Drowning sorrows

Jem Lester: Shtum.
Orion 2017 (2016)

For many of us life already makes huge demands — relationships, health and wellbeing, financial concerns, managing a work-life balance — but when you have a dependent with severe autism those demands are compounded, and can bring one close to breaking point. However much love is given out. Jem Lester’s Shtum is about a man in just such a position; but while it is drawn largely on the author’s own experiences bringing up a son on the autistic spectrum it is nevertheless fiction. Still, autism runs as a major strand throughout. Shtum is also about how its manifestation here fits into a bigger picture involving individuals, institutions and collective responses.

Ben and Emma’s son Jonah is the ten-year-old with a particularly debilitating form of the neurological and developmental disorder: he is non-verbal, incontinent, subject to rages and violent when frustrated, he exhibits self-stimulatory repetitive behaviours, tolerates a limited number of foods, suffers from sensory overload and is a danger to himself unless supervised. He has good support at his primary school but is about to transfer to secondary provision, and Shtum documents the difficulties surrounding that transition.

The first-person narrator is Ben Jewell, through whom we view everything in a blow-by-blow account, from reported speech and official letters to a handwritten document describing events in the 1930s and 40s.  Emma suggests that a temporary marital separation is a way of ensuring that Jonah is given more consideration, thus according him the full-time care he needs at an expensive specialist school, all to be funded by a cash-strapped local authority. On the periphery, but increasingly to the fore, are Ben’s best friend Johnny and Ben’s father George, along with Georg’s old friend Maurice. Into this mix Ben’s alcoholism, tobacco addiction, self-loathing and penchant for self-sabotage collectively threatens to be the charge leading to an almighty explosion. Were it not for his fierce love and concern for Jonah it’d be hard to feel much sympathy or liking for him as he blindly flails his way through a good half or more of the book.

‘Shtum’ is the Yiddish word for staying quiet, and clearly this refers to a number of issues explored in this novel. First and foremost we have Jonah who has severe problems around social communication and interaction, relying on the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) to indicate his wants when not otherwise going into meltdown. Then there is Ben himself who drowns his sorrows in preference to communicating clearly and rationally, even with himself. Emma too has secrets of her own which she shares with neither Ben nor work. The local authority aren’t transparent when claiming their plans for Jonah are educationally sound when in fact it’s all about financial costs. And finally, Ben’s father Georg is shtum about his family history in Hungary as well as his own personal health, giving rise to huge anxieties and misunderstandings for his son.

I see many of the names, especially the Jewish ones, as significant in the story. Jonah’s is the most obvious: famous for being thrown overboard, the Old Testament prophet shares with Jonah Jewell an association with water (baths in the case of the ten-year-old) and with feathers (Jonah means ‘dove’). Georg of course had a David-and-Jonathan relationship with his own brother Jonatan back in Hungary before and during the war. And Benjamin Jewell, I’m sure, must feel so dissimilar to his namesake in the Bible, described as the favourite of his father and beloved by God, as Ben thinks Georg despises him and that his own life is somehow cursed — though he is for the most part mistaken.

As I read this I was initially frustrated, but then ultimately uplifted by the final chapters of Shtum. While Jem Lester has put a lot of himself into the novel, the character of Ben Jewell is in no real sense the alter ego of the author. Not wanting to write a misery memoir he settled for a humorous fictional take on aspects of his experiences bringing up an autistic child. Unlike Ben, Jem doesn’t come across as a potential loser — among other things he was a journalist and, for nearly a decade, taught English and Media studies at secondary schools — but the daily grind of routines with Jonah and the trials of preparing for a tribunal ring true for being based solidly on fact. Georg’s back story in Hungary during the war will also have reflected what we know about Nazi attitudes to both Jews and the so-called feebleminded, and add revealing dimensions to the narrative.

In summary, I was impressed by Shtum, especially its humanising of those with severe autism. Though the Ben character exhibits some autistic traits himself — unsurprising as autism has a genetic component — the fact that he is able to show empathy for his son and speak so movingly for him is heartwarming. It’s also a rejoinder to those harbouring misconceptions about autism, especially that those on the spectrum all have a ‘special gift’ like those few with savant syndrome. Jem Lester — as he says in a Guardian interview — also rails against a trend in which having autism has become “almost fashionable. There are celebrities who think it’s cool to say they’re a bit Aspergic…” Shtum is a perfect counterbalance for such confused thinking, but it’s also well written and believable.

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