A COMPLICATED ROAD

6/30/2010

by Eustacia Purves Cutler ’44

 

When MHS Director of Alumnae Relations Dallas Briney asked me to write an article for the Miss Hall’s magazine, I knew what that meant. My claim to fame these days is as the mother of Temple Grandin, the first person with autism to achieve international rank as an authority on animals. Most people see Temple as a self-created genius sprung like Athena from the head of Zeus, fully armed and all wise. But the mothers of children with autism know it couldn’t be so, and indeed it wasn’t. Together Temple and I have traveled a long complicated road, mine beginning before she was born, with four years at Miss Hall’s during World War II.

 

It was in my sophomore year that the United States finally joined forces with Great Britain. Until then arguments in Current Events Class had raged pro and con. The East Coast girls were for Roosevelt and Lend Lease, the Midwest girls were isolationists. Miss Lyons held our opposing views to a civilized protocol.

 

Then came the shocking news. Miss Margaret herded us into the Living Room to hear Roosevelt declare December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.” Attitude vanished. Churchill’s words took over . . . “we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall never surrender.” From then on, trains ran late and were jammed with soldiers. We rode home with them, sitting on our suitcases, flirting, and trying to smoke with a sophisticated air.

 

In 1944 I graduated from Miss Hall’s and entered Radcliffe—well prepared academically, twelve years old emotionally, and in competition with English Lit. majors so mature, so bright, so articulate, I couldn’t figure out if we’d read the same story. On April 12, 1945, sobbing girls gathered in knots to share the news that Roosevelt was dead. Grief had made us equals.

 

That summer I became engaged to Lt. Richard Grandin, home on leave after fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. In August Truman ordered the bombing of Hiroshima, next Nagasaki, and on September 2 the war was over. We saw the atomic bomb as a miracle. None of us took in the horror.

 

Dick Grandin and I were married in March of 1946, and in August of 1947 our daughter Temple was born. I didn’t think about who she would grow up to be. I myself was still unborn, a late-blooming daylily coming into bud in a sheltered garden where no weedy passions would ever be allowed to take root. And autism—passion gone awry? Who’d heard of such a thing?

 

But passion did go awry. At twenty-one months Temple didn’t gurgle and laugh. She was mute and shrank from my touch. I took her to Children’s Hospital in Boston to Dr. Bronson Caruthers. His assistant doctor said, “Well, she certainly is a very odd little girl, but I think if you play with her in this way.” And she showed me what we now call interactive play.

 

I took Temple home, and we played as she had suggested, but Temple still shrank from me, still didn’t laugh. When laughter finally came, it spewed out of her in wild spasms along with manic spitting. She’d dig into her diapers, grab her feces, play with it, smear it across the nursery wallpaper.

 

Her father was furious. “She belongs in an institution! She’s retarded and you won’t face it!” The assistant doctor was dismissed, and we were turned over to a Viennese psychiatrist. In a sibilant accent that sounded like a war movie Nazi villain, the psychiatrist said, “It is autism. Infant schizophrenia.”

 

To make matters worse, who should come striding into the 1950s zeitgeist via TV, that post war miracle—but Dr. Bruno Bettelheim, the ultimate psychiatrist, “Freud’s genuine heir.” He with his brave life experiences facing the Nazis in Dachau and Buchenwald—he with his blackrimmed spectacles and heavy guttural rumble. Authentic and frightening, Bettelheim announced on coast-to-coast television: “Autism is a psychosis caused by the children’s frigid and unloving mothers.”

 

Temple’s father could now declare both wife and child “unacceptable.”

 

After a night of such fierce weeping I thought I’d strangle on my own tears, I vowed that never again would I cry that hard, that tears were suffocating thought. If Temple was psychotic, and I so mired in sin that there was no way I could please anyone, I’d figure out by myself what was best for Temple, hide my decisions from her father, and listen only to those I trusted. Top of the list was Dr. Caruthers, an old Boston Yankee. Yankees tend to be wary of Freud. “We don’t lie down on couches and tell people our troubles!”

 

Caruthers ordered three EEGs. “First let’s make sure Temple has no retardation, no brain damage, and no epilepsy.” The initial two may have been to back off Temple’s father, but the third EEG put Caruthers far in advance of his time. The neurological connection between epilepsy and autism, the first valid proof that autism was bio-neurological not psycho-social, wouldn’t emerge for another 15 years. Blessedly, Temple passed all three EEGs.

 

Caruthers then prescribed speech lessons. For two years Temple went to Mrs. Reynolds, who shaped her mouth and showed her where to put her tongue. Still shrinking from touch, but desperate to talk, Temple allowed her to do it and, by five, was able to join a regular kindergarten class.

 

The Viennese psychiatrist was amazed, “I do not understand why she got ill. And I do not understand why she is getting well.” Meantime, Chapter Two was heating up, as I was soon to learn from him. “Are you aware,” he said in words as sibilant as ever, “that Mr. Grandin is keeping a notebook on you, that he plans to take you to court to prove that you are insane. I think you better leave your marriage and I think you better leave as quickly as possible . . . I do not like to do it,” he went on, “but I will do it for you. I will testify to your sanity.” On hearing this, Temple’s father backed down, and I was free to go, taking my children with me.

 

Recently a doctor told me, “You were lucky. Given Bettelheim’s authority, if you hadn’t had that doctor, your husband could have declared you an unstable mother, and the court would have awarded him all four of your children.” Fifteen years later the horrid truth emerged: Bettelheim didn’t have the degrees he’d laid claim to. Psychiatry had been taken for a ride.

 

After divorcing Dick Grandin, I returned to Radcliffe for my degree. By then it had become Harvard and I was no longer bewildered by a Kafka story.

 

* * *

 

Today I think of Miss Letha Ann Smith, who taught Physics at Miss Hall’s: “You’re a nice girl,” she said to me one day, “Obedient, respectful, but you never tackle things on your own. There’s a telephone in the lab. You have forty minutes. Take it apart, make me a drawing of it, put it back together, and leave the drawing on my desk.”

 

Wow! Trembling, I stared at this ugly black thing and blanked out. I wanted to weep, but I wanted to please Miss Smith, so there wasn’t time for tears. Then I spotted the screws. Ah! First step. Get the cover off. Once I got it off, I could see how the wires went (phones were simpler then), make a drawing of them, and put the phone back together again. It was no longer a scary black thing, it was just a phone.

 

On the morning after that night of fierce weeping, when it seemed as if there would never be a way to help Temple— or myself—the memory of Miss Smith and my wrestle with the phone found its subliminal way back to me.

 

 

Eustacia Purves Cutler ’44 is the author of A Thorn in My Pocket, Temple Grandin’s Mother Tells the Family Story. She earned a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard University and has had an extensive career as a singer, actress, and writer. Mrs. Cutler currently lectures at autism conferences in the United States, Canada, and Europe. She has four children and five grandchildren.

 

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