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Clara Claiborne Park

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Clara Claiborne Park

Clara Claiborne Park (August 19, 1923 – July 3, 2010) was an American college English teacher and author who was best known for her writings about her experiences raising her autistic daughter, the artist Jessica Park.[1] Her 1967 book, The Siege was credited as one of the first books to allay the blame that parents, especially mothers, were made to feel at having caused their child's autism through their cold detachment.[2]

Clara Justine Claiborne was born on August 19, 1923, in Tarrytown, New York, and graduated from Radcliffe College in 1944. She married physicist David Park in 1945, and they both attended the University of Michigan, where she earned a master's degree in 1949, majoring in English literature. They moved to Massachusetts in 1951, where Park taught at Berkshire Community College and then at Williams College, where she was on the faculty from 1975 to 1994.[2]

Park was driven to write about her daughter's experience with autism, and her book The Siege: The First Eight Years of an Autistic Child was released in 1967, at a time when autism was little understood, and common wisdom based on Bruno Bettelheim's theories attributed responsibility to family pathology, led by the refrigerator mother, a label based on the belief that autistic behaviors are the result of a child closing their conscious self off from extreme family conflict and the emotional frigidity of the child's mother.[3] In the initial edition of the book, Park referred to her daughter under the pseudonym "Elly", out of fear that her daughter would be able to read the book when she was older and would be embarrassed. The book was credited as one of the first to allay the guilt of parents, and with helping to serve as a resource to families and therapists dealing with autism.[2]

In 1968, she signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.[4]

Her 2001 sequel Exiting Nirvana: A Daughter's Life with Autism continued the story of Jessica and the family's progress in dealing with her autism.[2] The New York Times called the 2001 book "a monument to the patience and care that brought Jessy out of her sterile paradise".[5] A review in the Chicago Tribune credited the book with requiring "the reader to wonder about who we are and what enables us to ask such self-aware questions".[6]

Fred R. Volkmar, director of the Yale Child Study Center, credited Park as being "one of the first parents who had the courage to share their story at a time when autism was poorly understood". Bridget A. Taylor of the Alpine Learning Group credited Park's writings for helping parents understand autism and "to have higher expectations for their children" and provided therapists with "an invaluable reading assignment to learn what the experience is like".[2]

Jessica Park, who was first diagnosed with autism at age three, graduated from Mount Greylock Regional High School, where she learned to draw. By the time of her mother's death, Jessica had worked for decades at the mail room at Williams College and painted, and sold, drawings of streetscapes.[2] Jessica had her first solo art exhibit at the Williams College Museum of Art in August 1995.[7]

Park died at a nursing home in Williamstown, Massachusetts at age 86 on July 3, 2010, due to complications from a fall.[5] In addition to Jessica, Park was survived by her husband, David Park, a retired Williams College physics professor, two other daughters, a son (science fiction writer Paul Park), and two grandchildren.[2]

References

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