Excerpted from Daniel Isn't Talking by Marti Leimbach. Copyright © 2006 by Marti Leimbach. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Marti Leimbach is the author of several novels, including the international bestseller Dying Young, which was made into a major motion picture starring Julia Roberts. Born in Washington, D.C., Leimbach attended the Creative Writing program at University of California, Irvine, and Harvard University. She currently lives in England and teaches at the University of Oxford’s Creative Writing program.
A Conversation with Marti Leimbach, Author
DANIEL ISN’T TALKING
1. Daniel Isn’t Talking is taken very much from your own life. How much do you have in common with the mother in the book?
I went through a very similar experience to that of Melanie, who is the mother of an autistic boy in the novel. For example, I was certain there was something wrong with my child for quite some time before the actual diagnosis, and yet nobody seemed to believe me. I began to think that there was something wrong with me as I was so anxious all the time. Eventually, we discovered that our son was autistic. That did not ease my anxiety, of course, but at least it made me understand that I wasn’t going crazy. And at last I was able to focus on the problem at hand, however awful that problem was. All this went directly into Daniel Isn’t Talking.
2. What was that like, the pre-diagnosis time?
In some ways, I look back on the years before the diagnosis as a kind of dreamy idyllic space in my life. Nobody could have been happier than I was driving the children to farm parks, listening to Peter Pan on the CD player and singing, “I can fly, I can fly!” I was that besotted by motherhood. But then, things started going wrong. Our son was ill very often: ear infections, swollen glands in his neck, sore throats ad vague diagnosis days. I couldn’t get a handle on what was really going on. Things started to unravel, and then they started to go badly wrong. By the time he was three I knew he was autistic. I brought him in for diagnosis knowing the outcome already. Still, I was desperate for the doctors to contradict me, to say he was normal. I almost pleaded with them to say as much. But instead I was met with sentiments like, “He may never talk” and “He will need to go to a special needs nursery right away.” It was a terrible moment in my life.
3. So the boy in Daniel Isn’t Talking, Daniel, is very much like your own son was at that time?
Yes. I didn’t have to imagine what it was like to live with a child with autism. It was just a matter of delivering what I knew to the page.
4. In Daniel Isn’t Talking, the father of the child walks out. Is that what happened in your own life?
No, thank God. But it happens enough in the lives of women around me who have children with serious special needs. It’s hard enough to keep a family together at the best of times, let alone when you have been given the news that one of your children has a serious mental condition. You start to imagine all the worst-case scenarios. Crazy thoughts like “Will he burn the house down?”, “Will he hurt the other children?” , “Will he be dangerous to himself?”, “Will other people hurt him just because he is different?”, “How can I protect him?” There is just a terrific amount of pressure on you all of a sudden. I have read that the divorce rate among parents of autistic children is very high and I am not surprised.
5. Your book talks about the way the mother finds help for her child through particular types of education and play therapy. Is that fiction or are there specific treatments that seem to help autistic children?
People are very much divided on what is the best therapy for autistic children. You have such a variety of approaches, everything from “art therapy” to “music therapy” to something called “TEACCH.” Early on I happened to speak to a man whose son was eight and had been diagnosed with quite low-functioning autism. He took my call on his mobile phone, having no idea at all who I was except that I was an autism mom. He was having dinner at a restaurant in London, but he got up and walked out of the restaurant, leaving his dining companions on their own, in order to speak with me. I asked about all these different therapies and what he thought of them all. He said one sentence which I believe changed the course of my son’s treatment and made him the high-functioning child he is today. He said, “Choose Applied Behavioral Analysis. Everything else is crap.” I don’t know why I believed him, except that it felt to me as though I was speaking to someone in the trenches, who had been in the trenches for a long time, who had survived while others failed, who was battle-weary but full of wisdom. It was as though he was saying, “Here’s the only gun that fires. Pick up the bloody gun.”
6. What is Applied Behavioral Analysis?
Simply put it is an approach to teaching in which you reward a child for offering the desired behavior while ignoring the behavior that is undesirable. It used to be very clinical in its delivery with the child being made to sit at a table and perform repetitive tasks until he got it right. But it evolved into a dynamic, play-based therapy in which the child is set up to succeed, does succeed, and is immediately rewarded for doing what is required. The best practitioners inspire the child to want to learn but they are rare. There are plenty of crummy ABA teachers and some very excellent ones. The best ones are the parents who learn to do this kind of therapy. We know our kids well and we know what makes them tick. I remember teaching Nicky what prepositions are by taking his favorite thing at that time, the number 19, and putting it on top of, behind, or next to blocks. “Where’s number nineteen?” I’d ask, making a bright purple 19 dance on the block. “On the block!” He loved the number nineteen so much he learned “on” real quick.
7. Andy, with whom the author falls in love with in the book, is passionate about teaching children with autism. Are there people like Andy in real life?
Absolutely there are. Sometimes autism is accompanied by other, serious conditions and those kids are harder to teach. However, if you have a child who is “only” autistic and you work with him or her early enough, the child has a real chance at attending regular school, having reasonable language and social skills, making friends. There is a small but important community of individuals who are dedicated to helping these children. I love them. I think they are the most valuable teachers we have and that the way they teach should really be extended even to “neurotypical” children, as clearly they are doing something right.
8. How would you describe your family now?
We think we’re a normal family, but I am not at all sure that others looking at us would agree! My husband, Alastair, and I have been under the most extraordinary stress and trials so when things are going well we really enjoy ourselves. I think I am more of a “worrier” than I used to be, and I was pretty good at worrying before the whole autism thing. It’s just that once you get hit by something that just isn’t supposed to happen, like autism, it changes you. Our daughter, who is not autistic, is an absolute delight and adores her brother while understanding that he is a little different. She is the sunniest girl, always smiling. She says she thinks Nicky is better than other brothers because he is “much nicer.” Nicky, who is nine years old now, attends normal school with help. He’s a charming, talkative boy.
From the Hardcover edition.
A Note from the Author
Daniel Isn’t Talking is a novel about a woman who discovers her young son is autistic. It is taken in part from my own life as I went through a similar experience five years ago, when my son was diagnosed with autism. About my son: I can tell you I was certain there was something wrong with him for some time before the actual diagnosis. I used to ask the doctors about these obscure symptoms. Why does he walk on his toes, I’d ask. Why does he grind his teeth like that? Why doesn’t he sleep at night? Or eat, for that matter? I mean, surely he should eat? And why doesn’t he talk?
And then one day the answer came and I wished I’d never asked the questions. “Because he is autistic,” I was told.
Autism in a child does not affect only that child. It affects a whole family. Suddenly, everything in my life was different. My normally wonderful husband became remote, unhelpful. The only way I could be sure he took in what I had to say was if I texted him on his mobile. His relatives went around saying things like, “Well, we have no history of autism in our family.” My own relatives, who are not warm and fuzzy people, weren’t much help either. My aunt thought it was my own fault for having a baby so late in life (I was thirty-three). My sister would say things like, “Wow, he’s autistic. So I guess you’re going to have to do something with him.”
Do something with him? I hate to think what she had in mind.
But yes, I had to do something. And just like the character Melanie in Daniel Isn’t Talking, I found myself scrambling to figure out what.
But of course, the novel is not a memoir, and what Melanie does in Daniel Isn’t Talking ends up being far more entertaining than anything in my actual life. Take, for example, the rather delicious Irish guy with whom she falls in love. I can tell you no such man has ever entered my house. I guess that’s just as well, because my husband is in my house. Eventually he dethawed and returned to being the nice guy he usually is.
In fact, very few of the events of the novel ever happened in my life, but the great thing about fiction is that you can take subject matter as difficult as that in Daniel Isn’t Talking and fill it with humor, with surprises, with events that escort the reader gently through the minefield which has become these characters’ lives. I positively loved writing the novel and I feel a particular affinity to it. I admire the main character, Melanie. She was so much braver than I was at the time of my son’s diagnosis. I fell in love with the therapist who shows her how to teach her son. And, of course, the Daniel in the novel is so much like my own son, Nicholas. He brought back memories of the day Nicky finally said his first word–at the age of three years and two months–and how hard he fought to learn the simple things that other children take for granted.
So, this is an important book for me. The latest statistics reveal that one in every 165 families has a child on the autistic spectrum, so I know that the book is going to touch the hearts of many people. I hope it will also touch parents who find that it is sometimes difficult to connect with their children.
For more information on autism or to make a donation to autism research please contact Autism Speaks at www.autismspeaks.org.
1. There are occasional flashbacks throughout the novel that give a glimpse of what Melanie was like before she had children. How would you describe her character before she became a mother? How has she changed?
2. Melanie and Stephen’s house empties out of possessions as Melanie sells their things to pay for Daniel’s various therapies and other needs. What does Melanie mean when she says, “I am in a different market than the rest of the world” [p. 164]?
3. How are the subjects of race and class treated in the novel?
4. Andy says he understands Melanie as an “autism mother.” What is the implication of this term? How might Andy’s perception of “autism mothers” be different than that of most people Melanie encounters?
5. When Melanie tells Veena about Daniel’s diagnosis, she makes an outright appeal for Veena’s compassion and sympathy. Instead, Veena says, “You are a white woman living in a white paradise. This is not the worst thing that can happen” [p. 59]. What does Veena mean by this? Why would Melanie find these words comforting?
6. How do you describe the connection between Melanie and Veena? How are these apparently very different women similar? What about their circumstances helps them to understand each other? Would they have been friends if Daniel was normal?
7. Early in the novel Melanie thinks she may be “unstable” [p. 13]. Would you agree with that? Following Daniel’s diagnosis, does she seem more or less “stable” to the world around her? To you as a reader?
8. On the morning of Daniel’s diagnosis, Melanie’s immediate reaction is to say, “I feel that a change has taken place. I cannot help feeling as though I started the journey this morning with my beloved little boy and am returning with a slightly alien, uneducable time bomb” [p. 55]. How has Daniel’s diagnosis temporarily changed his mother’s perception of him? What examples can be seen of her resisting this changed perception? How has Stephen’s view of his son been altered by the diagnosis?
9. How does Daniel’s diagnosis affect his sister, Emily? In what ways does Melanie try to shield Emily from the full implications of having a brother with autism? In what ways is she successful? In what ways is she not successful?
10. Was Stephen’s departure useful in helping Daniel? In the long run, was his absence a good thing for Daniel? For Emily? How might things have been different for the children if Stephen had stayed?
11. At the end of the novel, Melanie states that Stephen “has shifted all blame for our marriage onto me. Onto my whims and desires. At the same time he has cleverly cast his bid. He is smart. Maybe that is what I found so attractive about him. I do not find it so attractive now” [p. 274]. How has Stephen made Melanie feel responsible for the failure of their marriage? Do you think she is to blame?
12. Melanie says that Andy “has touched a part of me that was dying and brought it to life once more. This belongs to him” [p. 183]. What does Melanie mean by this statement? What is the unusual nature of Melanie and Andy’s connection and deepening relationship? What do they know about each other’s families and backgrounds? Does this matter?
13. In Chapter twenty-three Melanie sees a group of young women at a bus stop. About one of them she says, “I want to tell her that she is a woman of great virtue. A woman of grace. That I admire her. And that I see her differently than perhaps she sees herself. Now that I have truly seen her, now that I have taken notice” [p. 258]. In what sense has Melanie “truly seen” this young woman? What stops her from speaking to the woman?
14. How is the reader’s experience of the novel affected by the knowledge that Marti Leimbach herself is an “autism mother?”