Marga Vicedo’s Intelligent Love: The Story of Clara Park, Her Autistic Daughter, and the Myth of the Refrigerator Mother is a love letter to intellectual mothers. And Vicedo’s warm and astute delivery exemplifies the blending of love and intellect Vicedo discerns in her subject, Clara Park.
The book is centered around Park, whose odyssey of learning to relate to her autistic daughter, Jessy, took her from a psychiatric diagnosis of being a “refrigerator mother,” to a life of authorship and activism, connecting families of autistic children in their search to understand and support their offspring. Vicedo intersperses Park’s compelling biography with a more academic history of the developing science of autism, providing context for Park’s story and a robust intellectual and social history of science that clarifies the stakes of Park’s efforts.
A sophisticated Radcliffe graduate who taught college-level literature courses, Park was a methodical and perceptive observer of human behavior. Park’s fourth child, Jessy, born in 1958, was a happy child with developmental differences that stood out compared with Jessy’s older siblings. Park grew concerned enough to begin taking notes, just in case Jessy’s differences merited medical treatment of some sort.
Park’s venture into the medical system began with a medical and psychological evaluation of Jessy when she was three years old and quickly turned into a nightmare of mother-blame. In the 1950s and 1960s, as Vicedo explains, psychoanalytic theory explained autistic children’s withdrawal and social isolation as a response to cold and overbearing mothering. Theorists coined the term “refrigerator mother” to describe a mother who enveloped her child in cold intellect rather than warm love. This theory had no empirical basis, but as Vicedo’s trenchant first book The Nature and Nurture of Love elucidates, ideas about the centrality of the mother-infant bond to human well-being resonated with Cold War anxieties about the psychological impact of World War II and the prospect for human wellness in the modern age. Scientists and analysts held out hope that good mothering could rescue an alienated world. This extravagant expectation gave mothers great responsibility for the fate of humankind.
With that responsibility, however, did not come respect or a sense of control. Psychoanalytic theory postulated that good mothering was rooted in the unconscious desire of a mother to subsume herself in child care to the exclusion of all other interests. Her love was supposed to instinctively express itself in good parenting. Disturbed or atypical child behavior, without an obvious organic cause, was an indubitable sign of bad mothering, rooted in a conscious or unconscious lack of motherly love.
Park’s physicians saw her note-taking, and her intellectual analysis of Jessy’s behavioral and emotional differences, as clear signs of an intellectual approach that they believed precluded the motherly love that was the critical basis for the mother-infant bond. They labeled her a “refrigerator mother” and prescribed analytic treatment for her, refusing to even look at her notes about Jessy. For Jessy, they had little to offer directly.
The bare facts of this history are enough to leave many of us shaking with anger. This same school of psychoanalysis told women they caused their own miscarriages from an unconscious desire to repudiate motherhood. How much additional damage did these “therapists” do to women who were already struggling? Vicedo takes a light-handed approach, letting the historical actors and the facts speak for themselves. She quotes Park tartly repudiating the diagnosis even as she sought help for Jessy, describing the diagnostic process as “Kafka’s Castle from beginning to end.”
Park’s confidence was bolstered by the fact that she had already raised three neurotypical children. She found one therapist, from Anna Freud’s clinic in England, who provided some useful tips about how to play games with Jessy that would draw her into sustained interactions. And she continued to read all she could find about autism, frustrated that there was so little of practical use for parents and their autistic children.
In 1964, Park devoured a new and innovative book about autism by the psychologist Bernard Rimland, and started down the path of a parent-activist. Rimland, who dove into research on autism to try to understand his autistic son, did not think that parents were to blame for their children’s self-isolation and social disabilities. Rather, he believed, with Park, that parents were best situated to understand and treat their autistic children with appropriate support from counselors and each other. Like Park, he believed that autism was not an illness, but rather a lifelong developmental disability. Park reached out to Rimland, as did other parents of autistic children. The next year, in 1965, a group of them founded the National Society for Autistic Children as a mutual support and advocacy organization, and Park became a grassroots leader.
In 1966, Park published The Siege: The First Eight Years of an Autistic Child, describing her understanding of Jessy and the techniques she had developed to build connections with her to draw her out of her self-imposed isolation. The Siege would become a touchstone, refuge, and guide for families of autistic children across the globe over the following decades. It offered what the psychoanalysts never had: practical tips, empathy for mothers, and reassurance that love and intellect were compatible, complementary, and indeed equally necessary to effectively nurture autistic children.
Park fought, too, for schooling for Jessy and her autistic peers. She and other parents were convinced that autistic children could learn if they were appropriately supported. With the force of new state special education laws behind her, Jessy thrived at school.
Park was an early leader in behavioral therapies for autistic behaviors that were self-harming or made it difficult for Jessy to function – Jessy sometimes screamed and pushed other children, and had fierce tantrums. Many children with autism self-harm in their attempts to self-soothe. In the style of research psychologist B.F. Skinner’s behavioralist approach, Park tried to “Skinner-ize” the tasks Jessy struggled to accomplish, breaking them down into manageable chunks and rewarding Jessy for each chunk she tackled. Vicedo notes that autistic activists have strongly criticized this approach as manipulative and authoritarian, especially as pursued by some of its therapist-advocates, because it used physical punishments. Vicedo acknowledges these critiques, but reminds her readers that the ethics of a therapeutic approach may depend on how it is implemented and not just what it appears to be in theory. She calls for a history of parenting and therapy in practice, as lived by actual parents and their children, not just a history of what “experts” advocated in theory.
In one of my favorite chapters of the book, Vicedo describes how Park and Jessy together created a system of rewards that Jessy enjoyed, both for the aesthetics of the system itself and for the new abilities it ingrained in her. Park and Jessy drew up weekly contracts that included skills Jessy hoped to cultivate and a reward schedule. Jessy, who loved the aesthetics of numbers and calculations, tallied her reward points with a golf clicker. It was a mutually satisfying way to work toward Jessy’s personal development. I identified with it strongly: my own highly intellectual children loved numbers, and quantification and affection regularly intertwined.
Jessy, as with many children of movement leaders, developed her own voice, and she and her mother lectured on autism together. They explained that the subjects she thoroughly enjoyed were not “obsessions,” but “enthusiasms.” Jessy became a visual artist, and her penchant for repeatedly revisiting themes and subjects was a central aspect of her success in a field where this kind of repetition is de rigueur and necessary for artistic development.
Throughout the book, Vicedo’s brilliance as a philosopher of science shines bright. With a light touch, she raises central questions that animate the field. Who counts as a scientist, and what does “doing science” look like? Is it objective? If so, can it also involve emotions such as love? What is “love,” anyway? What does it mean to “know” or “love” another person, or ourselves? Can scientific ways of knowing be a meaningful part of human relationships?
In Vicedo’s hands, Park and Jessy’s story turns into a larger history of psychological science and parable of motherhood. Vicedo lifts up Park’s activism and scholarship, and lays it before us as philosophy. Park and Vicedo posit that cognition and emotion cannot usefully be separated. Jessy is gifted with numbers because she loves them. Park was a penetrating and perceptive observer of Jessy’s behavior because she loved Jessy enough to puzzle over her, to study her, and to experiment with a thousand different ways to reach out to her to make a mutual connection.
Vicedo was fortunate to have been entrusted with an amazingly extensive and intimate archive of letters, personal notes, and medical records. And we are fortunate to have Vicedo as our interpreter. Every mother (and every scientist) who knows in her heart and mind that love and intellect are not separate will find recognition and vindication in Intelligent Love.
- Ziv Eisenberg, “Clear and Pregnant Danger: The Making of Prenatal Psychology in Mid-Twentieth Century America,” Journal of Women’s History 22, no. 3 (2010): 112–35. ↑
- Marga Vicedo, The Story of Clara Park, Her Autistic Daughter, and the Myth of the Refrigerator Mother (Beacon Press, 2021), 72. ↑