I once wrote that one of my favorite series of books as an adolescent was The Babysitters Club. Now, I do not want to take that back. I do not want to unsay it, as I’ve seen biographers unsay loving books ranging from Dickens to Laura Ingalls Wilder, because it is out of fashion to admit to liking a book you liked when you are young. Yet there was one thing I did not like about The Babysitters Club. It was not really the writer’s fault; many people do not understand life through the prism of mental illness or having a high I.Q. In fact, I cannot say that her treatments were the worst. There are people who have done much worse–including my own mother–at trying to understand autism than Kristy and the Secret of Susan or “really, really smart kids” than her portrayal of the nerdy Janine.
Kristy and the Secret of Susan is about Kristy babysitting an autistic girl. In the end, Kristy is forced into the realization that Susan “does not care” about the average children around her, or that her own parents are torn by her disability. Now, I cannot accept that this is really true about autism. I have read Temple Grandin and Donna Sommers– two of the only people who ever “recovered” from autism. Temple Grandin claims not to feel like other people do–but besides dedicating Thinking in Pictures to her mother, she seems to have such a deep love and compassion for animals that I cannot accept that she does not, in some sense, feel just as deeply as a normal person. As for Donna Sommers–from what I have read in Nobody Nowhere and elsewhere, she was tormented by the fact she had autism and was not a “normal” person in how she thought and felt. True, Grandin is able to accept having autism and Sommers has difficulties–there is so much variation–but I do not know that I could ever accept–both from what I’ve said and for reasons I will get into–that autistic people do not “feel,” and are not simply misunderstood.
The other character I wonder about is Janine, the girl of thick glasses and plaid skirts. She is Claudia’s boorish older sister, and she is a “genius,” who Claudia has trouble loving at times, because Claudia is always compared unfavorably with Janine by her parents. Now, I can see how it would hurt to be compared unfavorably with a girl’s older sister for any reason. Yet I doubt that Janine would really rattle on about how it would make more sense to put on a coat that turn up the heat in a house. As a high I.Q. person myself, my trouble as a kid did involve boring other kids to tears with my interests. Yet they tended to be books on Harry Truman (I read David McCullough’s Truman in between the 8th and 9th grades) and Charles Dickens and Charlotte Brontë novels before I got to adulthood. I wrote a paper in the 9th Grade that was read to my class comparing and contrasting the personal working styles of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. I don’t think the other kids enjoyed mine as much as the one about soft balls and lima beans. Yet I was proud it was read. I did not feel like I was a “Janine.”
Yet the real problem was that in life I was both a “Susan” and a “Janine.” I had a high I.Q. but I was mentally ill. My diagnosis at 12 was Major Depression, but my diagnosis as an adult–when the illness had gotten better or worse depending on how a person looked at it–was Bipolar Schizoaffective Order. I have never found the person who understood my illness from my perspective who wasn’t a psychiatrist. I try to tell people, “What it feels like is living inside of a kaleidoscope. I feel like the cut class cuts into my soul, and the images I “hear” (I don’t “see” images but “hear” voices) cause my world to be distorted.” Because I have a High I.Q. and a college degree I am “high functioning” and worked at a mental health club for a while.
I did a good job with the patients, but I believe–ironically–they sometimes felt that they were being measured by my “accomplishments” which were really rather ordinary in the circles I had been in during and after high school. In High School I was in a college prep program for a while for the perverse reason that “good” kids would be less likely to tease me. Yet I know I had friends who didn’t like the fact that I was prone to act like a “bad” kid: telling inappropriate jokes and basically being immature. I didn’t grow up as fast as other kids, though I believe I have grown up by now.
I do not, of course, have autism. I have a friend who I believe has autism. Yet I haven’t a lot of evidence for this belief. He is handsome, and very kind… but so aloof. I don’t believe he will ever fall in love with me, but I believe he has feelings inside that other people don’t notice. Am I a fool? I don’t know. No love relationship since high school has ever cropped up in my life that mattered. Could I be in love with an autistic man? Or do I only project mental illness onto people in my head? I have a “Major Mental Illness” myself…
That is why I take it personally both that writers portray mental illness and high I.Q.’s “right” for all that I know it is not an easy thing to do. Susan is not simply a little ice cube. Janine is not simply a nerd. I’m not saying I give up on The Babysitters Club or that people should stop reading those books. I am saying that authors in the future should try to have renewed interest in special needs and high I.Q. kids–kids who may not be able to help that they are “different.” For all that the stigma is not as great as kids’ issues are themselves, the kids in question need understanding from their parents, their teachers–and their peers.