The first time it happened, he was sitting in the kitchen behind me.
I was at the counter cutting vegetables for dinner when my older son said, “When God talked to me earlier today, before I went to school…”
That’s how he spoke as a child. He was only 11, but his diction was formal, biblical almost, and he habitually attached clauses to make his points more precise. If he heard from God, it would be important to know not only that it was today and that it was early but also that it had occurred before school.
I turned. “What did he say?” I asked. But Andrew was already gone, concentrating on something midair, eyes soft behind the thick lenses of his glasses. “Sweetheart?” Then I fell silent, too, forcing myself not to prod. Andrew has autism, and I’d learned that repeating a question only increased the amount of time he needed for mental processing. Patience — or even just the appearance of it — was the only way to get through.
By the time Andrew emerged from his reverie and began humming again, wagging his pencil back and forth above a rumpled page of history homework, dusk was settling in the room. The air outside had turned dim and coffee-colored. I switched on the overhead light.
“What did he say?” I repeated.
“What did he say?” Andrew muttered, as if this were a puzzle.
I grew itchy waiting this time, which may have had something to do with the light. The gloaming of evening: It was dangerous for me. My mind slowed and things tended to happen or be said before I’d thought them through.
“He said …” — I barely breathed for fear of interrupting my son’s fragile train of thought — “no.”
The word — though small and softly spoken — rang like a bell, echoing through the gloom. No, no, no.
I waited for it to finish before asking, “No what?”
Andrew shrugged, looking for a moment like any boy. “Just no. Because I knew the rest of what he meant.”
He made a hesitant mark on the sheet in front of him but erased it immediately. Maybe God could help you with your homework, I almost said, but I didn’t because Andrew wouldn’t find it funny. Maybe he could explain a few things to me.This was not so much a joke, because there were things I really wanted to know, like why my son’s thought process seemed tangled one moment and profound the next, and why my mostly devoted husband sometimes disappeared on a drinking spree, and what the point of life was anyway.
Then I watched as Andrew wrote an answer on his history sheet. Then another, and a third. I hovered over his shoulder, looking down. France, 26, Petroleum and Coal. I had no idea if these were correct, but they were there on the paper, legible.
I looked at Andrew’s face. But his eyes were closed, as if he were still listening. Classic autism is a disorder of divisions. There is no sense of “I” and “you” as being whole and separate in the world. Either that, or there is a lack of understanding that “I” and “you” are even of the same species, any more similar to each other than, say, a human being and a walrus. I’ve never understood exactly which it is.
The “test” for autism — back when my son was diagnosed, in 1991 — was simple. A child suspected of being autistic would be placed behind a one-way mirror to watch this scene: A little girl in the neighboring room was given a toy and told to put it in one of three baskets. Then she was taken out for a snack. While she was gone (but the test subject still watching) someone entered the room and switched the toy from one basket to another. This question then was posed to the witness: When she returns, where will the girl look first for her toy? A “normal” child would point to the basket where the girl had stowed the item. But an autistic one would choose the basket to which it was transferred after she left, not understanding that even though he knew it had been moved, she did not.
In other words, to know or remember or feel something as an autistic person is not a subjective experience. It is, rather, a matter of fact.
I cannot recall if Andrew ever had the hidden toy test. But throughout his childhood there were a series of meetings, odd questions, games, expert heads nodding. It was clear: My son was, in their lexicon, mind blind — unable to process the “otherness” of people … or the “peopleness” of others. Add to this the evidence that he had problems with both perspective and pronouns when he started speaking again. “The boy is cold,” Andrew might say, when he himself was shivering. “You smell,” he once told me, even as he was pointing to his baby brother whose diaper needed to be changed.
By the time he’d reached adolescence, most of these problems were gone. Andrew had been through speech therapy, where he was trained in pronominal relationships — I, you, he — and I’d spent several years pointing out to him that there were also things he knew that the rest of us didn’t. Square roots, exact latitudes and longitudes, his private thoughts. Tentatively, Andrew began locating himself in the universe, figuring out where he left off and everything else began.
Then this God thing cropped up — an echo, I decided, of all the old problems. Whereas Andrew had learned to differentiate his thoughts from mine or his teacher’s, he didn’t seem to understand where he ended and God began, or which of the two was speaking to the other.
Not that there actually was a God, of course. The daughter of two 1960s intellectuals who had forsaken religion to marry, I knew better. The second time Andrew talked of God, I grew uncomfortable; it smacked of ignorance and foolish hope.
“Where did he hear this nonsense?” I asked my husband as we lay down at night. “It’s not like we’re taking him to some weird church where people speak in tongues.”
He shrugged, shaking the bed. “I don’t know. My parents?”
It was true that my in-laws would sometimes take Andrew with them to Mass on Easter or Christmas. It was beautiful, they argued. And I agreed that Andrew might enjoy the choir and stained glass and twinkling lights. But to my mind, Catholicism was simply theater. It had nothing to do with God. Something else must be going on.
“Do you think this could be a sign of something bad?” I pressed on. “Some sort of delusion or hallucination? I think we should take him to see a psychiatrist.”
“Leave him alone.” My husband’s voice was low, but his words were firm. “If you start taking Andrew to shrinks, they’ll just fuck with his head. Besides, he can do all sorts of other cool stuff. Maybe he really does hear God. Who are we to say?”
This was the sort of crazy that made me love the man, despite his drunken bouts. Autism, my husband insisted, was only a way for other people to quantify what was special — better — about Andrew. Albert Einstein didn’t speak until he was 3; Leonardo da Vinci was eccentric as a child. Our son was destined for greatness, too. Under the cover of darkness, my husband could always make me believe.
Then daylight came and I considered the facts. Moses, the prophet of my once-Jewish father, supposedly saw a burning bush and heard God’s voice telling him to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt. Jesus, the savior of my husband’s youth, is believed by Christians all over the world to have wandered into a temple at the age of 12, where he heard the word of God and began a life of martyrdom. Mohammed, restorer of divine faith according to the world’s Muslims, reportedly grew disenchanted with life in Mecca, retreated to a cave in middle age, and received a series of revelations.
Not a single one of these guys would have passed the hidden toy test, I thought. Each had withdrawn from society in some queer and antisocial way. Yet, they all had followers, while my son was labeled and sent off to special ed.
Andrew spoke of God casually from time to time, as if he were hearing from an old friend. We’d be having a conversation and he would mention what God “wanted.” These pronouncements boiled down to the usual — less killing and war, kindness for all the animals — plus a few very specific requests. Andrew was supposed to eat fewer cookies after dinner. His father should stop drinking so much.
God was smart, I noted, yet nothing changed. My husband did not quit going on benders, and eventually we divorced. I ran out of money, which forced me to pick up my three kids and move where the jobs were. Andrew and his brother and sister were dragged through three school districts; the younger two were resilient, but Andrew grew quieter and fell increasingly behind.
Utterly alone in the tiny Rhode Island village where his siblings both found friends, Andrew was a tall, willowy 15-year-old who spoke only haltingly and lurked behind our rental house, looking toward the woods as if he would find something there. God was no longer making appearances. I tried weekend trips to Vermont and clubs at the YMCA, but Andrew grew more and more remote.
So the following year we moved home to Minnesota, where he would have relatives and old friends to rely on. Also, his father — who had just completed treatment for the second time — was back in the Midwest, too. There was a brief golden period when I was sure Andrew would come back out, becoming again that vacant but confident boy who had once competed in chess tournaments and played two instruments in the junior high school band. Perhaps I imagined that my ex-husband and I could regain the faith we’d shared early on.
But starting his junior year, bad things began happening to Andrew — fast, like something falling that you can watch and don’t have time to catch. First, there was what appeared to be depression. After years of refusing psychiatrists, we finally took him to one who prescribed a drug that caused fatigue and rapid weight gain: 30 pounds in a matter of months. Suddenly, my delicate, ethereal son became a smelly, galumphing creature, uncertain where his body was in space.
There followed a series of bad medical calls, about which I’ve already written. A diagnosis of schizophrenia and two trials of exactly the wrong kind of medication. Andrew changed. Like Mr. Hyde, his features grew contorted; my son, at 18, became frightening and repugnant. Flicking at his cheeks with long, ragged fingernails, swaying the blubbery bulk of his body, eyes narrowed to slits. But occasionally, he broke through.
“I think all the pills are hurting me,” he said one winter night, his pale eyes suddenly wide and lit with panic.
“Why, sweetheart?” I clung to his arm, desperate to hold on to the lucid person who’d appeared, as insubstantial as the Blessed Virgin at Fatima or the ghost of Marley in “A Christmas Carol.” “What makes you think that?”
He leaned in, his yeasty breath warm on my face; I forced myself not to turn away. “God tells me.” Andrew’s tone was confessional. “But Dad says it’s not real and I should try not to listen.”
My ex-husband had, just months before, married a woman who worked in the pharmaceutical industry and treated her massive Physician’s Desk Reference like a holy book. And while I wasn’t looking it seemed he had crossed over to the other side — this man who once did a rain dance with our laughing little boys until the winds changed and thunder rolled in — suddenly preaching reason and medical truth.
Now, when we talked, he was immensely sad but resigned, referring to Andrew as “impaired” and “permanently disabled.” Gone were the comparisons to Einstein and Leonardo. Instead he cited his wife, a woman who insisted only lunatics thought they could communicate with God. Our son clearly had been suffering from psychotic episodes since adolescence, she said, but we had denied him appropriate treatment. Several doctors agreed and my ex went along.
No one else wanted to consult God or talk about his opinion. Except, suddenly, me.
Here’s what I knew: before the doctors got involved, when his father and I had faith in him, Andrew had not been sick. He’d been simply autistic — in mostly charming ways — and had happened, every once in a while, to hear the voice of God.
But after two years of psychiatric treatment, he was deeply afflicted with more than just autism and a case of teenage depression. Muddled, moody, dopey, he was now prone to hearing a variety of voices: the girl he’d hated in second grade, an old lady who had scolded him in a restaurant when he was 12, and the Eagles’ Don Henley. He was mean and unhappy, and God had grown faint.
It seemed clear to me that the first situation was better than the second. So I set about to try to recover it.
I took Andrew home and tried fiercely to believe. If God were actually paying attention, I raged, my wise son would simply awaken and pop out of the stammering Goliath who’d replaced him. A “Red Riding Hood” kind of ending. But it wasn’t that way at all; his progress was, in fact, excruciatingly slow.
Medications like the ones my son was given alter one’s ability to synthesize dopamine, which is, among other things, the pleasure-seeking hormone. The reason patients in the early stages of Parkinson’s have a tendency to abuse substances, gamble, have risky sex, and shop compulsively is that their dopamine production is impaired. Simply put, they’ve lost the brain function necessary to get a thrill.
So Andrew came back from his medical odyssey a junkie, compelled to eat, drink, play, and spend. What’s more, he’d lost two entire years and — due mostly to the untreated catatonia — about ten years of functioning. So he was, essentially, an adolescent locked in a 290-pound body and technically old enough to arrest.
Rather than returning to his sweet, smart childhood self, as I’d hoped, Andrew was driven, compulsive, unstoppable. Nothing I said made any difference. And yet…
There was, after all the other voices had disappeared, still God.
“I heard him in my head,” Andrew told me after he was picked up for shoplifting. “Before I stole the candy bars, God said, ‘Andrew, don’t do this.’”
“But you didn’t listen?” I asked, even though the answer — given that the two of us were standing in the store where he’d been caught and retained and I was now writing out a check — was obvious.
Andrew ducked his head in shame and whispered, “Sadly, I did not.”
Finally, in January, I capitulated and placed my son in a locked treatment home, a bleak place full of fractional people whom society could not accommodate in any other way. Like the asylums in “Dracula” or old Bette Davis films.
For days after, I felt as if I were swimming through a nightmare. My sense of time was off: Everything seemed to be happening a couple seconds faster in the real world than it was in mine. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t write. I couldn’t read, which was the closest thing to total breakdown I could imagine.
I went to a therapist and described my mental state. Perhaps, I said, I was the one who needed antipsychotic drugs. “Oh, no, what you’re experiencing is normal,” she told me. “This is grief. What you need to do is work through this and accept that your son will never be OK.”
One morning, desperate for a different answer, I called Dr. Mark Dever, pastor of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and (according to my Google search) a leading expert on listening to God. I reached him in his office and he listened for full minutes while I described in too much detail the situation.
“I don’t know that you need to differentiate between conscience and hearing the word of God.” Dever said. “I believe it’s a kindness to us that we have this sense that gives us time to correct ourselves. Your son is only trying to live in accordance with the scriptures.”
I was not soothed. But then, as if by some miracle, Andrew began to get better.
The structure and well-trained staff at the group home surely deserve most of the credit. I would arrive to take Andrew out for coffee and he would be neatly groomed, polite, full of thoughts. February brought a few warm days and we walked to Minnehaha Falls. My son stood tall — not swaying — staring into the upside-down spires of the frozen falls, and told me he had begun to write poetry about the way blackness sometimes “crowded” him. He had made friends with the other residents and taught one of them to play chess. After a month, I arranged his transfer to a more cheerful residence where he could enter a day program and maybe even get a part-time job.
That night I fell asleep but awoke a couple of hours later, staring into the night. This is not unusual for me: I often startle around 2 a.m., panicked about inconsequential things. The need to make a dentist appointment, or whether we’re out of butter.
But on this night, I felt something else. Not a presence, exactly, but an amorphous sense of rightness. It was broad and familiar, a little bit brooding.
A stock enlightenment experience, I know. It could have been a dream, I suppose, or the clawing of my frantic mind, creating out of need something similar to the bright white light people see as they begin to die. And it is true that the following day I would go right back to constant worry, living in a sinister place.
But for a few moments, I lay in bliss. Uncertain of where I ended and God began.