The making of and all that went into writing the book about Samantha Ryder…The Fractured Hues of White Light has its origins from a paper about Autism that I wrote for a child psychology class at Cazenovia College. Because the subject was so remarkable, I wrote a poem and included it at the end of the paper, which my professor liked quite a bit, but whatever, it was something that stuck with me. (Heck if I know where the paper is, but the poem, I still have, and I find it every time I clean my desk. I can’t find it right now, of course, it got buried again.)
I let the idea of autism roll around in my noggin for years—YEARS—1981-ish until the year 2000 when I started scribbling the first notes about a high-functioning autistic young woman, Samantha Ryder. Samantha is an artist with a special talent for copying the greatest hits of art history only in miniature. As a result, she became the subject of ‘human interest’ stories, locally, and then nationally. I know, it’s a strange thing to achieve recognition for—she’s aware of the absurdity of it, and she dislikes the attention, she just wants to disappear when people come to see her, to meet her about what they want her to do. From the time she was a little kid, her father exploited her talent to make money, she concluded early on that if rich people are stupid enough to lay out thousands of dollars to pay for a miniature copy of Van Gogh’s Starry Night painted by some little kid they see as some kind of idiot savant, then why not? Every time she’s commissioned to paint “repeats” such as Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, she makes it smaller than the last time she made it (she imagines it will be the size of a postage stamp someday.) Changing the size slightly makes it different enough so she doesn’t get bored making it.
It seems she has a good life, but the crux is what she’s missing—she wants to paint something of her own. In the first drafts, the original conversation between Samantha and Guthrie was partially about this (and many other things, some of them silly) while they’re on a journey out west. Why were they out there, where did they come from, and what their relationship is supposed to be became a study about the meaning of love. How does an autistic woman express that emotion? Not that well—tho’ she tries very hard to express her feelings. Her obsessive-compulsive fixations cause an emotional upheaval that is overwhelming not only for her, but also for the recipient of her attention. Her sketchbooks are filled with the portraits of the people in her life who she loves, Lenore (her mother), Whitley (her father), Helena (her half-sister), Guthrie (who is her step-brother from her father’s previous marriage), and her friend, Sylvester (Helena’s man-friend.) The quirk to her autism is her keen observation of faces and expressions—while she may not respond appropriately to the emotions of others, she’s studying them all the time, and is conscious of what is conveyed by an individual’s expressions. Often, the portraits become entangled in a mesh of pencil lines—random marks made and followed and will go on to the next page filling the paper edge to edge—these drawings are her natural self-expression, but because she’s never been encouraged to focus on making art from her own ideas, she doesn’t see their importance. It’s an internal struggle everyday, even on her wedding day, she wasn’t thrilled with the interruption of her schedule for the ceremony and the fuss of having a reception—she was hiding upstairs instead of mingling with their guests. She wanted to draw hands—the familiar hands of her family and friends.
These issues were the basic backbone of the book, there is so much more going on than that, the rest evolved over time—the writing process is a post for another day.