Daniel Isn’t Talking
Marty Leimbach’s Daniel Isn’t Talking is the story of a mother’s desperate search to find help for her autistic little boy. Melanie knows something is terribly wrong with her 3-year-old, but her husband Stephen says she is being a drama queen. When Daniel is diagnosed with autism, Stephen starts working late. When the experts tell Melanie that Daniel will never be “normal,” that she has “no choice” but to send him away to a “special school”—and Stephen agrees—she digs in her heels, and Stephen moves out. (It’s not part of “the plan” to have “damaged” children, he says; he’s not happy at home anymore. “They are your children,” Melanie replies. “How happy do you need to be?”
Willing to sacrifice anything for her kids (she also has a gifted 5-year-old daughter), Melanie tracks down every kind of therapist, pawns her engagement ring and furniture to pay for them, and studies all the literature. She becomes an expert on autism and food allergies, autism and play, autism and parenting. Her first advocate is another mother she meets in the grocery store, a woman who connects her to her greatest advocate, Andy. Though the experts consider him a loose canon, Andy’s “play therapy” techniques seem to resonate with Daniel. As Melanie begins to communicate with her son, she re-builds her family as a single parent.
I am sitting here wondering why this is such a hard book to review. Partly it’s tough simply because of the subject matter: a book about autism is a serious book (though Leimbach does include some humorous moments, which have the effect of sighs of relief). Statistics seem to indicate that autistic cases are on the rise, and many of us know a family in crisis due to tragic diagnosis. Stories like this suddenly seem more personal.
It’s also tough to review because the emotional tone of the beginning is radically different from the end, to the point of feeling like two different books. For the first hundred pages, I could hardly bear Melanie’s grief, self-doubt, and utter despair. One of the more positive and poignant expressions of this is this passage:
But I didn’t know what I had. You see, Daniel seemed completely normal. You might think that a baby with autism gives you some warning so you won’t love him quite as much as you do your normal child. Maybe he doesn’t cling to you or hold his arms round your neck, or laugh when you give him piggyback rides or reach for the swing seat. But he did all those things….The change is gradual; the symptoms devious in the way they come and go. You don’t love him any less because he doesn’t speak to you. Or when he cannot seem to get the hang of the toy parking garage and all the shiny new cards you buy him, or has no interest in the games you try to play. When he won’t let you touch his head, let alone wash his hair, or when he cries almost all day and you have no idea why. You don’t love him any less—you just think you are failing.
It’s tough reading. But once she realizes it’s all up to her and begins to rejoice in the tiniest victories with Daniel, I found myself cheering her on. If it weren’t for my difficulty setting aside books even when I hate them, I wouldn’t have made it to the good stuff in this one. I could wish that Leimbach made it easier on the reader, but then it wouldn’t be nearly as realistic; and in retrospect, I appreciate the hopeful ending more for the darkness that preceded it.
More important than plot in this novel is character development. Melanie’s transformation from a tortured woman pitied by others to a beaming mother leading others is believable and even admirable. Leimbach’s use of the first person present tense is effective. Though Melanie’s personality is quite different from mine, Leimbach keeps me connected to her character’s reasoning so that I understand why she does what she does. And Leimbach has a way of depicting relationships in flux, like when Melanie and Stephen have another argument about putting Daniel in an institution, and Melanie sees part of the problem with new eyes:
I have violated the secret code to winning his favor, which is never to criticize him. If there is anyone who requires criticism, it is me. Can’t I see that? … He does not need to raise his voice to make me think he is shouting. He is shouting, in that he is presenting his thoughts as one might dispatch a warhead…
I can’t say that I enjoyed this book, but I do feel stretched for having read it. I hope it gives me more empathy for the choices parents have to make, and more patience with kids who are “a handful.”