The Scarlet Letter

Sophie Fisher is autistic. Her mother isn't so sure she wants you to know

Then Annabelle was born, and I found myself picking up the phone, begging to teach the class.

I started in the fall of 2001, and quickly teamed up with another mom, Deborah Sussman Susser, who took the class that semester. Deborah is a gifted writer and editor, and we had fun teaching together. We've taught the class ever since. It's a mix of memoir, fiction and poetry, all by moms, often but not always about motherhood. A lot of our students call it therapy, which makes us cringe. Really, it's more like a moms' group for moms who aren't into moms' groups. I don't like that comparison, either, but it's apt. Whatever you call it, I love it. From time to time we run into some truly gifted writers, and every student has amazing stories to tell.

For the most part, I'd always tried to keep Mothers Who Write (the name eventually morphed) separate from my work at New Times. At New Times, I've always said, I can be a bit of a motherfucker. This class lets me be a mom.

Sophie, Amy Silverman's daughter.
Jeanine Cardiello
Sophie, Amy Silverman's daughter.
Kathy Hoffman with her kids, Seth and Ellie.
Martha Strachan
Kathy Hoffman with her kids, Seth and Ellie.

So I wasn't thinking at all about the autism story, the night Cheryl Fisher read her piece about her daughter, Sophie.

Not long ago, I said to a babysitter, "I'm not your typical special-needs mom."

"Well, what is a typical special-needs mom?" she shot back.

Ouch. Point taken. But if there ever was a non-typical special-needs mom, it's Cheryl Fisher. This woman is not a typical anything. She's in-your-face, always with a purpose. Not the most popular girl on the message boards she loves to frequent. Cheryl and her husband John adopted their three children, and while I knew from conversations with Cheryl and previous writing she'd done in class that Madeline, her middle child, has Down syndrome, I didn't know Sophie's or Zach's diagnoses.

I can't remember the assignment that night, but Cheryl's piece, called "Water Through My Fingers," recalled a day when her Sophie, then 5, was out of sorts. Cheryl took her into their favorite nook, a space under Sophie's bunk bed, to read and tell stories. But Sophie grew frustrated, and had a temper tantrum. Not a typical kid's temper tantrum. You can read the entire piece here. Here's an excerpt:

I held my little girl in my lap, struggling to keep her there. She was crying, moaning, banging her head and flaying. She hit me often — and she seemed to like doing that. Soon, I, too, was screaming, crying, pleading. It was useless to change any of this, though. It was like trying to hold water through my fingers . . . I can still feel the bites and bruises. My sympathy for her quickly gave way to self-preservation, but, still, I was unable to let go. We had come so far together, she and I. I barked orders to myself in my head: "She is your daughter. Take it; hold on, squeeze tight, you can do this, you must do this!" My brain was hissing at me. I felt myself loosening my hand-hold on her. I needed to let her to go, to save myself from further hurt, but I could not. I cannot tell you why. In an instant, all I could do was think to read the book that lay beside me. The book was there, I saw an out, and I needed to refocus myself. Maybe I needed to shut down for a change, so I picked up the book and began. She continued to scream, cry, struggle and strain. I pointed at the pages. My husband stood back, helpless, unable to get into the small, tight space under her bed. She and I were present in the moment, each of us doing what was necessary, but neither of us liking it. I wished I was anywhere but where I was — and with anyone else, as well. I was there, however, and everything I held dear was in that moment. It was vital to have her be safe, to keep her here.

As quickly as it started, the tantrum ended, slowing like a dying storm, leaving Cheryl and Sophie back with the book. Cheryl's piece was lovely, very powerful. But as is almost always the case in a writing workshop, there were questions.

The process we follow in Mothers Who Write is simple. The author reads her work aloud, then sits quietly while the others discuss the piece as if she isn't there. Later, she has time to ask questions. One thing I noticed when Cheryl read was that she had not mentioned Sophie's diagnosis.

The conversation went something like this:

"So," I asked the class. "What do you think about the fact that in this piece, we don't know what's 'wrong' with Sophie? Don't you think it would help to know what her diagnosis is, so we have a better understanding, off the bat, of what Cheryl is dealing with?"

Cheryl interrupted. (The students often "cheat" and interrupt; it's hard to be quiet when someone is challenging your work!)

"I can't do that," she said.

"But why?" I asked, oblivious. "You've written about Madeline having Down syndrome; you didn't seem to have any sort of problem with that."

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