I’m reading a beautiful book right now, recommended to me by my dear friend, the poet Sarah Vap. I trust Sarah’s taste implicitly, especially when it comes to words, so it’s no surprise that though I have just begun reading Bewilderment, I both can’t put it down and already don’t want it to end. (You may know Bewilderment’s author, Richard Powers, as I did, from his 2019’s Pulitzer-Prize winning ode to the genius and majesty of trees, The Overstory.)
Bewilderment’s narrator is single father and scientist Theo, struggling to raise nine-year-old son Robin following the death of his wife Alyssa. Robin, or Robbie, it becomes clear from the start of the book, is…a different kind of kid. Incredibly intelligent, hyper-sensitive, prone to flares of emotion—all of which are heightened by grief. As things stand in the book now, Theo is engaged in a battle with Robbie’s elementary school, which is growing ever-pushier in its “recommendation” that Theo medicate his son into behaving more like everyone else.
However the specifics of Robbie’s story wind up playing out, I recognize and ache for the themes he brings to the page. More and more frequently, I see representation of what we now call neurodivergence in contemporary fiction, plot lines conveyed with an increasing sense of urgency. Of course, neurodivergence is an insanely wide umbrella that contains a huge variety of incidence and expression, much of which science is just beginning to understand. What I find myself specifically drawn to in Robbie’s story, and what resonates in my own lived experience is the fact that the “different” among us, particularly our children, very often refuse to stand for what we have deemed to be the norm in modern society, and instead of viewing their responses as an opportunity for self-reflection or examination, we pathologize their behavior and punish them for their lack of conformity.
Robbie in particular has a heart for animals, which he inherited from his mother, an attorney who lobbied against animal cruelty. When he hears a particularly heart-rending statistic—that only two percent of earth’s remaining animals are wild*—he decides that he will devote his time and energy to painting portraits of endangered species to sell at the Farmers Market, in order to raise money for his mother’s favorite conservation and animal protection causes. He sets to work with fury and intensity, stacking up books from the library and supplies from the art store, laboring all weekend with the kind of concentration and focus that does not come easily to most nine-year-olds. His father is all for it, until, come Monday morning, Robbie refuses to go to school, insisting that his project is much more important than anything he will learn or do there. “[T]here’s no point in school. Everything will be dead before I get to the tenth grade.”
He’s not wrong. I taught school for fifteen years and I can’t imagine anything I did in my classroom being more important than a nine-year-old whose heart beats so wildly with raw compassion for our dying planet that he needs to do something about it right now. Is his sensibility inconvenient? Sure. Does it mess with “the way” of things, as we’ve established them? You bet. But isn’t it going to take some interrupting of the way of things, and a lot of major inconvenience, to fix the mess we’ve made, or to even have a chance? Don’t we need these humans, whose brains seem wired to call us out on our hypocrisy, our talking-out-of-two-sides-of-our-mouth?
A friend shared with me yesterday that when her child’s elementary school performs a lockdown drill, they tell the kids it’s in case an unfriendly dog gets loose inside the school and they need to keep everyone safe so it won’t bite anyone. A biting dog is scary enough to get the kids to take the drill seriously, but not so scary as the truth, which is that we have come to accept as normal the fact that men with weapons may, at any given time, invade our schools, our grocery stores, our sacred spaces, and murder people in cold blood.
This is the normal we’re invested in preserving? I’m not so sure it’s worth holding onto anymore.
There is no shame in admitting we are afraid of letting go, even of a system we know doesn’t really work, or that does tremendous damage. And I do not wish to imply that opting out of the giant matrix is easy, or even possible, for most of us, though I do think there are individual ways that we can each find to practice resisting the pull of the norm. I also think there is power in declaring a different way of seeing aloud, in saying – I do not believe in this. I do not ascribe to this. I call bullshit on this. I will no longer prop this up. After all, you never know who is listening (our children always are), who may feel the same but not have the courage to say so until you speak first.
If we begin in this way, by telling the truth, we may find ourselves working up the gumption to do a few things differently; we may find that we can live with doing other things the same as we always have, only this time choosing them consciously and not half-asleep. At the very least, we will not be fooling ourselves, or lying to our children, telling them that they do not see what they see, that they should not feel what they feel.
I can’t help but think they are our canaries in the coal mine, screaming at us to stop before it is too late.
*I was not able to find documentation to back up this exact statistic, though it does not seem at all implausible based on what I read, including this detail: “Wild mammals and birds collectively account for only 0.38% [of all biomass]— livestock therefore outweighs wild mammals and birds by a factor of ten.”