On an Anonymous Letter Written to the Family of an Autistic Child

It is difficult to accept the fact that someone really wrote this and sent it to another family, but whether that turns out to be true or not, the arguments here remain valid.

I think like most people, I was stunned when news of the cruel letter sent to Karla Begley, mother of an autistic child, broke on CBC this morning. My immediate reaction was predictable. Who in their right mind could write such a letter? What kind of heart or soul calls a challenged young person an “idiot”? How inhuman must someone be to claim that an autistic child is useful only as an organ donor and is really better off dead?  However, as the public reaction to the letter began to build and I read a number of the comments being made, a different set of questions began to emerge and a different anger began to express itself.

I’ll admit that as I read and reread the letter, I wondered about its authenticity. Its voice is inconsistent – uneducated and rough mixed with some not bad syntax and diction. There are elements that anyone trying to fake an anonymous threatening letter would include: the CAPS, words like hate and GOD, some clichés. There are other signs as well that suggest someone is playing a game and trying to appear unbalanced.

But assuming it is real,  why was this “story” even reported. One neighbour has sent a disgusting anonymous letter to another. By all means, notify the local police, just in case the letter is a precursor to an assault, but why the CBC? How is public safety, public awareness or the cause of autistic children and their families advanced in any way by a story had no other purpose other than to provoke our tears, our outrage or both? In what way did I have either a need or a right to know about this? 

Had the network held back the incident and used it to launch a few timely features on the challenges faced by autistic children, their families and those around them, some good might have come out of this. Now, however, there can only be fear, pain and loss. Nor will this be limited to the family the letter attacks.  Imagine what will happen if and when the author is identified. Imagine the vitriol that will flow towards her family. Will the children mentioned in the letter be able to return to their school? Will the “hard working pissed off mother” lose her job as the glare of publicity follows her to work? Does she have a partner who will decide – or be forced to decide – to re-evaluate their relationship? All for a letter? Why did this need to play out on national TV?

It strikes me as something that the pseudo-news organs adore. This is meat and potatoes for outlets like “The Toronto Sun” , “CP24” and, all too often, Toronto’s once venerable “Star”. But the CBC is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. We hold it to a higher standard and this story fails to meet the mark.

Another question the story raises for me has to do with its announcement that the neighbourhood is “uniting” around the targeted family. This reminds me of the Sammy Yatim story, the apparently needless killing of a young man by the Toronto police a few weeks ago. Then, as now, the “public” responded with outrage, shared grief, sympathy and “support”. Was all of this compassion and support available before each crisis? Did anyone intervene when Sammy began to fail at school, or become involved with drugs, or abandon his family home? Did the “united” neighbours in this new story offer to support a family dealing with the enormous task of raising a child with severe autism, a sharing that might have created a neighbourly bond that would have prevented the letter in the first place? Or is all of this nothing more than the usual after-the-fact and in-the-spotlight compassion, which is better than nothing, true, but not by much. Again the issue is whether or not anything of real or lasting benefit is going to be achieved.

The most disturbing question, however, has to do with the public comments being made after the news broke.  In writing and on video, people are referring to the writer as a “total sociopath”, as “inhuman”, as a “monster”, as “garbage”, as “despicable”. They claim that they “pity” the writer’s children, or that her kids should be “removed from the home” or that she should be “given a good beating”. One goes so far as to claim that the writer should be euthanized and her children “chemically castrated”.

As many of those making these comments describe themselves as “tolerant” and “compassionate” people, I have a few questions for them. Do they have experience dealing with an autistic child who keens (or wails)? It is the loneliest sound imaginable, the howl of a solitary child who does not understand the world. Even loving parents and dedicated teachers  are often moved to tears, frustration and even helpless rage as they confront their own inability to reach into the child’s world and offer comfort.

Now – all you compassionate and tolerant commentators – lets read that letter again and imagine an untrained and perhaps not very well educated person. Give them a couple of young kids and perhaps not the greatest parenting or communication skills in the world. Add to that perhaps a partner not able to offer a lot of emotional support. Let’s give her a job paying not much more than minimum wage.  And oh yes, let’s think of all those times someone else’s children or dog or music or party bothered us. Did we stride confidently up to a closed front door and announce that we wanted to discuss a few issues? Did we? And have you never said or written something you regretted? Have you ever responded to humiliation by imagining victorious conversations where your words slew all the dragons, words you could never say in public? Has your control never, never snapped? Are we perfect? We are, after all, casting some pretty big stones here.

Ah, but you are making assumptions, you tell me. Yes I am. I do not know yet what is true in this case and neither – let me add – do you! Consider your own assumptions. She’s maniacal. A potential killer. Worthless.  Inhumane. A threat to her own children. Now, reread the letter a few more times and tell me honestly whether my assumptions have more in common with reality than yours, or, if not, do they at least show a little more of that compassion you claim to possess?

Various news organizations are turning a sorry and sordid neighbourhood conflict into a potentially tragic circus. We have, I suppose, come to expect that. And after all, they wouldn’t present these “stories” if we did not watch them. And I remain appalled by the original letter, saddened by the ignorance it exhibits, and concerned for both the families this strikes at most intimately.

But the vituperative comments being made by so many who have no knowledge are just as offensive as the content of that letter. And their writers have one other thing in common with what so many of them term the “anonymous coward” who wrote it.

Few of them left their real names.