Let's start with the labels. Author Susanne Antonetta is moving "neurodiverse" and "neuroatypical" into the vernacular as she writes of being...
“A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World”
by Susanne Antonetta
Tarcher/Penguin, 243 pp., $24.95
Let’s start with the labels. Author Susanne Antonetta is moving “neurodiverse” and “neuroatypical” into the vernacular as she writes of being a manic depressive, and that is an excellent thing. Oh stop rolling your eyes, this isn’t the political-correctness police at work. Language has power. When The New York Times finally capitalized “Negro” a half-century ago, that was progress. It was a good day when news-wire services called off the brief silliness of adding a parenthetical “who prefers that designation” after each use of “Ms.” before a woman’s name.
“A Mind Apart” is by turns energizing and nettlesome; the author’s self-analysis often brave and sometimes smothering. As Antonetta says, “Hey, out there. It’s a bipolar book.” Her award-winning and elegiac “Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir” (Counterpoint, 2001) made groundbreaking connections between industrial pollution and mental health, but this new work goes deeper into the bramble of Antonetta’s thought processes. I emerged a bit cranky and ruffled but also invigorated from exploring a new landscape.
Noting her 30-plus years of “neurocorrector” medications as a means to “tether me to your world wholly, if you live on the other side of this divide,” Antonetta lays out the best reason to hear her out: “We need to develop new terms of value and of tolerance, especially as medical work in the alteration of the gene makes possible the eradication of our kind.”
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After encountering that early sentence, one might assume that the pages ahead are littered with homiletic land mines, but not so. Antonetta, a poet as well as a talented nonfiction writer, is neither that predictable nor prescriptive. While “Body Toxic” was a powerful indictment of the effects of industrial poisons dumped and sprayed in her childhood New Jersey, “A Mind Apart” digs inward, rather than muckraking.
Much of this shift connects to Antonetta’s fascination with motherhood; she and her husband adopted a baby boy a few years ago. (They live in the Puget Sound region.) “A Mind Apart” is fed by maternal and family energy, whether Antonetta is writing about her son, Jin, or the local murder trial she compulsively attends, of a teenager charged with killing a younger boy.
I confess to mixed feelings about nonfiction authors who dwell on their children when mapping their own psyche. A decision to write about a child, no matter how loving the resulting narrative — and this one is deeply so — declares in some way that the author believes her experiences trump the privacy of the child. I found myself sometimes hurrying through those passages to other Antonetta territory, such as the fascinating state of feeling repelled or fixated by certain words, or the electric emotions brought on by different colors.
At the same time, my shifting comfort levels while reading “A Mind Apart” just emphasize the larger point: As Antonetta knows better than most, there is infinite value in examining one’s own true diversity — that of the mind — with all the genetic, chemical, spiritual and environmental forces that form it, and looking unflinchingly at how it separates us from the rest of the world.