A 1991 STUDY OF APPLIED BEHAVIORAL ANALYSIS, OR, AN OPEN LETTER TO DR. LOVAAS
Thou shalt beat him [a child] with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.
— Proverbs 23:14
Dear Dr. Lovaas: I must tell you
about the hot brand embossed
into my sacroiliac skin,
a letter D like my algebra grade
from high school freshman year — or,
D for “dumb”, D for “different”,
the toothless sideways grin
of my Thalia mask.
Maybe it was a comedy,
trying to pour my skinless self
into a “normal” mold:
but the licks of angry tongues
and leather belts
made me try to liquify, solidify,
until I was all Good Christian Girl,
a Goody-Two-Shoes with a warped face
and curved heart — a thing
I vaguely recognized in the mirror.
Truth is, I had the mask
upside down: it was Melpomene’s.
I should have been singing
its goat-song, to match the stinking fur
slapped onto my back
while I, 14 years old, autistic,
ignorant of my stripped fiber optics
and brain wiring like barking sycamores,
was made to dance to Normal in B# Minor
in glass-shard ballet shoes.
Lovaas, you demon, you quack,
maybe you never instructed
my family in your methods
but the outcome is the same:
at 38, my feet still fucking bleed
© 2014 N.I. Nicholson. All Rights Reserved.
(Below are the original notes with published with the poem on my old blog in October 2014.)
This was a poem originally written in August (2014) but just revised today (10/8/14) as I feel it is timely. Sparrow Rose Jones’ blog post about ABA (applied behavioral analysis) inspired me to revise and post this poem. Jones breaks down with clarity and detail about ABA and why it is not only useless to help teach autistic children but why it is damaging and hurtful.
I grew up not knowing I am autistic. I was abused physically, emotionally, and sexually by my family of origin, who insisted that there was “something wrong with me” and I needed to be forced to “act normal”. I see so many parallels between some of the abuse I endured and modern (and even past ABA methods, as evidenced by this 1965 Time Magazine Article describing therapies that are the precursor to ABA — DO NOT READ IF YOU ARE EASILY TRIGGERED!). Dr. Lovaas may not have been instructing my family on how to abuse me, but he helped influence the dominant cultural paradigm which insists on a false sense of “normality” — a state of being that the majority is but minorities are not. Normal is a lie, and no matter whether your difference from the dominant culture is in terms of race, gender, gender identity, neurological state of being, sexual orientation, disability, what have you, if you are different, you are often made to feel as if you must conform.
So this poem, you could say, is my comment on the issue. I was angered and hurt at some comments parents have made on The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism which started this whole debate in the first place — and Jones’ response is brilliant and well thought out. Mine is certainly angrier, but I’m throwing it into the dialogue, for what it’s worth.
This poem, it should be noted, was also generated in my writing towards my final MFA thesis and book of poems. It may be revised and republished, but I hope its essence remains the same. It should get pretty interesting, folks.