Is the “warrior mother” not—as proclaimed in the Warrior Mothers book put together by Jenny McCarthy—the opposite of the “refrigerator mother” of the previous generation, but rather her “distorted mirror image”? So argues Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick, author of another new book, Defeating Autism: A Damaging Delusion, argues in yesterday’s Spiked. As Fitzpatrick writes in his essay, The ghost of the ‘refrigerator mother’,
The ‘warrior mom’ is yet another reflection of the culture of mother-blaming and a manifestation of the burden of guilt carried by parents as a result of the influence of pseudoscientific speculations about the causes of autism……
A number of common themes link McCarthy’s ‘warrior moms’ with the spectre of the ‘refrigerator mother’ popularised by the child psychotherapist and author Bruno Bettelheim and others in the 1950s and 1960s. First, there is a common belief that autism has some environmental cause. Then it was toxic parents; today it is alleged environmental toxins (such as vaccines containing traces of mercury or MMR) to which parents have exposed their children. These theories also have the common features that they are entirely speculative and lacking in scientific support.
Second, both concepts are linked to ‘conversion narratives’, quasi-religious experiences of personal transformation or redemption with deep roots in evangelical Christianity (see James T Fisher’s piece ‘No Search, No Subject? Autism and the American Conversion Narrative’, in Mark Osteen’s collection of essays, Autism and Representation). Then, cure was achieved through the intervention of a charismatic psychotherapist. Today, recovery is also the result of the ministry of another charismatic therapist, in the form of a DAN! practitioner prescribing biomedical therapies.
What links warrior mother and refrigerator mother is “feelings of guilt, anger and blame.” Besides the essay by Fisher (regularly referred to on this blog as Jim, my husband and a cultural historian in New York), Fitzpatrick also refers to another essay in Osteen’s collection, by University of Leeds professor Stuart Murray. Murray has written about the representation, and misrepresentation of autism, in contemporary culture in a recently published book. As Fitzpatrick notes:
Reflecting on the ‘outlandish, offensive misrepresentation of autism’ in Bruce Beresford’s Silent Fall and other films, Murray concludes that ‘overall, it is debatable how much progress has been made in cinematic depictions of autism since the foundational success of Rain Man’.
For Murray, there is a danger that ‘autism as metaphor’ floats free from the condition itself and the concept becomes so diffuse as to be meaningless. He links this metaphoric inflation of autism to the quest for environmental causes and the popular resonance of speculative notions such as that of an autism epidemic attributable to vaccines: ‘Possibly what unites all these scenarios is an idea of toxins, of the problem being some form of poison, be it physical and somatic or environmental.’ As he presciently observes, ‘at times, we seem to worry that we cause autism by living the wrong way’.
That we cause autism by living the wrong way. Is this sentiment not floating in the thoughts of parents who demand their right to choose vaccination for their children or not? Behind the green “Too Good” line of household cleaning products etc. that McCarthy has announced she is launching? Once, parents (and mothers in particular) were blamed for causing autism in their children because they (it was claimed) withheld their emotions from their children and in effect starved them of the opportunity for emotional attachment and development. Now, parents rather clamor to withhold vaccines from their children, in the misguided belief that doing so is for the sake and safety of their children; that they can do nothing less than to protect their children from the dreaded toxins in the environment—-the environment not being the emotionally frigid home environment caused by Bettelheim’s bad mothers, but the environment “out there” of polluted, woefully de-greened rocks and stones and trees?
By this account, McCarthy’s self-proclaimed transformation from MTV-starlet into anti-MMR/mercury/etc. advocate—a veritable “mission from God” as she herself has said—is not simply superficial, but “quasi” all the way. It’s a quasi-religious conversion, and, too, a quasi-conversion that still features reports of a stripper, er, autism pole and some reordering of the facts to allow for a proper Hollywoodish ending. In Jenny McCarthy’s book(s), her child has to “recover” from autism. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have a book.
Or, she might have to end her book with the kind of endings noted in another book that Fitzpatrick cites, Families of Adults with Autism: Stories and Advice for the Next Generation. As he notes,
A striking contrast is immediately apparent between these stories and those in the Warrior Mothers collection: whereas McCarthy focuses on tales of ‘recovery’ in young children, none of the accounts in Families of Adults with Autism tells of a diagnosis of autism ‘lost’ or withdrawn. Indeed, none of these adults is living independently and some accounts describe major enduring problems of self-injury or other challenging behaviours. This may be a result of selection – these stories largely come from parents of adults with high levels of need. It may also be a result of the inaccurate reporting of ‘recovery’ in the McCarthy cases. It is also striking that, although many of the contributors pay tribute to Rimland’s role as a campaigner, few give more than a token acknowledgement to the benefits of his biomedical treatments (such as Vitamin B6 and Magnesium, Dimethylglycine and Secretin) and none claims that such interventions have resulted in ‘recovery’.
All this is all the more notable because one of the editors of Families of Adults with Autism: Stories and Advice for the Next Generation is Jane Johnson, the Executive Director of Defeat Autism Now. She writes on the Defeat Autism Now website:
…..thanks to the insights and tenacity of the parents, and the determination, professionalism, and open-mindedness of our researchers and clinicians, we can say unequivocally at every Defeat Autism Now!® Conference: Autism is Treatable. Recovery is Possible! We know this to be true.
That “autism is treatable,” that “recovery is possible”: These are strong and fervently held beliefs by some practitioners and parents who, like McCarthy, have turned the story of their autistic child into a personal narrative of self-redemption. So long as the story of autism is told through the eyes of a parent in need of a conversion—of saving herself as much and even more than saving her child—so will the “ghost of the refrigerator mother” still haunt, and no “angry mob” of warrior moms will quite be able to banish her away.