The Neurodiverse Forest
Canadian hemlock. This is the one and only thing that Anthony notices when he hits the ground, having been knocked over by the much smaller Uncle Arms, the demonstrative faux-Vaudevillian charity pageant impresario, who had unmasked him as not the journalist he claimed to be (131). Anthony, a 315-pound young man, the protagonist of Victor LaValle’s 2002 novel The Ecstatic, Or, Humunculus, is likely a schizophrenic (his mother is on and off of her Haldol, and his interior monologue often erupts into speech, which he only realizes by gauging the silent glares of his family), and has a remarkable botanical vocabulary and a sensitivity to the natural world, even as his fellow Queens residents seem not to. He will describe sycamores as catching birds, and, more to his disappointment and horror, the high-pitched sound of chairs squirming under the weight of obese people in a weight-loss program—in which his family forcibly enrolls him—as whale song (11, 47-48). A city kid out of his element for two years amid Ithaca’s wooded gorges, he found his peers at Cornell who were not from urban environments made him want to appear tougher, so in magnifying the revolting aspects of New York City to them he later realizes that he hadn’t told them enough about “Flushing Meadow Park’s scarlet maples, the white-rumped sandpipers of Jamaica Bay”(44).
LaValle’s character may be among the most deliberately unique of writers’ creations, pitiable and admirable and downright eccentric, something like an amalgam of Ignatius J. Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and Lewis Nordan’s panoply of everyday oddballs, skirting the boundaries of what constitutes clinically identified conditions. In pointing to this, I am following upon Serenella Iovino’s call for the third wave of ecocriticism to take up, among a range of engaging topics, the “wildness” of mental disability when reading ecocritically (55). Her instinct is right, but I have qualms about her choice of terminology, even though there may be others who are willing to go with it. In the recent edited collection Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities: Toward and Eco-Crip Theory (2017), Sarah Gibbons, David T. Mitchell, Sharon L. Snyder, and Robert Melchior Figueroa have contributed chapters that treat the implications of a degraded environment and the rise of autism, the “entanglement of multiple traumas at multiple magnitudes in many different settings” (Figueroa 579). In what follows I want to briefly argue that the forest is the place where this is often explored in book-length fiction, particularly in that ascendant subgenre, the neuronovel.
Anthony’s connection to the natural world, like many of the mentally disabled characters I will and could mention, is othering—few others could identify Canadian hemlock at a glance, still fewer might describe the experience of entering a small patch of trees in this way: “This brief forest trapped the coldest air along its floor. My legs and my head were in different temperate zones; my knees were chilly, but my face started sweating. I was having fun” (146). The history of mental illness is such that alliances with the more-than-human world, if society even acknowledged them, were part of what was perceived as the less-than-human nature of neuroatypicals. Neuronovels, on the other hand, as I explore in my dissertation, are staking a claim for their characters’ “different” ways of viewing the natural world and implicitly for changing our own.
In Cammie McGovern’s Eye Contact (2006, spoiler alert!), we find Cara, the mother of the autistic child Adam, compelled to shape his environment in front of him, “rearranging what he will find when he looks,” such as a mealybug inching along a branch (62). In this sober neurorealist novel, one of Adam’s classmates in the “special education” section of their school, one who had established a real connection with him, Amelia, who had been diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), is found in the woods, stabbed to death. Like the lead characters in Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, the sudden change of circumstances leads a mentally disabled character to try to solve the mystery of the killing, despite warnings from neurotypicals not to intervene, or at least not too much. It turns out that the woods in question, not far from the school playground, are a frequent pass-through for the town’s residents and it’s there where Kevin, Cara’s high school classmate and onetime lover who has been in a wheelchair since a childhood bike accident, has been watching Adam from afar. He has had to be wheeled into the woods with the assistance of a friend, laying down cardboard piece by piece, so as to keep the wheels from sinking in and getting stuck. Amelia draws Adam into the woods because she has been responding to the bird sounds of the local children’s musician, and so it is that Adam meets his father there. The swirling of leads, clues, and potentially guilty parties eventually settles on a what the novel depicts as a neurotypical misfit, a bully who angrily lashes out at his overburdened mother when he is caught. “Nice kid,” the detective concludes. But the one who solved the mystery was Morgan, a teenager with unspecified mental or behavioral difficulties, who has guilt to assuage: in a fit of dislike of the therapeutic sneakers he had been given for his flat feet, he burns them and ends up destroying the very wooded wetlands that his mother had been trying so hard to save from developers, trying to the point of snapping viciously at people who walked past her information table in front of the supermarket. To confess the one and to make up for it, he needs to solve the other mystery.
In Eye Contact, the woods and the wetlands are the knotting-up for so many threads of tragedy—parents exhausted by their special needs children and activism, broken lives and marriages, unrequited love, and revenge plots. The worst tragedy of all, McGovern implies, comes from a lack of compassion and a lack of knowledge: Harrison the misfit stabs Amelia because the girl is displaying a spectrum behavior, approaching him and singing even as he tells her to stop. Anger—thinks another boy who digs what he intends to be a grave in the woods for his bully, Harrison—anger can transform the landscape (272). In this wooded place, then, in Eli Clare’s terms, we ought to be seeking not cure but care.
Clare, Eli. “Meditations on Natural Worlds, Disabled Bodies, and a Politics of Cure.” Material Ecocriticism, edited by Serenella Iovino and Serpil Opperman, Indiana UP, 2014, pp. 204-18.
Figueroa, Robert Melchior. “Autism and Environmental Identity: Environmental Justice and the Chains of Empathy.” Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities: Toward and Eco-Crip Theory, edited by Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara, U of Nebraska P, 2017, pp. 573-93.
Gibbons, Sarah. “Neurological Diversity and Environmental (In)Justice: The Ecological Other in Popular and Journalist Representations of Autism.” Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities: Toward and Eco-Crip Theory, edited by Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara, U of Nebraska P, 2017, pp. 531-52.
Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Vintage, 2004.
Iovino, Serenella. “The Human Alien: Otherness, Humanism, and the Future of Ecocriticism.” Ecozon@, vol. 1, no. 1 (2010), pp. 53-61.
LaValle, Victor D. The Ecstatic, Or, Humunculus. Crown, 2002.
Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. Doubleday, 1999.
Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder. “Precarity and Cross-Species Identification: Autism, the Critique of Normative Cognition, and Nonspeciesism.” Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities: Toward and Eco-Crip Theory, edited by Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara, U of Nebraska P, 2017, pp. 553-72.
Nordan, Lewis. Sugar Among the Freaks. Algonquin Books, 1996.
McGovern, Cammie. Eye Contact. Viking, 2006.
Toole, John Kennedy. A Confederacy of Dunces. Louisiana State UP, 1980.