By Chris Bass
Donna Williams’ story is credited as the first autobiography written by someone with autism. It was a New York Times bestseller when it was released in 1991, so I was excited to read what has now become a classic; however, I felt myself getting more and more frustrated as I read through the first 100 pages.
Initially, I wanted a more controllable and concrete description of Autism. For example, I wanted a clearer differentiation between Autistic tendencies with the symptoms of Dissociative Identity Disorder and/or depression, two conditions with which Williams has been diagnosed. And, I worried that a reader (particularly high school students) would assume all Williams’ actions were the result of Autism.
Yet, gradually I realized that this was a flawed approach to this autobiography.
A more controlled narrative that better defined her conditions would have undermined the powerful perspective from which Williams writes. Her use of varying pronouns and alternating the names of her dissociative identities combined with her staccato sentence structure and intermittent pieces of verse all convey a richly layered perspective that shows how far into “nowhere” she truly feels.
It took me about half the book to realize that I was not frustrated with the autobiography itself, I was upset by the title. The title of my edition, Nobody Nowhere The Extraordinary Autobiography of An Autistic, misleads the reader.
Yes, this is an extraordinary autobiography, but it is extraordinary because she explores the depths of her neurodiversity and battles the socially constructed barriers that were placed before her and set her outside the norm. Yes, she is Autistic, but she also lives through emotional abuse, poverty, family alcoholism, sexual abuse, and several other cognitive impairments. Autism is just one of the many challenges Williams comes to understand. In fact, knowing what we know about Autism today, I can see how these challenges likely inflated the difficulties of Autism. And yet, the title places the focus on Autism.
Williams’ story is very much a story about the challenges of living with disabilities in a society that seems to label everything as a condition of one’s “madness” and “stupidity.” Individual people (her mother, father, most often her) get blamed for Williams’ condition, yet no one considers how the Australian society of the 1960s was inflating and creating much of Williams’ struggle. Before even entering high school, Williams gets removed from so many schools that I lost track. Often, schools penalized her in response to her violence towards others, her prolific absences, and disruptive class behaviors. Though not excusable, Williams assures that her actions were often in response to feeling completely excluded from the school community. Often, it seems the schools were quick to discipline and slow to listen. As a result, there is a distinctly negative tone towards her elementary schooling experience.
She is acutely aware of the “normal world” that seems so unwelcoming to people like her. The hostility of the “normal world” feeds her fear, which fuels her instability and no doubt heightens her sense of isolation. For me, what stands out most is Williams’ constant fear of being diagnosed as mad, which would lead to “being locked up” in an a children’s home. Often, her attempts to reach out and communicate with the “normal world” brought complete humiliation.
She explains that “anything I felt in the present still had either to be denied or expressed in a form of conversation others called waffling, chattering, babbling, or ‘wonking.’ I called it ‘talking in poetry’” (53). This quote captures the constant contradiction of Williams’ world—she manages to live life with an acute awareness of her environment, yet people only hear her babbling and never give her the time to articulate otherwise.
As a teacher, I found myself stopping and wondering: Do I often only hear babbling where there is, in fact, poetry? How do my assumptions and expectations for student writing and communication block a student’s ability to communicate? Do my expectations work against my intentions?
At the end of the autobiography, Williams shares how Autism helps her see that “normal” is actually a false boundary that limits too many people and stifles independent expression:
I found that people were usually blinded by their own insecurities or egotism or selfishness. They seemed so ignorant in their self-assured black-and-white conception of ‘normality.’ Every so often, however, one of them would wonder whether others had something to learn from me in trying to understand my differentness. (164)
Her differentness may help both students and teachers see beyond the assumptions about what is normal and more fully embrace students for their differentness.
Finally, I am happy to say that the most upsetting aspects of this novel have been removed by the new publisher (Kinglsey). In my edition, published by Bard in 1992, there is a forward by Dr. Rimland, the former director of the Autism Research Institute. He suggests that Williams’ narrative is exceptional, a rarity. He refers to Williams’ story as testament of “the almost superhuman transition from autism to near-normalcy” and later he claims Williams has achieved the status of “near sainthood” (ix). His reliance on superhuman hyperbole and religious metaphor seem antiquated and undermine the potential of celebrating neurodiversity and what we are all capable of doing. Perhaps, this short piece has value as a close reading text; I would encourage students to analyze how Rimland constructs a deficit mentality for people with Autism. The new publishers also changed the title and replaced the word Extraordinary with Remarkable. It would be interesting to ask students how one word may change the message of a title.
Ultimately, this story reminded me of how little I may know about the challenges my students face throughout their day. I am curious to see how they engage with the text and wonder what questions they have about the life of Donna Williams.
Chris has been teaching High School English in the Chicago suburbs for eight years. He is also a Ph.D. student in English Education at the University of Illinois Chicago where he teaches Freshman Composition.