The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius
Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Parenting & Families; Disabilities; Education
Synopsis: Barnett tells about raising her autistic genius son.
Date finished: 27 May 2013
I had a feeling I’d enjoy this book, but I had no idea how much. The story of young Jake is told with humility, humor, and grace. I was concerned early on that the writing would be flat and un-engaging (a “tell” rather than a “show”) but things picked up, and the writing improved.
Even though I vetted this book, I was caught off guard that Jake was an autistic genius. I had somehow skated right over the whole autistic element. I tend to stay away from books where disease and disability play too large a part, but I’m glad I started this with an open mind. I was richly rewarded.
Jake is diagnosed with autism as a toddler, and gradually, he begins to recede from family life and human interaction and into himself. Barnett, a day care teacher, sees this happening, and when Jake’s schoolteacher tells her to let go of her expectations for Jake, she knows it’s up to her to reach Jake before he’s gone forever.
And she does.
And then, he flourishes beyond anyone’s expectations, teaching himself higher math and physics by working out answers to his own questions. By the time he’s midway through elementary school, he’s developing original theories in physics that, if proved, will put him in line for the Nobel Prize. Barnett realizes that at the time he was slipping away from them—nonverbal, nonsocial—he was really working.
It’s hard for me to decide which character I like more—Jake or his mom. I think I might go with his mother. All along the way, with limited knowledge and resources, she was able and willing to figure out what Jake needed—and to get it for him. This was inspiring and relatable. In the conclusion, Barnett sums up her parenting this way, “If I had stopped and let myself bask in the awe of Jake’s amazing abilities—if I had stopped to ponder how unusual he really is—I don’t think I could have been a good mother to him.” (page 238)
Throughout the book, I found myself thinking about the definition of “normal.” Perhaps the mind that is capable of working out the problems of the universe, even at the expense of human interactions, is a “higher” mind than the one that esteems balancing the two. If you rise above the human relationship in an exceptional way, is human relationship necessary?
I also found myself somewhat frightened by the thought of a limitless mind. Those of us who have “normal” brain functioning are taught that while we can continue to learn, we will reach a ceiling on how high our minds can go. We accept that there is a cap on our ability to comprehend information and develop new ideas. This is so engrained in us that the thought of unlimited ability is scary.
The humor in the book was a refreshing respite from heavy thoughts:
[Jake’s] favorite book in first grade was a GED preparation manual. (page 119)
When Jake started to realize how unusual these behaviors were, he became a little more self-conscious about them. “Okay, that was kind of a two hundred forty-six toothpicks,” he’d say with a chuckle, referring to the iconic scene in the movie Rain Man. (page 130)
The book is an astounding look into the mind of an autistic genius and an ordinary mother who humbly advocates for him to get the stimulation he needs while making sure he has the childhood he deserves. I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in questions of the capability of the human mind, or anyone needing a redeeming book about a good family living through an extraordinary situation. This could become a great movie.
Would you recommend this to a friend?
Wholeheartedly. This is a story about humanity, about potential, about love, about triumph.