Thursday, January 28, 2010

postmortem ventriloquism


Postmortem ventriloquism? What is that? Well, it's one of my spouse's favorite phrases. He uses it to describe the way living people ascribe words to dead people, like funeral sermons that go like this: "If Bill were here today, he'd be thrilled that Uncle Pat is wearing blue jeans instead of a suit. And he'd be so glad there's potato salad at the luncheon after the service." For my spouse, these funeral moments are among the strangest things human beings do. So he made up a term for it.

I've found myself having my own little moments of postmortem ventriloquism today. Two writers I love died in the last two days. J.D. Salinger and Howard Zinn. Even though most people over 30 give up on Salinger, I'm still a huge fan. And not because of The Catcher in the Rye. Instead, I have an abiding affection for the characters that make up the Glass family in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and "Franny and Zooey." And maybe everyone over 30 also gives up on Zinn. He was a certain kind of historian. And maybe those of us who are working historians don't do things his way, but I'll never forget reading A People's History of the United States. About 15 years ago, it rocked my world.

But why consider these two men on a blog purportedly about autism? Well, I have to wonder about Salinger's fictional characters, their savant-like knowledge, their inability to fit into the world. I would never go so far as to say that all the Glass children seem autistic. But there is a space between them and the world that reminds of the space between Martin and world. A space and a sadness. Somehow, Salinger treasured that space and made it seem less lonely.

And I think of Zinn and the way he spent his entire career trying to point out that how you tell a story matters. That it matters for all the people left out, like the Taino people who encountered Columbus. Only in the last few years has it come to the public that there are autistic people in this country. You see billboards and TV reports and People magazine covers about it. But it's such a recent event. I think of a friend of mine who grew up with an autistic sister. His family could find no help for her. They even drove across the country to see a doctor they hoped would help them. That doctor promptly blamed the girl's condition on the mother. There's probably thousands of people with stories like that. So Zinn makes me think about how I'm lucky to be dealing with autism at a time when other people have at least heard about it. And it makes me wonder who we're still forgetting.

So farewell J.D. and Howard. I won't try to predict what you'd say from the great beyond. But I thank you for shining the light on so many hidden and forgotten spaces.

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