Adam Lanza came up often in conversations this weekend. How could he have gunned down little children? I felt defensive when I read an unsubstantiated comment from his brother that he might have had Asperger’s. Autistic people have enough to deal with already, without being branded as potential mass murderers.
I remember my first day as a volunteer at the Key School for children with autism in Joburg. As soon as I entered the classroom, I knew the children were different. Different from myriad of kids I’d taught for over thirty years. They didn’t look different. Just kids in shorts and T-shirts, busy with puzzles at their desks. But no-one noticed my arrival. No giggling or whispering to the boy next door. They fingered the puzzle pieces with rapt attention. No hands up. No requests for help.
Self contained. Inward looking. Mind-blind…
I’d spent weeks browsing through every book related to autism on shelves of the Park View library, from encyclopaedias to accounts written by parents and teachers. I already had a bulging notebook about a complex, life-long disorder of development – more common than cerebral palsy, Downs Syndrome and childhood cancer. And it’s not like asthma. You don’t grow out of autism. It’s not a stage your child passes through. It’s a lifelong disability – a cruel and devastating defect for both child and family – but it doesn’t turn its victims into mass murderers.
Working with autistic children would have been an invaluable and rewarding experience, even if Kaleidoscope had never been published.
It was presumptuous to imagine I could toss off a quick novel on the strength of one published article of a thousand words. How would I dredge up another seventy nine thousand? On what? ‘Write about what you know,’ I’d told my pupils but it didn’t feel as if I knew about anything at all as I lay bleakly on the bed, staring at the unresponsive ceiling.
A stranger’s death notice caught my eye as I flicked through a newspaper. Someone had lost her son. A boy on a brand-new motor-bike. I couldn’t imagine how I would react to a loss of that magnitude. Or maybe I could? I wrote the first chapter. In long-hand. Then, because I hate books which feel as if the writer didn’t know how to end the story, I wrote the last chapter. Only seventy five thousand words left for me to find…
I had no idea what was going to happen in my story. I didn’t even know who was in it. ‘Write to your strengths,’ I’d advised my pupils. My strength lay in the type of feature one finds on the back page of Fairlady. Would anyone publish a whole book of these pages? A compendium? A collected edition? I decided to start and see where the story went.
It went nowhere. I wrote over a hundred pages with no sign of a plot. In desperation, I threw in a couple of the travel pieces I’d written which meant the story now made no sense at all. I seemed to have a predilection for tragedy. Several of the main characters were already dead.
But I didn’t throw it away; I stored it in a deep drawer and resolved to try again. This time I decided on the plot before I started writing. I shared a Life Line shift with a Psychology Masters student from Wits who was writing her thesis about an autistic child. My exposure to autism at that stage was confined to Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man; I’d been fascinated by the curious mix of ability and disability which characterises the disorder.
I’ll find out more, I decided, as I drove home. The seed for Kaleidoscope was sown.
I stamped my feet and refused to go when my husband told me we were moving. Again. He phoned Stuttafords anyway and my fiftieth birthday found me newly arrived in Joburg, with one child in Japan and the other on the ski-slopes of Colorado. At least I still had the dogs. What I didn’t have was a job. I couldn’t face another blackboard. My mother warned me that a major in Social Anthropology wouldn’t open any doors.
I began to tire of lounging around in my pyjamas. There’s a limit to the number of cappuccinos you can down in Sandton Square. The demand for fifty year old women who don’t like to get up early, yet need frequent travel breaks, was zero. There was only one option. I announced to my husband over his cornflakes that I was now a freelance journalist. I didn’t know at that stage that the package included such irregular salary cheques.
My husband looked sceptical so I decided I better write something. I saw an advert in the Park View paper about a feature-writing course. One night a week for a month. Not too taxing, I thought. There were only six of us and I didn’t feel too inadequate because none of them had published anything either. I loved it! Our first assignment was to write a profile.
I’d just been accepted as a Life Line counsellor and my first shift was with David Friedland – I asked him if I could write my profile on him because he is blind. He was my introduction to the joy of research. Our subsequent conversations were fascinating – and our teacher encouraged me to submit the piece I wrote to a magazine. They published it! And from that day on, whenever a form asks for my occupation, I write JOURNALIST in block capitals!
And so I decided to try a book – I am easily encouraged….