Blog PostsStoneybrook Revisited: BSC #32 – “Kristy and the Secret of Susan”

In this Very Special Episode of my “Stoneybrook Revisited” series, Kristy Thomas baby-sits a girl with autism. Let’s see how this goes, hmm?

Chapter 1 – Kristy baby-sits her brother and her new adopted sister, Emily Michelle, and then her older brother takes her to the BSC meeting. Claudia and Dawn are the only two there so far, drooling over the Aussies moving in to Mary Anne’s old house. Kristy wonders if “Aussie” is an offensive term (yet she doesn’t have a problem describing Claudia as “exotic.”) We get our first glimpse of Susan, a seven-year-old girl walking down the street with her mother. Except the mother (Mrs. Felder) is leading her, not walking next to her. Susan takes quick, short steps and flaps her hand in front of her face.

Personal connection: My brother doesn’t flap but I’ve worked with other kids with autism who do. He doesn’t take quick, short steps. He tends to walk a few paces, and then walk backwards and re-take those steps because he didn’t do them right the first time. That’s OCD for you.

Chapter 2 – The obligatory introduction chapter. Kristy says she’s “just beginning to be interested in boys” (yeah right) and doesn’t show any passive-aggressive jealousy towards Dawn, so maybe she’s growing.

Chapter 3 – Blah blah, club procedures, blah blah. Mrs. Felder calls and explains about her daughter, Susan, who is autistic. She wants a sitter for her daughter three afternoons a week so she can go run some errands. Kristy says she’ll call Mrs. Felder back. She explains the situation to the other BSC members. None of them know what “autistic” means. Claudia wonders if “autistic” and “retarded” were the same thing. Kristy calls Mrs. Felder back and accepts the job, and Mrs. Felder asks Kristy if she wants to meet Susan before making her final decision.

Personal connection: If this book were written today, I’d call bullshit that none of the baby-sitters even heard the word “autistic” before, but this was written in 1990, so I believe it. Back then, if I told classmates that my brother was autistic, I’d get blank looks. Also, when I read the book as a kid, I was FURIOUS with Claudia for thinking “retarded” and “autistic” were the same thing, even though it’s obvious that she didn’t know any better and was just asking a question.

Chapter 4 –  Kristy feels nervous meeting the Felders and wonders if Jessi felt similarly nervous when she met Matt Braddock, who was Deaf. Kristy had looked up “autism” in the dictionary but found it completely unhelpful. The definition mentioned “withdrawing from reality,” and Kristy thinks she herself withdraws from reality whenever she daydreams, so she finds the definition frustratingly unspecific. She meets Mrs. Felder, who explains that Susan was already “different” when she was very little. Then Kristy meets Susan. Susan paces frantically back and forth in front of the piano, wringing her hands, making clicking noises with her mouth. When Mrs. Felder calls Susan to meet Kristy, Susan comes over and stares at a point above their heads. Kristy says “hi” twice, Susan doesn’t answer, and Mrs. Felder explains that Susan doesn’t talk, but can sing.

Then Mrs. Felder delivers the book’s definitions and FAQs about autism. Susan is “in her own world and doesn’t seem to want to leave it.” She doesn’t like to be touched or hugged. Autism usually shows up by the time a child is three. Susan has no meaningful language, and most autistic kids will probably never be “normal” and will have to live in a group home and work in a sheltered work environment. Kristy thinks Susan’s future looks “bleak.” Mrs. Felder then mentions that Susan is a savant: she can play the piano very well, play any piece of music after hearing it once, and has perfect pitch when she sings. They want to transfer her to a school with a good music program. Susan also has a “calendar in her head,” and can tell you the day of the week of any date you request.

Kristy accepts the job because she finds Susan fascinating, but she also is annoyed by the way her parents treat her like an “outcast” and put her in an away-from-home school, and don’t try to help her make friends. She decides to turn Susan into her next project – prove to her parents that Susan can be in the neighborhood and make friends. Mrs. Felder says that “Susan has no connection to me or anyone” and won’t be upset when she leaves. Kristy stays with Susan and observes the new neighbors, the Hobarts, being teased by neighborhood kids.

Personal connection/reality check: Okay, let’s get this out of the way right now and acknowledge that a parent of an autistic child trusting her daughter to an untrained thirteen-year-old is completely ridiculous. This is a BSC book, though, so just roll with it. Also, Mrs. Felder doesn’t tell Kristy that Susan doesn’t talk until after Kristy tries to say hi to Susan? Way to make your baby-sitter feel dumb, Ma.

Susan’s flapping, clicking, pacing, staring above your head but not AT you, are all behaviors I have seen in children with autism. Not all of them I’ve met have ALL of these traits, but most have at least one. I’ve met kids who have one or two remarkable abilities like Susan. Not all are savants, but if they become obsessed with something, they will learn everything about it and then memorize it. Having the ability to speak but choosing not to, and having no meaningful language, is something I’ve seen a lot. My brother can talk but he won’t have conversations, and mostly uses language to ask for things or repeat favorite dialogue from movies.

The idea that Susan has “no connection to anyone” is one that makes me skeptical. I find it hard to believe that a mother would be that blunt and pessimistic. “No apparent connection” would make more sense to me. My brother often looks like he’s completely in his own world, but there are other times when he’s very aware of us and engages us in his own way. I have seen kids with more severe autism who don’t seem aware of anything or anyone, but I also don’t know them nearly as well and I can’t judge that.

As for the “bleak future,” well, living in a group-assisted home is not a death sentence. Good group homes exist. The book also doesn’t touch Asperger’s or high-functioning autism, but again, this was written in 1990, and I don’t know if high-functioning autism was talked about much back then.

Kristy’s desire to “fix” Susan is, ugh, so wrong, yet perfectly in-character for her. I can’t decide if her plan is outrageously offensive and ignorant, or if I should give her a pass because she is just a thirteen-year-old girl. I’ll keep reading and see how I feel. Damn, 1000+ words and we’re only on Chapter 4. Sigh.

Chapter 5 – Jessi and Mallory baby-sit the other Duggar-Pikes. The Pikes think their new Australian neighbors know all about Crocodile Dundee. Jessi and Mal warn them not to make fun of the Hobarts. Mal reminds them of when their family was teased for being “Spiders” (because there were eight of them), and Jessi mentions that she’s been called a lot worse than “Spider,” and everyone feels awkward. The Pikes decide that name-calling isn’t nice. They meet the Hobarts and Mal falls in looooove with Ben. A couple of neighborhood kids drive by and yell names at the Hobarts. Subplot, schmubplot.

Chapter 6 – BSC meeting. The sitters ask Kristy about Susan. She describes autism as “strange.” Susan has a low I.Q. but it’s not accurate because I.Q. tests don’t mean much for kids with autism. Kristy is amazed by Susan’s abilities and sad that the girl is so isolated. She naively believes that Susan will get better if she stays in the neighborhood and makes friends. The Hobarts call to ask for a sitter and Mal practically jizzes! in! her pants! Jessi says the Hobart kids are isolated like Susan is. They concoct a plan to introduce the Hobarts and Susan to each other.

Personal connection: Kristy’s sadness over Susan’s isolation seems pretty typical for someone who’s just beginning to understand autism. The belief that Susan and the Hobarts will become besties – uh, a little naive. But well-intentioned.

Chapter 7 – Kristy babysits Susan again. Mrs. Felder is having a bad day. Susan won’t leave the piano without struggling (with passive resistance) and she refuses to eat lunch. She encourages Kristy to “pry her away from the piano if you can.” Kristy tries to get Susan’s attention. She calls her name, shouts her name, and then laid her hands on Susan’s. Then she tightened her grip so that Susan couldn’t move her fingers anymore. Kristy swears that Susan “really looked” at her, before her mind went off again. Kristy tries to pull Susan away from the piano several times, then just picks her up and carries her into the kitchen.

Kristy grabs a few snacks and takes Susan to the Hobarts. Susan eats a few cookies. Claire Pike tries to introduce herself to Susan, who keeps flapping and clicking. They try to play games. Susan doesn’t interact. Two bullies stop by and mock the Hobarts. Then one of them cruelly imitates Susan. James Hobart puts his arm around her and says, “Leave her alone! She’s…my mate!” Kristy brags about Susan’s calendar ability and the bullies and the Hobarts test her out with a few dates.

Personal connection/reality check: Sometimes trained professionals at our camp have to use physical restraints on campers who are having fits. However, they do not use physical restraint when a camper’s been playing for the piano for too long. I’m outraged by this part of the chapter. I can’t really be mad at Kristy herself, since Susan’s dumb neglectful mother told her thirteen-year-old untrained babysitter to “pry her away from the piano” and Kristy’s just taking her literally. I’m mad at Mrs. Felder, and Martin for acting like Kristy’s actions were totes appropriate and okay. GRR.

I think it’s totally adorable when James Hobart defends Susan, but when I was a kid, I only knew one definition of the word “mate” and thought he was claiming her as his girlfriend, so I giggled a little. Kristy showing off Susan’s abilities and treating her like a trained monkey is…not as adorable. UGGH I don’t even think Kristy’s intentions are bad here, but is she really that dumb?

Chapter 8 – GODDAMN IT ANOTHER KAREN CHAPTER. The Brewer-Thomas kids watch The Wizard of Oz and Kristy’s mom tells them they have to turn off the TV right after Dorothy leaves Munchkinland, because they are cruel people who make the kids interrupt their viewing of the best movie of all time. Stacey babysits the Brewer-Thomas kids and Kristy comes back early after sitting for Susan. Kristy describes how Susan wouldn’t let Kristy put on her (Susan’s) pajamas and kept screaming. She also wants to make Susan “better.”

Personal connection/reality check: In almost the same breath, Kristy says she thinks she can make Susan fit in with the other kids and be more “normal,” and then describes Susan’s tantrum about putting on her pjs. Yes, Kristy really is that dumb. Stacey warns Kristy not to go overboard, because Stacey is not that dumb.

Chapter 9 – Kristy sits for Susan again. She tries calling Susan’s name and wants to take her away from the piano, but then notices that Susan is smiling and looks really happy for a change, so she decides to let her play. One of the  bullies comes by and fakes an interest in Susan, and Kristy is too stupid to realize that the kid is treating Susan like a circus freak and they have a conversation about Susan in front of her. James Hobart comes by later and asks Susan if she can play. Kristy puts her hands over Susan’s and tightens her grip because she thinks it’s more important for Susan to make friends than play the piano and FUCK YOU KRISTY THOMAS YOU CONTROLLING ASSMUNCH.

Personal connection/reality check: Sorry, I try to save the opinion section for the personal connection/reality check, but that part of the chapter made me want to RAGESMASH my keyboard. Sometimes we have had to use physical restraint on my brother, yes – when he’s extremely aggressive and hitting us, and restraining him is the only way to get him to stop. Not when he is DOING AN ACTIVITY THAT HE ENJOYS AND NOT BOTHERING ANYONE. James Hobart says, “I don’t want her to stop playing if she doesn’t want to,” because he is a decent human being who seems to like Susan for who she is and doesn’t feel the need to “fix” her into something more socially acceptable, KRISTY. And because she’s a completely fucking stupid asshole, she doesn’t take the so-called ex-bully comparing Susan to chickens playing the piano at the circus as the gigantic warning sign that it is.

Chapter 10 – There’s an assembly and Kristy observes the handicapped kids in the front row. She is outraged when she sees sixth-graders in the back row making fun of the other kids. She observes a boy who apparently is autistic and seems to have conversations with his teacher, and she believes that Susan would become as social as this kid Drew if she went to a normal school. Kristy introduces her to the special ed teacher, asks about Drew, and the teacher invites her to come visit their classroom sometime.

Personal connection/reality check: This chapter is another one that makes me FURIOUS. Not because of the bullies who make fun of the kids with disabilities (even though that’s obviously bad). No, because this is how Kristy describes people with Down syndrome: “I read about that in a book. Down’s syndrome people have sort of slanted eyes and flattish faces, and are usually docile, affectionate, and friendly.” Docile? Docile? THEY’RE NOT FUCKING BABY DEER OR ANIMALS, YOU STUPID FUCKFACE. RAAARRRRGH. I HATE YOU AND THIS BOOK. And I have five more chapters to go.

Chapter 11 – Kristy babysits Susan again. The Felders were up all night for several nights in a row because Susan screamed and cried all night and paced the house. They wanted to lock her in her room but couldn’t bring themselves to do it. Kristy gets another visitor and makes Susan open the door. It’s another bully/fake friend. He wants her to do the “calendar trick” for him. Kristy tries to make Susan sit down on the floor. He gives three dates, and then leaves. A girl stops by, gives another few dates, hears Susan do the trick, and then leaves. Susan gets a third visitor, and Kristy still doesn’t suspect anything, by the way. The girl says, “It was really worth it!” and Kristy FINALLY gets a clue. Turns out that Susan’s first visitor was charging admission to “go inside and see the incredible retard who can memorize dates and music. The amazing dumbo who can sing but not talk.” Kristy yells at the kids and curses herself for being so naive, then takes Susan to the Hobarts.

Personal connection/reality check: Kristy, you are an idiot, and the bullies using Susan like that is almost entirely your fault. You encouraged this by treating her like a trained monkey who can do tricks. That is all.

Oh, and the pacing/screaming thing – my brother usually sleeps really well, but he used to have this obsession with the furnace downstairs. He’d turn it off in the middle of the night, and we think he did it because the sound bothered him (he’s very sensitive to sound). Made for some cold nights.

Chapter 12 – Claudia sits for the Hobarts. One of Susan’s bullies stops by and teases the Hobarts. James punches through a wooden crate and scares the bully, but then offers to teach him how to do it and the bully (Zach) accepts the offer. Kristy comes by with Susan and tells Claudia what the other bully did to Susan. Claudia and Kristy are sad that Susan was being used and that she’ll never make friends.

Personal connection/reality check: This is the 12th chapter, page 117, and Claudia is the first person in the book who thinks it might be a bad idea to talk about Susan in front of Susan, as though she isn’t there. She also thinks Susan probably has to be sent away to school because it’s better for her. And Claud’s supposed to be the dumb one.

Chapter 13 – Kristy comes to the Felders not to baby-sit, but to help Mrs. Felder pack Susan’s trunk. Kristy is sad that she failed in her mission to keep Susan in Stoneybrook (because it’s all about her). Mrs. Felder is sad to send Susan away again, though she knows it’s for the best. Kristy is sad because Susan’s room has no “personality,” because Kristy suddenly cares about interior decorating. She asks about what Susan was like as a baby. Mrs. Felder says she was a beautiful baby, alert, advanced, did things early, spoke in sentences, but by two and a half, she had shut down, stopped playing, stopped speaking, wet her pants. Then she became interested in the piano. They “lost her completely” by three and a half. Kristy takes Susan out for a walk and sees James playing with Zach and Jamie Newton (hi, Jamie!) Zach almost makes fun of Susan but James stops him. Then Susan “chose to wet her pants,” and Kristy is embarrassed and takes her home.

Personal connection/reality check: The idea that Susan was an engaging child and then changed and lost her language – very believable. That’s what happened in our family. At the time, it was very upsetting, confusing, emotionally trying.

But Susan did not CHOOSE to wet her pants, you insufferable windbag.

Chapter 14 – Kristy goes to the Felders to see Susan off and meets Mr. Felder for the first time. Kristy admits that she thought she could change Susan. Mr. Felder mentions that he’s optimistic about the new school that could do wonders for her, and what if someday they have a concert pianist on their hands? He also tells her that Mrs. Felder is pregnant and that they’ll name her “Hope,” and Kristy wants to call her “Hopie” and introduce her to baby Laura Perkins and send her to Stoneybrook Elementary. James comes by to say goodbye to Susan and says he’ll miss her. Mrs. Felder cries, and then they drive off to send Susan to school. James feels sorry for Susan and the Felders and wishes she could talk, and he’s excited they’re having another baby.

Personal connection/reality check: I hate so much about what this chapter chooses to be. It starts off promisingly, with Mr. Felder admitting that they tried the “normal” school and found that it didn’t work for Susan, but then it completely sinks with the pregnancy and the “Hope.” Of course it’s “Hope.” “Hope” that their new child is a REAL kid and not a broken retard like Susan, right? FUCK YOU, BOOK. And “Hopie?” “HOPIE?” YOU SUCK SO MUCH, KRISTY THOMAS.

Chapter 15 – Kristy hangs out with Claudia before the meeting. Kristy admits that she has finally, FINALLY realized that the new school is the best place for Susan, and that she can’t give Susan what she needs. She compares Susan to the Hobarts for some reason. Mal and Jessi come in and talk about the Hobarts’ good fortunes lately. Stacey comes in and looks ill, but strangely, the next book in the series is not a “Stacey has a diabetes emergency!” book, so this is not an example of clunky foreshadowing – just Stacey being a little sick. Mal announces the good news that Ben asked her out on a date. Kristy thinks she’d like to teach special ed someday. OH GOD NO.

Final thoughts: This used to be my favorite book in the series. I liked that I was reading a book about a kid with autism at all, and I liked that Kristy realized that she couldn’t “fix” Susan. Now, as an adult? I HATE THIS BOOK. Some of the information is accurate and some facts about autism are OK. But the story is grossly offensive in so many ways. Kristy doesn’t seem to learn much of anything – she tries to fix Susan, and when she can’t, she’s like, “oh, well, you’ll have a new kid and that makes everything okay.” The book’s biggest crime is the way it treats Susan’s autism as a huge fucking tragedy, like she’s doomed to have a miserable life because she can’t be “normal.” No one ever considers that Susan might have a different way of being happy than neurotypical people do. I’m not saying I never feel sad about my brother’s autism and his limited options in life, but for god’s sake, he’s not miserable. The only good thing about this book is James Hobart, who seems to like Susan for who she is.

Toss this one on the fire, folks. Read The Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars instead.

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5 Responses to Stoneybrook Revisited: BSC #32 – “Kristy and the Secret of Susan”

  1. I really hope you will read Inside Out and review it, too.

  2. Heather says:

    Many of Kristy’s bad decisions in this book come down to a lack of understanding, though–a lack of understanding that, as you said, makes sense to a point, given her age and background. It seems like, deep down, she thought that Susan could be like other kids if she was “socialized ” properly. Of course that’s naieve and completly off base, but, as you pointed out, a lot of it is understandable, given the character’s age. What isn’t excusable, though is the way that the text around Kristy treats the issue. Hope? I had forgotten that the new baby’s name was, “Hope.” How heavy-handed and insensitive. I felt a bit slapped in the face when I saw that, and I don’t even have any personal expierence with Autism.

    • Lady T says:

      I forgive Kristy for thinking that she could “fix” Susan, because a) she’s young, b) she doesn’t know any better, and c) isn’t educated enough in autism to know that “fixing” isn’t a solution. I hold her more accountable for not recognizing that the bullies were just pretending to be Susan’s friends, because given her wealth of experience in babysitting, she should know better, or at least a little better than THAT.

  3. The little sister in the book about the family whose dad dies is named Hope and sometimes called Hopie, too. Seems like Ann M. Martin really likes the name Hope.

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