Content: graphic descriptions of child abuse, child murder, death imagery, and structural ableism, racism, and cissexism
In 2013, Alex Spourdalakis was brutally murdered by his mother and godmother. They drugged him. They stabbed him repeatedly. They slit his wrists. They cut until they had nearly severed one of his hands.
This story, as we so frequently encounter it, is not about Alex. It is, rather, about his mother and godmother. This story is about those noble and tireless caregivers who had it so rough — who had it so rough because Alex was autistic.
This is not a new story. I read about Alex’s death and his caregivers’ autistic-life-induced suffering, and my body summons the visceral gag reflex, that tongue-fuzzing, gut-gnawing, blood-rushing memory of Melissa Stoddard. Melissa Stoddard was brutally murdered. Her stepmother tied her in four-point restraints and duct-taped her mouth shut. Melissa, totally covered in bruises at 11 years old, suffocated to death. Melissa was tortured for weeks and was then murdered.
As many autistic bloggers have noted, these stories about caregiver murder are often justified through appeals to parental exhaustion and lack of social support. The murder of Alex Spourdalakis is in many ways a case exemplar of such rhetoric. Prior to killing her son, Dorothy Spourdalakis had famously sought out Andrew Wakefield of anti-vaccination fame. When Alex was facing a psychiatric hospital stay, Wakefield filmed his visit with Alex, at one point pleading, “This is not the future for Alex. It should never be the future for any child, this condition.” Wakefield’s reference here, to condition, is meant multiply: he is not only linking autism to what he calls “grim prospects,” but he is linking residential care to a status worse than death. The offensive documentary Who Killed Alex Spourdalakis? serves another case in point: When parents murder their autistic children, they are not the ones murdering, for autism unto itself is death. One cannot murder a corpse.
The argument that autism is a kind of living death — and thereby worse than death (because it is symbolic death, a death in which organs and body meat keep churning while the external world remains beyond grasp) — fuels homicidal logics. Media reports of caregivers murdering autistic people have become so commonplace that in 2012 the Autistic Self Advocacy Network instituted an annual Day of Mourning in remembrance of disabled victims. Each year, the list of murders grows longer.
More often than not, autism organizations authorize caregiver murder by using such stories as ploys for raising funds. (Notable exemplars are Autism Speaks and the Autism Society of America, both of which are led by non-autistic individuals.) The feature image of this blog post, an Autism Speaks sign that spouts a false 80% divorce rate among parents of autistic children, emblemizes the supposed horrors of autism: We autistics fuck up all institutions with our living lifelessness. We, the neuroqueer, threaten your marriages and your reproductive futures.
In what ways is the autistic made absent — both rhetorically and pathologically — in these death-wishing stories? What humanity or agency does the autistic possess when hir existence is figured as apocalyptic, as a fate worse than death? How do these stories take on different, more violent meanings when their autistic subjects are persons of color, queer, nonspeaking, and/or poor? Toward whose bodyminds are we compelled to pay attention?
As a means of reinforcing these points, I offer two caregiver narratives, narratives in which parents relate — and normalize — fantasies of murdering their autistic children. I focus on these two narratives in particular because, while each represents a distinct moment in time (1987 and 2006, respectively), they perpetuate the all-too-common refrain that autistic life is worse than autistic death. They are simultaneously historical and contemporary, reinforcing how little autism metaphors have changed since Bettelheim’s prisoners of the fortress. The first story I share hails from an influential parent narrative on biomedical approaches to autism, and it is on this one which I will linger longest. Mary Callahan’s Fighting For Tony, published in 1987, relates a mother’s journey to recover her young son from autism by means of food deprivation. Importantly, Callahan’s narrative was well-publicized at the time: She appeared on the Today Show, Oprah, and Phil Donahue. And, more notably, her book was featured prominently on the autism conference circuit, having been lauded by Bernard Rimland, founder of the Autism Society of America (Rimland, ARRI, 1987; 1994). In short, Callahan’s book was roundly praised and served as an ominous forebear for parent narratives of later decades (in particular, Jenny McCarthy’s work).
What’s relevant to our conversation here, however, is Callahan’s graphic and sustained focus on filicide: The first half of her book squarely centers on her desire to murder her two-year-old son. Her descriptions are among the most graphic and premeditated I’ve yet to encounter among parent memoirs — and they are hard to endure, hard to digest and listen to. Nonetheless, I share these details not only so that we might bear witness to abuses that disabled people routinely endure; but I also share these details because, when disability enters the fold, rarely are these violences considered violences. They are understandable, inspirational, and completely unconcerned with the perspectives, feelings, and lives of autistic people.
In her memoir, Callahan’s disaffection toward her son quickly takes on violent imagery. In one such moment of contemplated violence, Callahan describes a family visit to a friend’s ranch in New Mexico. While there, Tony, who is two years old, will not sleep. Callahan doses him with Benadryl, which takes no effect, and Tony screams into the early hours of the night, keeping the entire house — hosts and all — awake. Reaching a breaking point, Callahan writes,
I was so angry that I walked over to the crib and slammed Tony down onto the mattress. He popped up, screaming in my face, without missing a beat. I slammed him down again. I started talking quietly through clenched teeth: ‘You stupid, fucking little brat. Don’t you ever shut up? Don’t you know I can’t stand you anymore?’ (p. 51)
The following night ends up being a replica of the previous one: Tony screams through the night and keeps the entire household awake with him. Callahan’s violence toward her son transposes from verbal outcries to baby-shaking and threats upon her son’s life, as she tells her friend, “[If Tony] keeps us up again tonight, I’ll kill him.” (p. 52) Callahan’s statement about killing her two-year-old son isn’t meant to be taken metaphorically in this context — she means exactly to articulate a kind of murderous desperation, the sort that can only be induced by an entity as relentless as autism. When she and her husband, Rich, later debrief on Tony’s night-time screaming and Callahan’s default role as autism caretaker-slash-supermom, Rich confesses to his own set of homicidal thoughts: He claims that he does not enter Tony’s room, nor does he spank his son, out of fear that he won’t be able to stop himself from beating his child to death (p. 52).
Instead of self-reflecting in horror to her husband’s statements or even her own, Callahan proceeds further in her plotting. Soon, their toddler’s screams become the least of his problems. Tony begins head-banging, severely bruising his face. He resembles, Callahan notes, “a battered angel” (p. 55) — a none-too-subtle allusion to a son she views as already-deceased. Days later, after Tony has a meltdown in the grocery store, Callahan resorts to physical violence as she places her children in the car: “I strapped Tony in just as calmly [as I had done for his sister]. Then I slapped him across the face three times. It felt good to see those red marks on those fat little cheeks. God damn him” (p. 56).
At this point, Callahan comes to the realization that she is escalating. She has gone from privately cursing at her son to publicly beating and berating him. Moreover, her physical abuse has grown calmer, more methodical. What began as unplanned and momentary lapses in judgment have now transformed into measured and collected decisions to injure — even fatally — her son: “Next time I might not stop at slapping him. The next time might be that afternoon” (p. 58). And yet, instead of seeking external help, Callahan resists it, believing that institutionalization would be worse than murdering her son, a point on which her husband Rich agrees. In the midst of their exhaustion, the couple fantasizes about a life without their son:
“I’d rather see him dead than strapped down,” Rich said quietly.
Instead of horror, I felt a slowly growing sense of relief. There was an alternative after all.
“We could kill him.” I was the first to say it.
“We could,” Rich answered, looking down at his hands. “You could get something at work, couldn’t you? An injection of something?”
“Yeah, but it would show up on autopsy. And if the drug didn’t, the needle hole would.”
We sat in silence a while longer.
“He could have an accident, like drowning in the bathtub or something,” Rich said.
“Yeah, that might work. But do you think you could really do it? Do you think you could keep holding him underwater even when he struggled? I don’t know if I could.”
“I could if I had to. I’d just picture him strapped down in a nuthouse and I could do it.”
“We’d go through life knowing we’ve killed our own son.”
“We’d know we did it for him.” (pp. 58-59)
I’m not sure that any language can accurately convey the viciousness of Callahan and her husband’s conversation. Ultimately, Tony “recovers” from autism (i.e., Tony starts imitating neurotypicality well enough to allow his parents to convince themselves he’s not autistic). Consequently, Callahan expresses relief at not needing to kill him — intimating that had Tony remained autistic, she would have done everything in her power to ensure that he no longer remained alive. If we think back to Andrew Wakefield’s videotaped contention that autism represents “no future,” we can see in Callahan’s work a seedling for murder fantasies (and murder realities) yet to come.
It is important to remember that Fighting for Tony is an early biomed book — it represented, in many ways, a proto-Mother Warriors. Ultimately, through biomedical treatments, we are led to believe that Tony has become non-autistic and thus alive and human once again. Callahan is Tony’s savioristic Andrew Wakefield: she has recovered her son, and thus no longer has need to kill him. Callahan claims Tony’s descent into autism was caused by a “cerebral milk allergy” and that Tony’s “miraculous” recovery was facilitated by eliminating milk from his diet.
Though Callahan’s was arguably among the earliest parent memoirs to authorize biomedical views of autism via the figure of autism-as-living death, Callahan was certainly not the first person to claim a causal relation between diet and autism, nor was she the first to conflate autism with living death. A decade before her book, for example, then-ASA president Mary Akerly wrote the preface to a single case study on allergies, fasting, and autism. Authored by an autistic child’s parents and published in the Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia, the authors claimed that their son’s autistic behaviors were the result of numerous atypical allergies to foods and chemical additives (Fields, 1976). Not only were the scientific claims of their child’s allergy-induced autism dubious, but the methods by which they claimed to have tested and treated their child were termed “cruel” and “inhumane” by a number of experts and parents (Hart, 1993). Among other things, the parents in question hospitalized their 12-year-old son and made him fast for five full days. After five days, they began reintroducing foods, one at a time, and then medicated the child to induce purging (supposedly done so as not to “taint” the results from subsequent reintroduced foods). As with Callahan, the parents in question legitimated risking their autistic child’s health and life because autism, to them, posed the worst of all fates.
Shortly after the book’s publication in 1987, Callahan defended her filicidal fantasies, abusive methods, and alarmist representations of her autistic son. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Callahan claimed, “[We] have nothing to be ashamed of…. What we felt was normal” (Gramza, p. G7, 1987).
Were we to fast-forward two (or even three) decades, we would see that these fantasies persist unabated, often transcending fantasy and reaching deadly completion; and, so too do broader, non-autistic audiences reinforce the “normalcy” of wishing one’s autistic child were dead. In 2006, Autism Speaks began actively promoting their newly released documentary, Autism Every Day. Alison Tepper Singer, then-Executive Vice President of Autism Speaks, gained notoriety for her role in this film, which features autistic children screaming and acting violently. In a peak moment, Singer, while in the presence of her autistic daughter, claimed that she had at one point fantasized about driving her child off the George Washington Bridge, but only decided against it because of her other, neurotypical daughter. Present-day, Singer directs the Autism Science Foundation, and has notably never retracted her death-wishing comments — indeed, at many junctures defending the sentiment.
That same year, Harry Slatkin, a board member of Autism Speaks, claimed that he at times hoped his son would drown in their backyard pond, noting, “you wouldn’t want him to suffer like this all his life.” And, in an August 2006 segment on Good Morning America, Autism Every Day producer Lauren Thierry claimed that Singer and Slatkin’s admissions were common feelings among autism parents: “I have heard Alison’s sentiment echoed many, many times, because that is how deep the despair can go, and that is how isolated autism can make a family.”
Autistic people have said a great deal about parental fantasies of murder, much like they have said a great deal on the idea that autism is a living death. Despite the wealth of autistic-authored discourse on autism — spoken, written, signed, gesticulated, ticced, stimmed — non-autistic people continually fail to listen to autistic people. In these parental narratives, autistic children are physically present; their bodies are tangibly and rhetorically made visible through narration and image. And yet, we do not know these autistic people — not because they are autistic and shrouded from communication, but because anything short of “living death” would contradict culturally authorized narratives of autism. We are blight, and ours is a condition meant for “the history books,” to invoke a quote from Autism Speaks.
Caregiver murder fantasies are authorized not only by the autism-as-living-death metaphor, but by a set of intersected oppressions. It is not coincidental that Callahan, McCarthy, Singer, Slatkin, and other highly visible parents-slash-martyrs are white, affluent, and presumably cis/hetero. Autism’s tragedies are inseparable from racist, classist, and hetero/cis/centric values that privilege whiteness, reproduction, and economic mobility.
And so again I ask: What humanity or agency does the autistic possess when hir existence is figured as apocalyptic, as a fate worse than death? It is impossible to center autistic people in any conversation when we are figured as ghosts, husks, corpses, and rot. Our metaphorical living lifelessness takes material form as slow death:
— autistic immigrants and refugees are routinely denied social services — or even entry itself — because autism is so terrible. Autism kills more than children. Autism kills non-autistic people’s checkbooks.
— autistic people are pitted against the broader public health, shown as exemplars of society’s decay — we are what happens when technology goes dystopic (cell phone towers and television cause us!); we are what happens when children receive vaccines (better to die from meningitis than to become autistic!); we are what happens when women are “allowed” to choose their partners (selective mating will kill us all! control the gene pool! bring back the social customs of the 1950s!); we are what happens when transpeople are granted the rights, humanity, and justice due them (transness and autism are correlated! gender-nonconformity will turn children into Neuroqueer Agenda Zombies! hormones! something about hormones and The Children!); we are what happens when institutions are dismantled, when classrooms are de-segregated, when workplaces welcome us (autism rubs off on other people! young children mimic anti-social behavior! autistic people are violent!);
–autistic people are what happens when anything goes wrong. We are a common metaphor in economic theory, psychoanalytic theory, literary theory, cinematic theory, and philosophical theory. Non-autistics are very creative with their invocations of our inner deadness.
— autistic people of color are habitually profiled, arrested, beaten, raped, tortured, secluded, ignored, underserved, imprisoned, and murdered. Racism proffers the lie that autistics of color are doubly (or multiply) dead in their aliveness.
— autistic people who are non-speaking are systemically treated as everything the word vegetable has to offer disabled people. It is autism’s fault, of course, that non-autistic others would think of an autistic person as a vegetable. Why change social structures when you can cut into a vegetable?
— cut, cut, cut.
— how can one injure a corpse?
Popular discourse on autism forwards alarmist logics. More people are becoming autistic; therefore, more people are becoming non-people. Zombies, vegetables, tsunamis, and changelings: When autistic people are positioned as here but not really here, as present but absent, as living while dead, then it is all-too-easy to suggest that murdering us does the whole world a kindness.