I'm here today with Priscilla Gilman. Priscilla is the author of the beautiful and heartfelt memoir The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy from 2011, which was her story of raising her special needs son Benjamin. Priscilla, a New York City native, is a Yale undergrad, masters, and PhD graduate and a former assistant professor of English at both Yale and Vassar. She also worked as a literary agent. She’s published essays in many publications including “The New York Times,” “Redbook,” and “Real Simple,” and is a book critic for “The Boston Globe.” She also speaks frequently at schools and organizations about autism, parenting, education, and the arts. Her second book, The Critic’s Daughter, is coming out mostly likely in 2020. She currently lives in Manhattan with her two sons, ages nineteen and almost sixteen.
I'm here with Priscilla Gilman. Welcome, Priscilla.
Priscilla Gilman: Hello! [laughs]
Zibby: I'm going to jump right in. I have so many questions for you. First of all, how did you remember all the incredibly detailed scenes in The Anti-Romantic Child, quotes and everything that you included? I can't even remember when my fourth kid walked. Everybody's always asking, “When did this person do this?” I have no idea. How did you remember it all? What did you do?
Priscilla: On the one hand, I have amazing memory. I always have. My friends would ask me, “What did I do at that party? What was I wearing?” I would remember exactly what they wore. I do have a photographic memory. It’s interesting. Actually, Benj gets his prodigious memory from me. On the other hand though, I did a lot of writing through the entire experience, not towards a book. I emailed my friends, my mom. I kept a little journal. It wasn’t a physical journal. I kept a little journal on my computer. I would write down notes. Part of the reason I was doing that was to give reports to the speech therapist, to the psychologist, whatever it was. If there was a development with Benj, I would write it down. I kept a list of quotes from him in order to track his language development. It was so incredibly helpful. I had this old computer that had all my Vassar emails on it. I couldn't transfer them. I kept this rickety computer and kept going back and looking up those emails. They were a treasure trove.
Zibby: What inspired you to make this into a memoir? Tell listeners also how the memoir’s shape turned out to be with the narrative weaved in with the poetry.
Priscilla: I have to give utter credit to my literary agent, Tina Bennett, who was my close friend in grad school at Yale. She’s in the book. She's the person who says, “Oh, you're in love with him,” about my first husband. She dropped out of grad school and started working as an agent. She's one of my best friends. We kept in touch. She’d say, “What are you working on? What are you writing about?” I was a romantic poetry specialist. I was giving talks about parenting and the theme of parenting in romantic literature. When Benj was in preschool, I started giving presentations with the director of his preschool to early intervention conferences at school conferences.
I was sending her talks that I had given in these different contexts. She said, “I think you should take these and put them together. You should blend the literature with these talks about early intervention and parenting. I’ll try to sell it as an article.” It was an article for a long time. I worked on it as an article intermittently for about three years. She sent it out to every single viable venue that you could think of that would take a piece. The New Yorker passed. The Paris Review passed. I remember we got down to The American Scholar. They passed. I thought, “This is not going to happen. Whatever. It’s fine.” She said, “You know what? I think this is a book proposal. You need to work on it as a proposal.” It was another year, year and a half, that I worked on it intermittently. At this point, I was working as a literary agent full time, had two little kids. I was divorced. Then we sold it as a book in 2008. It came out in 2011.
Zibby: How long did you spend writing it after that, the actual writing of it?
Priscilla: I took six months off from my job to really get a complete first draft. I turned in the first draft. My editor at HarperCollins said, “You need to add a lot more. You need to write about your marriage.” I basically didn't because I wanted to protect my ex-husband. “You need to write about your childhood.” All the material about my father --
Zibby: -- I loved all that. I'm glad. She gave good advice.
Priscilla: She was wonderful. Claire Montel, thank you. It was supposed to be a fifty-thousand-word book. It ended up being a ninety-thousand-word book.
Zibby: Maybe I didn't frame this right. The book is mostly about -- while it includes your husband and your family -- mostly about coping with and raising a child Benjamin, Benj, who has more special needs including, at the time of the book, hyperlexia sensory disorder, fine motor/gross motor delays, that type of situation. You didn't want to label it as saying he’s autistic or Asperger’s. You said in the book, “Asperger-y,” something like that to make it easier. You say in your essay you wrote for Motherlode in The New York Times in 2013 when Benj, who in the book never gets older than about eight or so --
Priscilla: -- He’s about nine when it ends.
Zibby: When he’s thirteen -- I was voraciously reading this because I'm like, “What happened to this boy?” -- you wrote, “Parenting Benj, a child very different from the one I’d imagined having, has impressed upon me just how important it is to move beyond normative expectations about what our children will or won't be, should or shouldn't do.”
Can you talk, in the beginning, what it was like for you to have a child unlike the one you expected to have, and when and how you realized he had some unique differences?
Priscilla: The subtitle of my book is A Story of Unexpected Joy. I remember when the book came out. I was on MSNBC Live. Thomas Roberts was interviewing me. He said, “The Anti-Romantic Child, you're going to get a lot of flak for that title.” I said, “Well, the subtitle is A Story of Unexpected Joy.” I use images and quotations from romantic poetry about playful, imaginative, spontaneous, affectionate children to talk about how Benj seemed, initially, to be the opposite of this, what I was expecting as a parent, to have a child that wanted to snuggle with me, that wanted to play with me, that was able to cavort around in nature. Benj was so physically, not only frail, but also timid in a way.
The experience, ultimately, was one of growth for me in coming to realize that projecting or expecting something of your children is not going to lead to their most successful and joyful blooming. I really wanted to tune in to who Benj was and not what I thought he was going to be or wanted him to be. Thank you for reminding me of that quote. I like it a lot. It’s very true. It’s become even more true. That was when Benj was thirteen. He’s now nineteen. I know, it’s shocking. The latest piece that I've written about him is a piece that I wrote -- I don't know if you've read this -- I wrote for Slate about Benjamin and David Bowie. That takes him through his high school graduation. He’s been on a gap year for last year.
Zibby: Then he's going to college?
Priscilla: He’s going to Vassar.
Zibby: No way! Oh, my gosh. It came full circle.
Priscilla: Where he went to preschool.
Zibby: That's amazing. Wow. In the interview you mentioned that you did for MSNBC, which I watched which was great, it said that one out of a hundred and ten kids is on the autistic spectrum. For boys, that figure is one out of seventy. Now, you've become a leading autism parenting expert. What does that mean?
For parents out there wondering if their child is on the spectrum or what to do about it, what would you tell them?
Priscilla: Those numbers have actually -- about a month or two ago they released new numbers. It’s even more. The prevalence is even greater. That's, I think, in large part due to more sensitive diagnostic tools and people being less afraid to put the label on their child or accept the label for their child I would say, not put the label on their child. Benj did not get the diagnosis until he was about eleven or twelve. In large part that's because when he was first evaluated at the [indiscernible] Study Center by a wonderful psychologist, she said he’s too emotionally related to get the diagnosis. I thought, “That's fine. He doesn't need the --" You don't need the diagnosis unless it unlocks services. He had such deficits in so many areas that we were getting services for free from the state. That's one of the major reasons why you want to seek out the label is to get services.
One of the things that publishing my book taught me is how important it is for me -- I don't want to shy away from saying Benjamin is autistic. There's nothing wrong with being autistic. There's nothing to fear in that label, I've learned. In fact, I think that autism comes with a host of incredible strengths often for these kids. I feel it’s important, in order to help other families and other kids and also to help Benjamin fully own his identity, to say he does have autism. He is autistic. It’s not a disease. I don't even really like the word “disorder” anymore, maybe condition. It is a disability. He does need special accommodations. He will be getting those at Vassar, which is one of the reasons why he's going to Vassar as opposed to a Yale, which I don't think is quite ready.
Zibby: What's an example of an accommodation he might have to get now?
Priscilla: Being able to take a test in a quiet room that doesn't have distractions around him. He’s guaranteed a single room at Vassar. That's very important. Accommodating to somebody else's schedule and the sensory overload of having somebody play music or come in late -- I think it’s hard to have a roommate for all of us. I remember my own roommate woes. I'm like, “Benj, you're kind of lucky. You're going to get your own room.” Also as a musician, to be able to make his music on his own. Some other accommodations, which he needs less and less, but the ability to have directions read aloud instead of just reading them on the page. He's not necessarily going to get intonation and tone. Those are some of the things that are challenging for him. I do think it’s very important.
What I would say to parents who are concerned that perhaps their child is autistic, I would say there's nothing to fear when someone tells you that they think that your child might be on the spectrum. Any kind of evaluation or diagnosis, what's always helped me is to look at it as a way to understand my child better and get more information about the strategies and the approaches that are going to help my child bloom. It has helped Benjamin too emotionally. I remember he used to say, when he would have a meltdown or be freaking out about something, he would say, “Am I the only kid in the world that feels this way?” One of the things that owning his identity as an autistic person has done for him is that he says, “I know that this is often hard for autistic people, so this is a challenging situation for me. I'm going to bring earplugs with me because it’s hard for me.” It’s given him a sense of solidarity with other people who have autism. It’s given him a sense of feeling less alone, which is really, really important.
I don't know if you know this. I wrote a piece about Christmas and Benj for Real Simple. In the piece it talked about how we love to sing Christmas carols together. We ended up making a Christmas album. We recorded it professionally. One of the reasons that he wanted to do that was he said, “It’s time for me. I want to show my face in Real Simple.” He was in the photograph, which is the first time that he's even done that. I had said to the editor, “I want to protect his privacy.” I always have. Then his therapist said to me, “He might be ready. You should ask him. Give him the option of doing it if he wants to.” He said, “Mom, I'm nervous, but I want people to see my face. I want them to see that I'm happy and that I am not embarrassed or ashamed of being autistic.” We didn't make much from the CD, but the proceeds that we did make we gave to organizations that help autistic teenagers make a successful transition to college or employment. They don't have to go to college. That's another thing that I would say. There's a different path for everybody.
Zibby: Speaking of children's privacy, did you ever get any pushback about how much you were sharing about him at such a young age when he didn't have the wherewithal to say, “Please don't write this?”
Zibby: People give me a hard time, some people, about the random snippets I might include in an article about a kid of mine. I always try to ask them, “What do you think?” My little kids are so little. This is a whole book. It’s beautiful what you did. I just wondered has anyone in your life given you any grief for it?
Priscilla: No one in my private life has given me any grief for it. Absolutely on social media, yeah. When I was doing conversations with editors, when I was deciding which editor I was going to go with for the book, and one of the editors said to me, the first question she asked me was, “Are you worried about how Benjamin is going to react to this?” That, to me, the fact that that was the first thing that came into her mind, it was like, “This is not the right person for this book.” I actually didn't tell him or my younger son that I was writing a book about the family until it was done. I didn't show it to anyone in the family until I had to legally. “I need your mother to sign off on this. Your ex-husband needs to sign off on this.” [laughs]
Zibby: Really, everybody?
Priscilla: Everybody. They gave me a list of the people. Then I had to give it to them. It was so important for to me to write, on the one hand, honestly, and on the other hand, kindly. That's a difficult balance to achieve. I really did, on the one hand, write the book as an act of outrage to other families. I felt incredibly alone. There were no books that I read when I was going through this, or resources. Most of the resources said kids like Benj, eighty percent of them will end up in institutions. They were all about drastically lowering your expectations of what could happen with a child. I had to forge my own way and at each place and each point focus on Benj rather than any generalizations. I really wanted to write a very individual story. On the other hand in my heart of hearts, it’s a love story. I say that on the first page. I hope that anybody who reads this book will understand and appreciate and fall in love with Benj. I see the book always as going ahead of Benj as an act of advocacy for him and a way for people to appreciate and understand and adore him the way I do.
Zibby: It also allows people to adore you. I was reading the book. Wow, look at what a tireless advocate you were for him. Every step of the way with this teacher and this -- I understand that's what we do as parents. It’s just what you do. You have to make sure. It was the nonstop -- like the scenes when you have to sing him to sleep for a half an hour. Oh, my god. I'm reading book after book. Oh, my gosh. If I had to sing on top of it…
Priscilla: The singing for me was really fun. I'm a musical theater girl.
Zibby: It’s just insane that every night that's required for bedtime. Bedtime comes at the worst time of the day. You need the most of every emotional resource when you're the most tired yourself.
Priscilla: It’s funny when people say, “How did you do this? How did you muster the energy?” My mother is a literary agent. My mother’s an incredible advocate. That's what she does. As a professor, when I was a teacher, I didn’t see myself at the time, but looking back at it, I see that I was an advocate for the literature and also an advocate for my students. I've become an advocate for all autistic people, really all children. I consider myself still an advocate for literature. I didn't question it. I was in this mode where I love this kid so much. At every moment I've got to be fighting for him. I've got to teach him how to fight for himself. That was really important.
Zibby: You also did such a beautiful job of writing not only about Benj but about your other son James and how he dealt with that and how you as a parent had to meet both their needs simultaneously even though they were very different boys, as most parent’s kids are, but in particular.
How did you make sure that James wasn’t overlooked, that you balanced it all so well?
Priscilla: I wrote a piece for HuffPost Parents called “Ernie and Bert’s Mother.” You just said, essentially, they're very, very different. It’s really just -- as I think Benjamin is for an individual child -- it’s really just an exaggerated version of what all parents go through. That’s how I saw this as a universal parenting story. We all can look at our kids and say, “How did these two children come from the same set of parents?” It’s crazy how different they are. James actually turned out -- I don't write about it much in this book. I've written about it in some pieces since. He used to say when he was little, “Mommy, when are you going to write a book about me?” He actually turned out to be dyslexic.
I have hyperlexia and dyslexia. I actually literally had two brains that were opposite, diametrically opposed. He also had some social anxiety. He’s very introverted. Benj is actually very extroverted. He’s an autistic extrovert. When he was quiet, it was because he was on sensory overload. Once he got over that, now he’s the life of the party. He loves parties. James is still shy and on the fringes. I’ll often say I feel like I have an inclusive classroom in my apartment. I parent them in very different ways. It’s really about tuning into what each of them needs. They need different tones of voice when they need to be disciplined. Benj responds to clear and loud and aggressive to get his attention. “That is not okay. That needs to stop.” James will get overwhelmed by that. He needs a different approach to that.
The relationship is so moving to me. They're very close now, actually. They’ve worked it out. There's one funny story that says a lot about the relationship. James was with my ex-husband picking Benj up from a psychologist appointment. James must have been six. Benj was nine. The psychologist came out -- this is the same person who evaluated him in the book when he was three -- she said, “Hi, Jamesy. How are you? What's going on?” He said, “I need to say something to you. Benjamin is not being a good brother to me.” Benjamin was aghast. He was horrified. “Oh, no! What am I doing? What can I do better?” They had a whole session where the psychologist mediated between them and said, “James, what do you need more of from Benj?” “I want him to ask how my day was.” It’s now become very natural, second nature to Benj. He would come from school. I would hear this. It would rend my heart. I would hear him going, “Hi, James. How was your day?” [laughs] Now, they're so lovey with each other and so sweet.
Zibby: That's so nice. In the midst of raising Benj and advocating so tirelessly on his behalf, you also went through a divorce yourself from a man that you originally thought was a “safe choice,” but from whom throughout the book, or your life rather, you became increasingly estranged, especially given his own issues. You sort of elude to maybe he had some of these issues himself, but you never said anything like that. You wrote, “I couldn't see any end in sight to this arid, empty, sterile life. I felt my spark, my dynamism, my optimism, draining away. I sensed my own natural sunniness, my bright radiance dimming.”
Priscilla: The bright radiance is a quote from Wordsworth.
Zibby: So beautiful. Be honest. There must have been times throughout this whole thing when you felt a little sorry for yourself. You were going through so much stuff, especially then your father gets so sick. He’s all the way in Japan. I was reading this and thinking, “How much more can this woman take?” How did you cope with this divorce, and the hurdles of the parenting, your dad’s illness, and all of it with only occasional you sitting on the bathroom floor crying moments?
Priscilla: There were those sitting in the bathroom -- or getting in the shower and crying.
Zibby: Sorry, in the shower. That's me. I'm on the bathroom floor. You're in the shower. Everybody has their place.
Priscilla: [laughs] The water masks the crying. I look back at that period now. I do not understand how I got through that. It makes everything that’s come later seem so easy in comparison to that time. There a couple things. I really don't think I ever felt sorry for myself. I had gone through this experience with my ex-husband. When we met, his mother was dying of cancer. She died a year after we got married. We took care of her for a year. She died. She was fifty-four. His father had died of MS six months before we met. He was fifty-four. I always had this feeling that these terrible things have happened to incredible people that I adored. I accepted it that bad things happen to good people. It didn't seem unusual in a way.
The way that I coped with it was to not waste time or energy giving in to “Why me?” or “Woe is me.” I have to get up every morning. I have to do what I need to do today. That was the way that I got through it. I tried not to think long-range. Even with Benj, if I started to think, “Oh, god. What's going to happen when I need to apply to a different school, when the school ends?” Thank god his school then added a middle and high school. I never had to apply again until college. All of those hurdles that you're thinking of, adolescence, oh, my gosh. How am I going to deal with that? I was like, “I need to focus on this here, this month, this week. I can't think too far into the future.” However, Zibby, I'm writing this book now about my father.
Zibby: Tell me about that book.
Priscilla: Writing it, I'm realizing that it probably would've been better if I had cried a little bit more and expressed how overwhelmed I was a little bit more when I was going through all of this. There's a delayed mourning that I've been going through for the past -- writing this book is putting it to rest. It’s basically an exorcism, in a sense, of that grief that I didn't have time to feel or experience. I was getting up in the morning, going to work, parenting with two children that each had special needs. I actually ended up having them both in special schools and suing the DOE to get their tuition reimbursed. I had a file cabinet for each kid. It was pretty crazy. I would advise other people, I should've slowed down a little bit more and allowed myself to feel that sadness and that sense of regret a little bit more. It will out eventually. You can't repress it and suppress it indefinitely. It does have effects.
The book about my father, which Norton is publishing, it’s called The Critic’s Daughter. At this writing, it is called The Critic’s Daughter.
Zibby: I won't hold you to it.
Priscilla: My father, he taught at Yale Drama School. He was a drama critic for Newsweek and The Nation. My parents split up when I was ten. It was an extremely bitter, vicious divorce. I was very, very close to my father. He was the one who shaped my vision of romantic parenting, which you know from The Anti-Romantic Child. If my first book was a book about being a mother, this is a book about being a daughter. It is a book about parenting, I suppose, at the same time. It’s the inverse. It’s the flip side. One of the reasons that I decided to do it was that people really responded to the scenes about my father in my first book.
Zibby: Those were amazing scenes. They were so vivid. I feel like I could see the two of you so well. He seemed amazing.
Priscilla: He was an amazing person, very, very, very complicated. One of the tricky things about this book is acknowledging my father’s dark side and acknowledging my father’s flaws, seeing him whole against the sky to use that phrase that I used from [indiscernible] about Benj. I wanted The Anti-Romantic Child to be a universal parenting story of how none of us get the child that we expect and how you adapt to that. This is a universal story of what it is to be a child and look at your parent. You idealize them. Then the veil is ripped off.
You see them with all their flaws and their weaknesses and their frailties, and in my father’s case, a lot of very dark stuff, and how you come to terms with that and forgive and get back to place of pure love with a more capacious vision of them. It really is similar to Anti-Romantic Child in that sense, that three-act structure of what you expect, what you think, how you idealize, and then the falling away from that, and then coming back in the end and recognizing and affirming what was beautiful and true and pure that's still there in your relationship to the parent that's gone. It’s also a book about grief. It falls into that category of Year of Magical Thinking, The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke. Have you read that?
Priscilla: I love it, so good.
Zibby: That's one of the things about parenting that people don't tell you so much in the beginning, these ideals you have. Having had four kids, at the beginning I felt I had some control over what they became. Now that I've had four, I realize I have maybe five percent of maybe their manners. The bulk of them, that's just who they are.
Priscilla: It so is. I so agree with you. Benjamin, the minute he came out -- people will say this to me when they ask me when did I know that there was something different -- instantly. Instantly, as soon as I held him. I look at the pictures of him in the hospital on the second day where they come in -- I talk in the book about how he had this big hematoma. The photographer comes in to take the [indiscernible] picture. The photographer’s like, “Oh, my gosh,” and pulls the hat down over his head. I look at the picture. He’s a little, intense, mad scientist with a gleam in his eye. Jamesy -- I still call him Jamesy even though he’s James. He’s almost sixteen. He’ll be sixteen in two weeks. He was just this love bug from the minute he came out, but intense and difficult and challenging in his own way. Polar opposite. You can still see, you look at those baby pictures, that is who he is.
Zibby: You just don't know what you're going get. It’s the ultimate mystery. You got to just ride it out the rest of your life. Hope you like it. [laughs]
Priscilla: That's why being a parent -- I always say this. I've recently become a meditation teacher.
Zibby: Oh, that’s right. I wanted to ask you about that.
Priscilla: Meditation is one of the other things that got me through parenting these kids and the difficult time. I started meditating when I was twenty-one. It was my refuge. It was what allowed me to come home from teaching all day to a baby who needed to nurse and a four-year-old autistic kid who is challenging. Being able to go and have those twenty minutes of mediating saved me. I would come back. I would feel some clarity and some ability to get through the night. I often say that parenting has been an incredible practice for me in learning to accept uncertainty, in learning that we have so little control -- you were saying over children -- but we have so little control in general.
You and I are recovered perfectionists and type A’s. We went to the same school that drilled that into us. If you work hard and you keep moving forward, you can accomplish anything. You have so much control over it. Ultimately, so much of life is chance and luck. The best that we can do is learn how to navigate the unexpected and open ourselves to it. Remember that quote from Toni Morrison that I put at the end of the book? “If you surrender to the air, you could ride it,” which is actually from my best Brearley friend’s yearbook page, Benjamin’s godmother.
Zibby: I'm going to be scrolling through the yearbook. It’s so true. Parenting, you're in the ocean on a boat. Let's see where it goes.
Priscilla: Sometimes not even in a boat.
Zibby: Sometimes not even in a boat. Any last-minute parting words to other aspiring writers out there who are trying to do some sort of a memoir about their own family or children?
Priscilla: I spoke earlier about the winding road to becoming a book. It ties into what we were saying about the unexpected. I never thought that I would use my academic training and what I studied and worked on and taught when I was in a professor in a mainstream book. It ended up profoundly shaping that book and informing it. One word of wisdom would be, be true to your individual path and your individual voice. Things in your life and your experience that you might never think would become part of a book, might. Have faith that it’s a long, long road. From the time that I started giving these talks to the time we sold the book as a proposal was four and a half years. Then the book came out three years after that. This book about my father has been germinating in me for ten, fifteen years. As a mother, we have to focus on our children so much of the time. There may be a year where you're not getting that much writing done. It’s okay in the broad scheme of things. You're living. You're experiencing. Everything that you're living and experiencing if you're a memoirist is ultimately going to end up in a piece or a book. That's some words of wisdom that I would give.
Also, just to choose your readers carefully. Remember you were saying before, “Have people given you grief?” As a memoirist people will say, “Aren’t you worried about exposing this person or betraying this person?” Only show your stuff at early stages to people who are not going to make judgements like that, who are going to respond to the work, to help you with craft and/or to help you dig deeper. My agent is my best and first reader. I'm lucky because she’s my close friend and she knows all this. One of my other best friends from Brearley, Jamie Leonhart, who’s an incredible singer/songwriter, she will help steer me towards, “How did this make you feel? You're narrating this, but what's the emotional core of this?” Like the question that you asked, “Didn't you feel sorry for yourself?” That's a really great kind of question. I have another friend who works in advertising and is a brilliant creative director. He is also really, really good at pushing me and saying, “You've narrated a fact, but what's the emotional ramification of that fact? How did you feel in the wake of that?” Ask yourself that. It’s readers who ask good questions and aren’t afraid to push you -- it’s funny because I'm writing about my father as a critic. I am a critic also. I am a book critic for The Boston Globe. It’s a book about criticism also. I always want honest, rigorous feedback. One thing that if you want to be a successful memoirist you need to get over is only wanting thumbs ups and “This is so amazing.” It’s not helpful at all. It’s not helpful.
Zibby: Unless it’s really just that amazing.
Priscilla: [laughs] Even what's that amazing?
Zibby: Thank you so much for coming on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books" and sharing your story with Benj and everything that's come after. I can't wait to read your next book.
Priscilla: Thank you so much for having this wonderful, wonderful podcast. Hopefully we can encourage moms to read more books in the interstices of their days.
Zibby: Thank you.