by Gavin Murphy
You never quite know when to trust your instincts. I look at these photographs and another set of images, unseen for many years, keeps coming back into my head. It is a scene from The Night of the Hunter (1955) when the two children escape in a boat from the monstrous figure of the preacher. As the boat floats down the river, the scene becomes quite fantastical, beginning with a starry night and an eerie lullaby. The boat passes a spider’s web, then an owl, a turtle, rabbits, and finally a fox – all framed large in the foreground with the boat set against a silhouetted landscape. The film is transformed into a Southern Gothic fairytale through this dreamlike theatre. The children are in a realm of their own, their moment of repose framed by the looming figure of the preacher stalking the landscape: ‘Does he ever sleep?’, asks the young boy.
The instinct to retreat to what you know in the face of what you do not know is not necessarily one to be trusted. A challenging story has at its core a request that you, the listener, retain an openness so that judgement is suspended and so allows the possibility that you, as a person, can understand and even change for the better.
To tell a story around autism is fraught with difficulties. For starters, no one really knows what it is yet everyone has an angle on it. Popular culture, from Rain Man (1988) to A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003), puts a positive spin on the disorder. This contrasts with Walter Spitzer’s definition as "a terminal illness... a dead soul in a live body". Spitzer points to a core autism where the person is sealed off from normal loving relations. Both views focus on different ends of the spectrum with the former, while it has been crucial in raising awareness of the condition, less willing to acknowledge a more challenging narrative.
Attitudes towards treatment have also varied widely. Early diagnoses (alarmingly) found fault with the mother. More recent ideas on autism see it as a matter of identity politics where advocates defend the right to a unique way of being. Parents have been criticised from this perspective for focusing on their own grief at having an autistic child. Ian Hacking, by contrast, has talked of the devastating consequences autism can have on the family, preferring a heroic narrative for parents with the love, courage and persistence to guide an autistic child through to adulthood. The point here is that a parent of an autistic child has tricky terrain to navigate and is being challenged (if not judged) on many different levels.
Lorraine Tuck depicts family life as a mother of two daughters and two boys that have Autism, living on a farm in the west of Ireland. This appears to be a matter of striving to attain a balance between tending to the differing needs and demands of sons and daughters, the demands of the working life of a farm, and a need for a self-reflective space to step back and take stock of it all.
The work can also be understood as an intimate perspective on lives with Autism. I find these images capture a deep yearning for calm. Life revolves around the lure of this ideal. I see an image of Manus on a nightwalk drawn towards cows in the barn which might be familiar yet unknowable to him; a source of wonder and calm. I see a self-portrait of Lorraine swamped in medical paperwork gazing beyond to escape an overwhelming bureaucracy. I see two daughters sitting by the riverbank on a walk which was to be their (and their mother’s) respite, its promise dissolving into a boredom and frustration shared between them.
Nature, or our idea of nature, is a constant presence. It emerges as a rich resource for play and exploration. Tuck foregrounds its therapeutic properties. Nature is also a source of livelihood. It is a Fate shaping lives through chance and circumstance. It has a rhythm and cadence we must be attuned to in order to live the good life. These photographs are an heir to traditions stretching from Hesiod to Virgil, Farid Attar to Yoshida Kenko, Thomas Hardy to John McGahern. All have worked these themes into being.
Kamran Nazeer talks of an autistic person’s need for "local coherence". In one photograph Manus beckons me into his world. He is obsessed with opening and closing the door of the washing machine. Action puts his world in focus. I take this as local coherence. I look around the space and see it as a carefully ordered one – the rake to gather hay, the basket to store the riding equipment, the swing of the washing machine door. But I also see it as a realm of utter confusion. Each and every object has a specific purpose I am, for the most part, none the wiser of. A horse’s head emerges from the right-hand side in a manner I expect it to speak. Manus is dressed in a multi-coloured jump suit, a step up from NASA grey. He will be blasted into orbit once the door is closed with him inside. Good luck, Manus.
The image destabilises my world and I compensate in a bid for coherence. I am aware of how I try to order things while the subject of autism is framed. I recognise how this can differ from Tuck who pictures her world by trusting her informed lived experience. This, to me, is an important part of empathy: to understand other lives and other worlds is to recognise the shimmy between sameness and difference, between familiarity and distance. In other words, there is an irreconcilability in empathy worth attending to.
Perhaps this is why the scene from The Night of the Hunter keeps returning to me. It is not that the children escape into a dreamlike realm beyond the adult world. Compelling as this vision is, it is not adequate to picturing the challenges autism brings. It is that the scene pictures a realm of otherness through sheer artifice. Its theatricality is so obvious, so knowingly constructed. Artifice is constructing a world which is always and never out of reach, a world I can only ever try to understand.
The worth of a story rests on the negotiation between listener and teller. The thrill of a story is to be taken somewhere you might never have thought. I look at these photographs and I am returned to a question of what it is to live a fulfilling life. I see a struggle and a resolve bound by a sense of place. It is a simple answer. I am warmed by that. Is this the way it was meant to be?