After Mimi Slavitt’s three-year-old son, Danny, is diagnosed with autism, she finds herself in a world nearly as isolating as her son’s. It is a position she shares only with mothers like herself, women chosen against their will for lives of sacrifice and martyrdom. Searching for miracles, begging for the help of heartless bureaucracies while arranging every minute of every day for children who can never be left alone, they exist in a state of perpetual crisis, normal life always just out of reach.
In chapters told from Mimi’s point of view and theirs, these women emerge as conflicted, complex individuals, totally unsuited for sainthood, often dreaming of the day they can just walk away. Taking its title from the 1950s reality TV show in which the contestants—housewives living lives filled with pain and suffering—competed with one another for deluxe refrigerators and sets of stainless steel silverware, Queen for a Day portrays a group of imperfect women coping under enormous pressure.
In her impressive debut, Rosaler tells their stories in ironic, precise, and vivid prose, with humor and insight born of firsthand experience, and offers readers “the gut-heaving, throat-choking, darkly comic truth—about parenthood, marriage, love, rage, and hard-won survival” (Eileen Pollack, author of The Bible of Dirty Jokes).
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O. J. Simpson had just been acquitted of murder the day Jake and I drove from our apartment in Washington Heights for our first therapy session with Stan Shapiro, and that's what we talked about during the entire forty-five-minute ride down the West Side Highway to his office building in the Bowery. We were going to see Stan out of concern for our son, who was three at the time.
Jake had written a long, ruminative essay about Danny, noting his strengths and weaknesses and every possible sign of pathology he could perceive lurking within him, and he presented this fifteen-page, single-spaced document to Stan during our first visit. As we would learn later, Stan thought Jake's essay was rich in clues to my husband's obsessive and fetishistic personality. But Stan seldom used such terms with us. He preferred "That's nutty," "That's just crazy," and other deliberately casual expressions most likely calculated to get us to lighten up.
After a couple of sessions, Stan managed to convince us that whatever problems Danny might or might not have stemmed from the sorry state of his parents' marriage. It wasn't until many months later that I remembered that this was exactly what Stan had told the woman who had recommended him to me.
I was shopping for groceries one day at Key Food, and Sally, an acquaintance of mine from the neighborhood, and I got to talking about our children. Sally had a little girl who never spoke to anyone but her parents — "selective mutism," I've since learned it's called. Sally told me she had gone to see a therapist, who had helped her a lot. The girl still wasn't talking to anyone but them, but Stan had shown her that her daughter wasn't the problem; rather, she and her husband were the problem. Sally gave me Stan's phone number, which I eagerly scribbled onto Key Food's weekly circular.
It came as no surprise to us to hear that Jake and I were to blame for our son's troubling behaviors. We'd been worried for a long time that we had warped Danny's psyche with our constant fighting. We had been fighting since before he was born; indeed, we had been fighting for almost as long as we had been together, since the sudden mysterious expiration of those first six idyllic months of staying in bed all day, talking late into the night and having sex in unusual places. We fought in public and people would stare at us. Strangers on the street, in the subway, on line at the movies would tell us to shut up. Once we had been kicked out of a restaurant and told never to return. Yet after three years of this, we had gotten married, certain that our love was stronger than our hate. We were like those Marvel comic book characters who can smack each other around with trees and houses and still be ready for the next battle: we could take it.
Of course, we knew it would be unreasonable for us to expect our child to be super, too, and we were horrified and remorseful when it turned out that his arrival in our lives did nothing to stop us. We just couldn't restrain ourselves from demanding justice from each other, and we did so at the top of our lungs, with Danny in his high chair at the kitchen table, with Danny lying in his crib a wall away, with Danny in the backseat of the car, with Danny in our arms.
Once, a year before we started therapy, Jake punched the windshield. A tiny crack, hardly noticeable at first, expanded slowly over a period of days, first into a jagged asterisk, and then, after a week, it turned into a sort of spiderweb twenty inches in diameter; this gradual response of the windshield to the injury that had been inflicted on it seemed like a metaphor for the terrible harm we were doing Danny, who never exhibited any sign of being upset by our fights. Maybe that was why we didn't stop; maybe if he had screamed and shrieked like his parents, or if he had cried or run away in terror, we might have tried harder to stop, but he simply ignored our constant fighting; perhaps because this was what he had known all his life.
Danny, who was two at the time, did not seem to notice the cracks Jake had made in the windshield. He was very quiet. There was an old woman we would run into from time to time, one of the dying breed of old German Jews who used to inhabit Washington Heights; once in the supermarket she had reproached a friend of mine for letting her daughter run up and down the fruit and vegetable aisle. A few years later on Fort Washington Avenue, this same woman, noticing Danny's absolute doll-like stillness in his stroller, had complimented me: "What a well-behaved child," she had said.
It came as a relief to Jake and me to think that Danny's problems could be solved if we could just learn to get along, and we were glad to have someone, a professional who specialized in these matters, step into the ring with us and act as referee.
After each session we would treat ourselves to breakfast at our favorite restaurant, the Kiev, in the East Village. Danny was in nursery school at the time, and eating out together in the middle of the day felt like a healthy, normal thing to be doing; sometimes we thought it was the most effective part of the therapy. Over kielbasa and eggs we would discuss our relationship, but more often, and with much more enthusiasm, we would talk about our relationship with Stan. Jake and I both vied for his approval, and we would have fun debating whom he was being tougher on, and whom he liked more.
In session with him we often felt as though we were playing a subtle and complicated game. It was fun, bantering with Stan, laying all our cute little quirks and oddities out for him to analyze, and although we could never say exactly what it was he was accomplishing with us during those fifty minutes we spent with him each week, we figured that our problems would be taken care of eventually, somehow, someway. We knew that Stan was on the case because he never let us get away with anything. He never took anything we said at face value: he was forcing us to pierce through our illusions about ourselves. We could tell we were getting the real thing and, at the reduced rate he was giving us, more than our money's worth.
It seemed to us that we would get along better on Wednesdays, and we would always have fun going to breakfast at the Kiev afterward, talking about Stan. But on all the days in between, we were fighting as much as ever. Our household was still in a state of chaos, as Stan was so fond of characterizing it, and the level of stress and anxiety was as great as ever. No, it was greater than ever. Something was growing in our emotional lives, something terrible that we couldn't put a name to.
Danny had not spoken until shortly before his second birthday. His language was very primitive for his age, and there was something very odd about the way he used words. He went around the apartment reciting lines from Disney videos and making cryptic comments about them. "Rocks and rocks and gruve." "The candle is afraid of the white clock!" He seemed to be more interested in the speech of machinery than in the speech of human beings. As if preparing for a life spent in conversation with things instead of people, he reproduced, with uncanny accuracy, the sounds made by the blender, the dishwasher, subway trains, exhaust fans, and vacuum cleaners (after going through a period of being terrified of exhaust fans and vacuum cleaners).
We had heard, years ago, that autistic children were fascinated with machines, and the word "autism" would sometimes occur to us. However, we were afraid to speak it. So we just described Danny's noise obsession to Stan and asked, "What do you think that means? Is that a sign of anything?" Stan shrugged and said, "Maybe when he grows up, he'll be a sound engineer." This was the kind of response we had been hoping for.
We would remind ourselves that our own quirks and oddities were numerous, perhaps as numerous as Danny's, so why should we expect our son to be normal? Besides, even if Danny had not spoken until he was two and even if he did speak strangely now, he had a very large vocabulary. He knew what the words "parallelogram," "paradox" and "equidistant" meant. He also had an interest in the aesthetics of language and had a talent with words. He loved making puns. Once, when we were trying to teach him about safety and we asked him if it would be a good idea to dive into an empty swimming pool, he giggled and said, "Then it would be a dying board." He was great with puzzles. He knew his numbers and his alphabet and was beginning to read. We would try to remember Danny's precocities in these areas whenever we worried about him.
Although Stan didn't think it was necessary, we insisted on bringing Danny to one of our early sessions. We were terrified that he might be retarded — another word Jake and I could barely bring ourselves to utter. Stan observed Danny playing with toys and putting together a puzzle. Reminding us that psychological testing was not his specialty, he said that in his casual but professional opinion, Danny's IQ was probably within the normal range.
We had been hoping he would say that. We were at the stage when whoever said "Boys are like that," or "Kids develop at their own pace," or "He reminds me of Jimmy at that age — wild just like that," was our ally. If anyone seemed to think there was something wrong with Danny, we would feel as though he were being attacked.
Shortly before we started seeing Stan, I enrolled Danny in a nursery school a few blocks away from a Starbucks that had just opened up on 102nd Street and Broadway. My plan was to do my copyediting while Danny was in school, with limited commuting time between the school and Starbucks. Although Danny would often have a temper tantrum when I dropped him off, I assumed it was just a sign of the separation anxiety discussed in the books about child-rearing I never had the patience to read. I didn't think much of it until it was time for the seasonal parent-teacher conference in August.
Esther Guy, Danny's teacher, and Pearl Claener, the director of the school, were waiting for me outside the door when I arrived for our early-morning meeting that day. After telling me how adorable my son was, Esther, with a glance at Pearl, excused herself and left.
Pearl sat down behind her big metal desk and I sat in a black wooden chair across from her. I had found that chair in front of a coffee shop on Broadway on my way to pick up Danny one day. The restaurant was in the midst of redecorating and I knew that the school was short on chairs, and together Pearl and I went back to the street to pick up the rest of them.
"Mimi," she said, and after a brief pause, she said that there were a number of problems with Danny's behavior that we needed to talk about. She started tentatively and then the words started pouring out of her so rapidly, I felt as though I were drowning in them.
Danny hardly ever looked anyone in the eye. He ignored the other children. He never answered to his name. He was constantly spinning around in circles — he never got dizzy. He hid in closets. He would often leave the classroom on his own; once he had even left the building. He burrowed himself under the cushions of the sofa. He was always turning the lights on and off. If his teachers scolded him, he would just laugh. It wasn't merely that he flouted authority — he didn't seem to understand that there were such things as rules or that people might get angry if he disobeyed them. He didn't seem to know what anger was.
Pearl said it made her sad to tell me this, but it was clear to her and all the other teachers that Danny required a much higher level of care than anything they could possibly provide. She said I should have him evaluated right away. Testing for developmental disabilities was something that the School District was required by law to do for all children. It wouldn't cost us anything. I had only a vague idea of what the term "developmental disability" meant, but I didn't ask Pearl to define it.
I called Stan as soon as I got home and told him what Pearl had said. Jake and I were afraid, fifty layers of denial ago, of what would happen if some incompetent, literal-minded civil servant tested Danny and put a "label" on him. The label would go into Danny's permanent records, and later on, when his teachers looked at them, they would be prejudiced against him. They would treat him differently. He would be stigmatized.
I asked Stan to call Pearl so that he could hear for himself what she had to say. Four days later he reported back to me that nothing the school's director had told him had given him any cause for concern. When I asked him whether or not he thought we should get Danny tested, as Pearl (who had called me twice since our meeting) kept on urging me to do, he said "there was no hurry." When I asked him if he thought there was anything wrong with Danny, he told me that he "didn't have anything you could pin a label on."
Afterward, whenever Jake and I worried about Danny, we would remind ourselves that according to Stan Danny didn't have "anything you could pin a label on." We didn't have to get Danny tested. So we let the matter rest: Danny didn't have "anything you could pin a label on." That phrase became our mantra and we would repeat it over and over again to ourselves, to each other and to the occasional friend who would try in vain to sound an alarm.
Danny was too wild to be left in the care of any babysitter, so after he was expelled from nursery school, we would bring him to our therapy sessions. It was clear to us that Stan didn't approve of this: it never seemed to sink into him that Danny couldn't be trusted to walk in the city without his hand being held; that he showed no sense that the street and its cars were to be avoided; that if we didn't watch him constantly when we took him to the park, he might try to fly off the top of the monkey bars like a bird, or leave the playground altogether.
My twin sister, who lived near Stan's office, offered to watch Danny for us in her apartment, but Jake and I felt uneasy about leaving him there. Ruth lived on the thirty-first floor and she had a terrace, and that terrace worried us. Danny climbed on everything: the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in our office, the kitchen countertops, the piano — anything that looked as though it might be fun to climb on. We also thought Ruth's terrace would present Danny with a temptation to indulge himself in one of his favorite pastimes: observing the different velocities at which things fell from high places. If we left him alone for a minute, we would often find him throwing books, pencils, paperweights, et cetera, out the windows of our sixth-floor apartment. It was his fascination with gravity. That was what Jake and I told each other.
Danny had no fear of heights, and one of his favorite things to do was to try to squeeze himself through the space between the child guards on the windows. Jake, trying to scare him, would say things like, "Don't you know what would happen if you fell out the window? You would be squashed like a tomato!"
"Like a tomato!" Danny would echo happily. "And you'd be dead," Jake would tell him. "Like a tomato!" Danny would answer. He seemed to consider himself just another object whose fall might be interesting to observe.
We weren't sure that my sister would be as vigilant as she had to be. We doubted that anyone could be vigilant enough. But we were especially worried about leaving Danny with Ruth, whose brain had been damaged by a fall from the monkey bars when she was six. We were identical twins: I was three minutes older, yet I had been more like a mother to her than a sister. In Ruth's opinion, I had done a lousy job of it, just as lousy a job, she often pointed out, as I was now doing with my son.
Ruth felt insulted that Jake and I wouldn't leave Danny in her apartment; nevertheless when we came up with the idea of her watching Danny in the tiny vestibule outside Stan's office during our marriage counseling sessions, she agreed. Whenever we returned to the little vestibule after thrashing it out with Stan in his office, she always made a point of telling me that those fifty minutes Danny had spent in her relaxed presence (as opposed to my anxious, toxic one) had been therapeutic for him. She expected that in time her calming influence would help heal the damage caused by the three-and-a-half years he had spent with me.
It was clear to us that Stan felt we were imposing on him by having Ruth babysit for Danny in his tiny waiting room. No doubt he felt even more imposed upon on days when Ruth was unavailable, and Danny would rush into his office and touch what he had been told not to touch and climb where he had been told not to climb: Stan would observe us in silence as we ran after our son, yelling, "No, Danny, don't do that!" "Danny, stop! Please stop!" "Danny, no! No! No! No!"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Queen for a Day"
Copyright © 2017 Maxine Rosaler.
Excerpted by permission of Delphinium Books, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Story of Annie Sullivan,
Queen for a Day,
This Time Next Year,
The Bike Path,
The Boy Who Lived on a Desert Island,
A Sample Boy,
The Red Cart,