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Autism Awareness Month: Maria Mutch on 'Know the Night' (Q&A)

Maria Mutch's 'Know the Night' is available now from Simon & Schuster.

Today, Hartford Books Examiner commemorates Autism Awareness Month with Maria Mutch.

Ms. Mutch is the author of Know the Night: A Memoir of Survival in the Small Hours (Simon & Schuster, $25.00). She was born in Canada and has a degree in visual art. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in, or are forthcoming from, Poets & Writers, Guernica, Necessary Fiction, Fiction Writers Review, Bayou Magazine, and Literary Mama, among others. Ms. Mutch lives with her husband and two sons in Rhode Island.

Know the Night was published last week and has been met with critical acclaim. Booklist called the work “[A] poetic, elegant, and intense account” while Kirkus praised it as “[A] hopeful story … absorbing and creatively rendered.” Further, Lynn Kern Koegel, Ph.D., author of Overcoming Autism, noted, “Mutch details her life in the wee hours of the morning and eloquently draws parallels between the challenges of raising a child with significant disabilities and Byrd’s experiences while utterly alone on his South Pole expedition. This fascinating thought-provoking book provides a unique opportunity to understand the love between a mother and child, and how that bond creates both chaos and strength. It should be required reading for anyone who works with a child with disabilities and recommended reading for everyone else. It is educational, entertaining, and absolutely unique. I guarantee you will enjoy every sentence of this book. Know the Night is such a literary gift.”

From the publisher:

In this soul-stirring debut memoir, Maria Mutch explores the miraculous power that care and communication have in the face of the deep, personal isolation that often comes with disability. A chronicle of the witching hours between midnight and six a.m., this meditative book takes place during the twoyear period in which Mutch’s son Gabriel, who is autistic and also has Down syndrome, rarely slept through the night. In this tapestry composed of interwoven memories, we see both Gabriel’s difficult childhood and Maria’s introduction to the world of multiple disability parenting.

As a counterpoint to Gabriel’s figurative isolation is the story of Admiral Richard Byrd, the polar explorer who journeyed alone into the Antarctic wilderness in the 1930s. His story creates a shared and powerful language for the experience of feeling alone.

In these three characters—mother, son, and explorer—Mutch reveals overlapping and layered themes of solitude that, far from driving us apart, enlighten, uplift, and connect.

Now, Maria Mutch awakens readers to seeing abilities beyond disabilities …

1) Unfolding over the witching hours between midnight and 6:00 am, your literary memoir spans the two-year period when your son, Gabriel, who is both autistic and has Down syndrome, refused to sleep through the night. What was that like for you? Does it feel like a dream now?

It was difficult for the entire family, and I think it must have been especially bewildering to Gabriel. He had been a wonderfully reliable and deep sleeper from birth right up to the age of nine when his sleep disorder suddenly appeared. Until then, we were able to cope with day-to-day challenges because we all slept well. When his sleeping changed so radically, my ability—and I think his also—to recuperate was lost. He became especially hyperactive during that time, and would sometimes shriek and bounce during the night, so it wasn’t only a matter of him being awake, but really needing care also. On my side, being sleep deprived affected my moods and ability to think clearly, and I just didn’t know when the sleeping disorder would end, or if it would. I couldn’t see a way out. Yes, that time period does have a dream-like quality in some ways, because there was an abundance of “magical thinking” due to lack of sleep.

2) Tell us about the role jazz played in the writing of the book and in your real life now? What songs would you and Gabriel choose for a playlist?

After taking Gabriel to hear live jazz one evening, I learned that he really enjoys it, and so he and I attended many performances. It became a way for us to connect, and to relax and have fun in what was otherwise a difficult period. It was also a way of connecting Gabriel to the community. I started researching jazz history and the stories of the musicians themselves and realized that I wanted some of those elements to go into the book, as they form part of Gabriel’s story. We still go to live performances, though not quite as often—and the recession forced some of the jazz venues to close—but we do listen regularly at home.

Gabriel and I both like jazz across the spectrum, some old, some new. A list of favorites would have to include (in no particular order):

Charles Mingus: “Better Git it in Your Soul”

Miles Davis: “Flamenco Sketches”

Thelonious Monk: “Bolivar Blues”

Cannonball Adderley: “Mercy Mercy Mercy”

The Bad Plus: “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”

Madeleine Peyroux: “Careless Love”

Nina Simone: “Feeling Good”

Dizzy Gillespie: “Salt Peanuts”

Ray Charles and Milt Jackson: “The Genius After Hours”

(Local Jazz Guitarist) John Monllos: “Shadows Dance”

3) Did you study sleep or sleep deprivation to write this book?

Not really! Which is funny, considering I did a lot of research on various thought-tangents, including Antarctic exploration, night, jazz, and silence, but not very much along the lines of sleep deprivation. I suppose I didn’t want to venture into a medical analysis of it, and I could see for myself what the effects were and how far reaching. Even though Gabriel has been sleeping well again, I think the effects are still there to some degree. I have become very protective of my sleep now—not much gets in the way of it!

4) How did you discover the Depression-era polar explorer Admiral Richard Byrd and his solo months-long venture to Antarctica that he wrote about in a book aptly titled Alone? What made you decide to write about Gabriel alongside Admiral Byrd’s tale?

I had a general interest in polar exploration when I came across Byrd’s book, which I loved and read a number of times. He was on his second expedition in 1934 with fifty-five men when he left them to be in a hut far away and live alone while taking meteorological data. He lasted four months before requiring rescue because he was suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. During his sojourn, which occurred during the part of the polar year when the sun doesn’t rise, he had a kind of breakdown and even his ability to communicate was altered. So there were many appealing elements to his story that made me want to write about it: the dark and vastness of Antarctica, total isolation, the loss of language and the ability to endure. It’s a great story and helped pull me through, because, after all, he survives. When it came time to start writing Know the Night, I understood that including Byrd would be a way to enlarge the narrative beyond the tiny confines of a mother and her son up at night, and that even though our situation and Admiral Byrd’s situation were highly individual, there is a basic sense of human isolation at the core of both stories.


With thanks to Laura Rossi Totten, President/Director of Publicity, Laura Rossi Public Relations, for generously providing this Q&A for use on HBE.

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