjamin Ludwig, I was impressed at how well he tapped into these emotions, and how well he managed to breathe life, not only into the 14-year old autistic character, Ginny, but also her loving but beleaguered adoptive parents, Brian and Maura. Ludwig and his wife fostered then adopted an autistic teenager, so he is writing from a place of knowing. Without the bonding of early childhood, the autistic teen years must be a whole other challenge for all involved.
I will say off the bat that I found the ending of the novel a bit too wrapped up with a bow, and that disappointed me because I think that the constant upheaval that is part of living with someone autistic is sugarcoated. But since I occasionally see comments by autistic people that they would not always like to see autism portrayed in a relentlessly tragic light, Ludwig’s relatively peaceful resolution of the plot perhaps serves the purpose of not dooming the main character to a life of silence and being misread.
Ginny is stuck in her head at age nine, because that’s how old she was when she was taken away from her birth mother, Gloria. Her Forever Mother Maura is now pregnant, and worried that Ginny may not understand how to be gentle with a baby, so they have her practice with a plastic electronic baby doll. When Ginny cannot get the doll to stop crying (it’s sort of like a Tamagotchi, in that you have to feed it and treat it like a living being), she stuffs it in a suitcase, to everyone’s horror.
The truth of what happened to Ginny (named for Gloria’s favorite drink, gin and tonic…) has lived in her head for five years. She keeps telling people that her Baby Doll was left behind when the police took her away, and everyone keeps offering to replace the doll, but the frightful reality that she is unable to express to anyone is that it is actually her little baby sister whom she put into a suitcase in a misguided attempt to protect her, and about whom Ginny has worried and obsessed for all the years she has lived safely with Brian and Maura.
The details unfold, leaving an adult reader weeping. Gloria was drunk or high or both most of the time, and Ginny did what she could to look after her sister. She fed her “human milk,” which is actually cow’s milk from the fridge, and since there weren’t any bottles, she used a dish towel soaked in milk, which she dripped into the baby’s mouth. By the time Ginny was rescued, she was chronically malnourished, so we can only imagine how underfed her sister was. Gloria’s boyfriend sexually abused Ginny regularly, so she truly believed she was saving her sister by hiding her away.
Since Ginny developed her own strategies of baby care, she is anxious that Maura isn’t doing it right with the new baby, so her attempts to look after her new sibling are met with fear and increasing anger from Maura, who bans her from interacting with the baby, and the reader keeps watching the heartbreak of Ginny becoming increasingly alone while panicking endlessly about her abandoned biological sister.
What saves us from becoming hopelessly depressed is the basic decency of everyone in Ginny’s life. From her biological dad to her adoptive parents, from teachers to cops to social workers to classmates, everyone basically roots for one another, and that’s what helps ground the story in optimism. It also shows us how, as our kids get older, people interact with them more as equals, not assuming frailty and helplessness, and how that can motivate them to be part of the larger world. The way this idea dances at the periphery of all the social situations is so well handled that I can only applaud this much verve in a debut author.
And really, autism brains are so subtle that we cannot help catching on as parents and siblings, and becoming a little more fine tuned ourselves. Ludwig’s personal experience really truly shows here. Of course there are moments when the parents, both biological and adoptive, fail spectacularly at keeping up with Ginny’s train of thought, and those are the best moments of all because everyone is so real. As Ginny knows, “I don’t want to answer so I wait. Because sometimes if you don’t answer then someone will answer for you or someone will say something else to help you know what to say.” It’s so true! So often, adults prompt children, then either smugly congratulate themselves on great adulting, or wonder why the child isn’t more forthcoming.
Ginny is also preternaturally good at reading Gloria, a survival skill she has never lost. She tries to set up a kidnapping so that she can figure out what happened to Baby Doll, but she realizes that Gloria just isn’t capable of the self restraint needed to accomplish such a scheme. Gloria is “unreliable.” Ginny has to do a lot of the planning, and as the plot unravels, we are both impressed and terrified at how her instincts guide her.
Traumatized foster kids do develop some major coping tactics, and Ginny really evokes our compassion when she isn’t happy to be saved from kidnapping. She’s still dying to know if Baby Doll is hungry, and since she isn’t really catching on to a proper sense of how much time has passed since she left Gloria’s house, she thinks that there is still a baby needing to be fed with a dish towel. Her single mindedness drives home the point that, just because a child may have been rescued from a terrible situation, it doesn’t mean they suddenly have closure, especially if they are not allowed any contact with people from their past, and most especially if they have developmental issues and have not been led through all the facts about what happened exactly to get them from Houses A to B to C and etc. In our case, with A, he needs to see what we are talking about–an empty jar being thrown out, a person leaving in their car–otherwise he wails in incompletion and distress, unable to believe us, no matter how reassuring a tone we may use. When it does finally penetrate that five years have passed, it only worsens Ginny’s trauma:
“If the truth is that my Baby Doll is six then I’m too late to stop all the things that happened to me from happening to it.”
I don’t know if I’m expressing it in the best way, but more information does not always help A. It’s so hard to set up context clues for him that adding details only gives him more balls to juggle. If it doesn’t happen organically, such as him being present when events unfold, it takes a lot of step by step, repetitive explanation for him to understand. Or, as sometimes happens, and I hate it, he just accepts that he’ll never know, and he lives with the uncertainty.
I really enjoyed how the reality of communicating with someone autistic is so vividly presented. When Ginny is finally able to show Maura how good she is at playing with the new baby, and when Maura finally starts to ask about the past trauma, Ginny replies with matter of fact detail, and this concrete way of talking finally helps Maura understand how much responsibility Ginny took on, that even in the midst of her own suffering, she worried about and stepped up for her Baby Doll, and that even though allowing Ginny to show her love for the baby is impossibly frightening for Maura, there is now a window for her to relearn how to watch out for someone. Autism parenting revelations always come right when we are ready to give up. I don’t know why, but they do, and Ludwig is so brilliant at showing this truth.
In the end, what really stands out is that the data we program into our autistic children’s brains takes a lot of time for them to sift through and form realities with. I wish kids like Ginny didn’t have to be deprogrammed from abuse. Ludwig just shatters my heart with how he details her thought processes. It’s so beautiful and cruel. The wrapped up ending, as much as it wasn’t my picky reader self’s favorite, did show Ginny learning to self-advocate, and isn’t the true sign of a child feeling safe with an adult when they argue back and assert themselves? That part is delightful, and I do hope there’ll be more from this amazing dad and writer.
Ludwig, Benjamin. Ginny Moon. Ontario: Park Row Books, 2017.