Read on esquire.com
Three months before his third birthday, Ron Suskind’s son Owen stopped speaking. He wouldn’t make eye contact, couldn’t sleep well—he retreated into himself. It was autism. Second opinions, special schools, and speech therapy soon followed. But then, unexpectedly, Suskind and his wife, Cornelia, and their older son, Walter, found a way to reach Owen through Disney movies. The Lion King, The Jungle Book, Hercules, Aladdin—the pantheon of cartoon protagonists whom Owen had watched before he began to recede helped him find his voice again. He would mimic the scripts; his family members would eagerly join the cast.
Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter and former Esquire contributor, recently published a book about his family’s experience, titled Life, Animated. We called him recently to talk about raising a son who came to embody every prospective parent’s worst fear—and whether that fear is warranted at all.
ESQUIRE: How did you and your wife react when you heard the diagnosis of autism?
RON SUSKIND: We first recoiled from it. That was two decades ago, and what most people knew at that time was Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman. So the idea that our son would be like Raymond Babbitt was a shocking reordering of everything. And something we couldn’t quite fathom, really. And of course we realized later that we had quickly demonized that doctor. We called her “the ice queen.” We embraced a kind of early stage of denial: She can’t be right about that! Many years later, a psychiatrist friend of mine said something to us. He said, “Respect denial.” It’s a powerful force.
ESQ: A coping mechanism.
RS: But then it just begins. You don’t actually return to the moment before. You go forward.
ESQ: What changes?
RS: You begin to move with a kind of frantic energy, I suppose. While these processes of denial, rejection, and acceptance are working their way through your psyche, you lunge forward, realizing that you’re on unforeseen terrain. And it begins a process that goes on for twenty years, where you have to dig deep out of necessity. You try to hold on to some notions you might have had before, that this will somehow work out, this is a spell that will lift or be broken. And you need to think about supporting him for the next fifty years, and for thirty years after you’re dead. It’s a very ill moment that hits you—from that, and the anxiety that you pour in from trying to do anything possible to reach him.
ESQ: Did you start to blame yourself?
RS: Once we began to understand that there are genetic foundations to all of it, we started to wonder, you know, who had what disposition. But over the years, you start to let those things go as well. You just say, “What is, is.” You just start living in the moment and enjoying the moments that are there to enjoy, and appreciating them.
ESQ: You view things differently.
RS: You begin to see how arbitrary the line is that we draw between what we call ability and disability. So many of those lines that are drawn, culturally and otherwise, are self-referential, as opposed to maybe more real and fundamental. And then at some point you realize—and I think this happens a bit earlier than it does for traditional parents—how much your children teach you. That’s a big change. And it’s because of the differences that folks with challenges like Owen’s have. The differences in how they are, and what they do, mean that you get taught things that often come at you from unexpected places.
ESQ: What are the unique joys of raising a disabled child?
RS: There are enormous joys that you discover. Owen is what I call a “differently abled” child. I truly believe that. I don’t say that to tip my hat to some PC code of speech. I believe it. Owen works harder to make his way on any given day than I do in any given year. So when his triumphs come, when he manages that step, when he manages to get there, the celebration is extraordinary, and one that you’re blessed to be able to share. You’ve seen that bumper sticker “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Everything is small stuff! And you look around you, and you see so many people sweating the small stuff, and you’re like, What are you thinking here? Appreciate what is right here in front of you! And that’s what you learn. And his older brother, Walter, says it best. He says, “We wouldn’t be who we are if he wasn’t who he is.”
ESQ: What did it change about the way that you raised Walter?
RS: We didn’t have those conversations that happen in a lot of households of people we dearly love, which are “How could you have gotten a C on that paper?” with a tone that speaks disappointment. We were just appreciative of Walter. Not that we weren’t tough on him from time to time—we were. But the joy of just being a parent without any transactional or conditional overlay is something that we discovered with Walt.
ESQ: Many parents-to-be often worry about having a disabled child. What’s the difference between that worry and reality?
RS: I think that there’s a lot of anxiety out there in people wanting their children to be part of the mainstream, to achieve based on the well-worn yardsticks. I started to meditate about the expectations we carry around, fathers and mothers, for our children—wild-eyed ones that you don’t even recognize you have.
ESQ: President of the United States.
RS: He’ll be president. Two sons, they’ll both be presidents after they win their Nobel Prizes. And the daughters, they’ll be prima ballerinas before they become the president of Princeton and start their Internet company. And I just started to think about What’s the conventional load of those expectations you carry around? You have to pull them out one by one and smash them in the corner. You realize the pile is quite high. But in a way, it becomes oddly liberating to do that.
I used to joke around that my mother—who was a tough, ebullient, Brooklyn-raised Jewish woman of the Depression and midcentury—would say, “I won’t love you any less if you’re not a success. I just won’t mention your name to other people.” And I think that is not that unfamiliar. What you can’t expect is how the differently abled child will press you to see the deeper issues. And I do consider them deeper and more abiding, more enduring, and ultimately, at day’s end, more nourishing standards of what constitutes a life of worth. My father died when I was a kid, when I was fourteen. He had cancer—pancreatic, died after about a year—and he wrote a letter to me and my older brother on his deathbed saying, “Do something worthwhile with your life and everything else will work out.” Under the duress of mortality, he had a very clarified view of this idea of worth. And in some ways Owen is also very much an heir of that idea, of living a worthwhile life. And he has helped us see it in ways we couldn’t have expected. Now Walter says, “Some people would call that a blessing in disguise. There’s nothing disguised about it.”
ESQ: It’s out in the open.
RS: It’s there. And we might often not see it. And I think that’s a powerful lesson.