The review that’s longer than the original screenplay?
That was my husband’s [oh so funny] response when I told him I had something to say about The A Word. The sixth and final episode aired over a fortnight ago and social media lit up that Tuesday evening with all kinds of opinions about it – just as it had done the five previous Tuesday nights. But I very rarely watch anything in ‘real time’ on TV so my response was always going to be after the fact. I also felt it necessary to go right back to the beginning and watch the whole thing over again before passing any public comment. I transcribed long sections of the script, along with my gut responses to those dramatised conversations, in a 7000-word document in Microsoft Word. For no other particular reason than I’m just really thorough like that. Don’t groan – I’m not reproducing the whole thing here.
From the opening scene of the first episode, which depicted a not-quite-five year old child out walking, alone, early in the morning, down a stream-side road in the middle of nowhere in the lake district, the plot lines established themselves as being somewhere on the wrong side of believable. The A Word is definitely, first and foremost, fiction. Some of the storylines have been so unrealistic as to, on first viewing, completely distract one’s attention away from the real issues that were being explored. And the writer, Peter Bowker, who adapted the English screenplay from the Israeli Yellow Peppers does tentatively explore many real world issues including the limits of professional knowledge and the influence of professional opinion, the realities of bullying and the ethics of ABA, ableism and the concept of the broader autism phenotype – and even contextualises them within social commentary – but having a mindset the right side of autistic and a willingness to suspend one’s dramatic disbelief might be prerequisites for focussing in on them. Parts of The A Word make for varying levels of uncomfortable viewing. Some of it ringing true. Some not.
Which brings me immediately to the very last scene of the last episode. Hubby and I watched it separately – it’s just the way ‘down time’ organises itself most effectively in our house. I take my head space at about 6am, before the day starts, and he takes his in the run up to midnight when everyone else is asleep. But on this occasion he couldn’t help but wake me up to vent his displeasure (furiousness) at what he’d watched; what I’d already watched earlier that day. If the word count of this post eventually runs to four figures (and – in my current caffeinated state – it’s more a case of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’) and if I fail to sustain anyone’s interest until the end because it’s not entirely clear whether this is a review, a ramble, a rant or just something that got itself started in the supermarket cafe while Boy was building and traversing obstacle courses with his Occupational Therapist then I need to say what I think it is most important to say about The A Word right now before you click away. It concerns the closing conversation of the first series between Alison and Paul, parents of the now-five-year old Joe who was recently diagnosed with autism:
Alison: …You know that thing I said, about not wanting to change him… well I meant it when I said it, I don’t think I think it now.
Paul: Perhaps you could mean it just for a bit longer… It feels like grief doesn’t it. Well, that’s the nearest I’ve had to this feeling. Knowing that there’s a boy in there that we could have had but we didn’t. Well it feels like grief to me anyway.
…I don’t think I think it now.
I had to rewind Alison’s final line several times over and eventually play it back with subtitles because I wasn’t sure I was hearing her correctly. I was.
Everything about this exchange is so deeply offensive to me and my family – on every level – that I almost cannot bring myself to dissect it. But equally, I cannot not respond to it.
My immediate and most viscerally honest response is FUCK YOU.
Not just to these fictional parents or their creator, but to the ‘expert’ advisors and support group leaders everywhere who peddle the insultingly appalling notion that it is ok to grieve for the absence of the child you wished you’d had. No it’s absolutely fucking not. And how fucking dare you suggest, like the character Nicola, the adulterous sister-in-law, did way back in Episode 2 that: “… it might never be the relationship you imagined having with your son and you are allowed to mourn that.”
This prescriptive notion of grief as a natural – expected – response to having a child diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder is about as far removed from being ok as anything ever could be. Yet some parents, astonishingly, buy into its false validity because they’re told it’s normal.** Even a highly respected national charity, which otherwise does a fantastic job of campaigning for awareness and acceptance, touts to parents looking for answers a Cycle of Acceptance and Progress consisting of Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining and Acceptance as being the formalised, standard model of coping with the discovery that your child has an ASD.*** Switch the order in which Bargaining and Depression are said to occur and what you’re actually looking at is Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s 1969 model of the emotional stages of bereavement.
Again, Fuck you.
[**Please refer to Comment #2 in the comments thread below this post for an alternative viewpoint.]
If you are a parent who has genuinely grieved or is grieving in the face of autism then I feel deeply sorry for you and your child but I cannot and will never empathise with you. You can mistakenly put that down to my ‘condition’ if you like. It is impossible to impose a time limit on grieving for the dead, though some may try, but trust me when I tell you that you do not have the time (irrespective of prerogative) to grieve for your autistic child. He or she needs you to concentrate your energy and efforts on becoming the best version of yourself that you can be.
[***When I use the acronym ASD – the D stands for Difference.]
In an interview for The Big Issue which was published ahead of the screening of the sixth and last episode of The A Word, Bowker, is quoted as saying:
I think we have gone through ignorance but we are still in the middle of acceptance… and what we need to go forward to is celebration…
Grieving the misperceived loss of an entirely imaginary, non-autistic version of a very real living, thinking, feeling human being is the absolute antithesis of celebrating that person’s life and all that it may contain. Even if you try really hard to look at it from a ‘putting the FUN back into FUNeral’ type perspective there is nothing – NOTHING – celebratory to be found in this end scene. And I’m completely failing to grasp whatever kind of acceptance Bowker seems to think it is we’re all still stuck in the middle of. He’d better be absolutely certain that a second series will get commissioned because he owes a full-scale celebration of neurodivergence to his character Joe – and absolutely nothing short of unconditional acceptance from his parents, Alison and Paul, will cut it. Autistic individuals are not broken versions of themselves as they might otherwise have been in alternative circumstances – and the BBC owes it to everyone whose lives are touched by autism to put this right.
That said, I do understand, though I did need to keep reminding myself whilst watching, that The A Word is just a drama. And there’s actually a lot that I really liked about it: the humour, the music, the swearing, Christopher Eccleston… and all of the aforementioned combined in one perfect moment in the fourth episode when Maurice, Joe’s Grandfather, charges up the fell like something possessed, to a Franz Ferdinand intro, puffs out his chest to the sky and shouts with forcible volume at the world in general to “Fuck Off!” “Afternoon.” He then quietly nods towards two unsuspecting ramblers. Whatever else you think about the rest of The A Word, that’s funny! It just is.
I’m tempted to critique large parts of the script from each episode, in an exposé kind of way, comparing parallels of the fictional drama with the facts of my own family’s experiences. But Dave’s right – the review would be much longer than the original screenplay.