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My Father's Rule

When my son landed in jail—and in danger—I got a surprising new look at the difficult parent I thought I knew.

My Father's Rules

— Courtesy of Ann Bauer

"This is not your fault," my father says as I cry. "Children forgive you, as long as you stick by them."

The mother of three, I remained my parents' wild child.

This is what haunts me, as my father and I drive past red barns and metal silos that gleam in the morning light. It's possible—probable, it seems to me as the miles mount—that I did this. Maybe my erratic life contributed to the ruin of my older son.

Andrew was born bright-eyed and precocious. The Anarchist and I felt vindicated: our ill-advised coupling had produced stellar results. Three years later, when Andrew was diagnosed with autism, a syndrome characterized by withdrawal and disordered development, we fit this fact neatly into our worldview. Our son would excel, not despite but because of his alien qualities. We had both been there ourselves, different and misunderstood. The key to raising Andrew, we believed, was to embrace his differences and allow him absolute freedom—from expectations and from societal norms.

Andrew was socially awkward but able to function in school so long as he had extra time and help. We worked with him at home using biofeedback, music therapy, nutritional intervention, and a holistic program called Brain Gym, which practitioners told us would help strengthen his superior cerebellum. Throughout his grade-school years, our methods appeared to work. Andrew was eccentric yet well liked, as charmingly odd as an elf. Painfully shy and slow to speak, Andrew became nevertheless a pro juggler and a junior-high chess champion. When he performed well at either, he would lower his eyes and flash a crooked smile.

So when the Anarchist eventually took off on a yearlong bender (an event my father had predicted), I continued much as before: the whimsical, peripatetic mother of children ages 12, 10, and 5. No one could tell me what to do.

For six years we managed. My children united, the two boys close despite their differences and cooperative in taking care of their little sister. Together our family moved through three states as I signed on for one low-paying teaching job after another. Finally, nearing 40, I gave up on academe and moved back to Minneapolis—near my parents—to take a writing job with a magazine.

For once, my situation was stable. But for Andrew, that's when everything went to hell.

Discouraged as he entered his junior year of high school without friends or a girlfriend (and, no doubt, genetically inclined to depression), my older son grew dark and bitter. Then, in short order: addictive, compulsive, and devi­ous. He stole from his siblings and from neighborhood stores. He "dined and dashed" all over town. He quit going to school but couldn't hold a job; three employers let him go for malingering. At least once a week I was awakened after midnight by a phone call from someone demanding money and shouting that I should pick up—and discipline—my son.

At 20, Andrew filched the keys from my purse, took my car, and drove an hour and a half west to a small town, where he went on a full-fledged crime spree and was caught. Desperate, I decided to employ what I saw as my own parents' tactics: rules and consequences. A rural jail would be safer, I reasoned. I spoke to the county attorney and the judge. I refused to pick up Andrew. I sent my autistic son to prison.

When I told my father, I thought he'd be proud. Instead he looked startled; his sunken eyes, frightened. "For Christ's sake, Ann," he said. "He'll be eaten alive."

Within hours, Andrew was offered a Snickers bar in return for sex. Lonely and jonesing for chocolate, my naive adult son asked me on my next visit if I thought that would be okay. I immediately reversed my stance and demanded that he be released at once, but the county attorney said it was no longer so simple. Charges had been filed. His solution: Move Andrew into solitary confinement, the penal version of autism. Now my son cannot touch or hug or speak to anyone. For 23 hours a day he is alone in an empty cell. When I visit, I can see him slipping away.

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