The Mind Tree is the first book by Tito Rajarshi Mykhopadhyay, a highly intelligent man with a diagnosis of classical autism. Tito is almost completely non-verbal. He wrote “The Voice of Silence” (the first section of The Mind Tree) when he was just eight years old. The Mind Tree lays bare Tito’s rich inner world and offers unique insight into what it’s like to live with non-verbal autism. Tito’s eloquent prose is divided into four sections: “The Voice of Silence” “Beyond the Silence” “All Through the Rainbow Path” and “The Mind Tree”. Each section is interspersed with his poetry. The first two pieces are autobiographical. The third and fourth are fictional and contain lots of fairy-tale imagery. Tito’s prose has an almost lyrical quality to it, yet it is simple, direct and easy to read. I got through all two hundred pages of The Mind Tree in one sitting. It’s a riveting, eye opening read.
In the forward, Lorna Wing suggests
‘Tito’s writings are characteristic of someone with an autistic disorder in that they basically revolve around himself and his personal experiences. When one considers the physical and psychological disabilities he has had to overcome, this self-absorption is perhaps not so surprising’ (Wing, p. xii).
To me this seems like a harsh classification. Both “All Through the Rainbow Path and “The Mind Tree”” are not based on Tito’s life, although it’s inevitable that Tito’s depictions of characters and events are in some way influenced by his personal experiences. All writing revolves around the author and their personal experiences to a certain degree. For example; many of Steven King’s novels contain a middle aged alcoholic writer, his beautiful wife and young son. Whether intentional or not, it’s obvious to any fan these character types come from King’s own family history. All that aside, plenty of neurotypical writers have published autobiographies and memoirs, so how can self-absorption be a symptom of autism?
It’s a positive thing Tito’s autobiographical pieces ‘revolve around himself and his personal experiences’ because we know so little about non-verbal autism. I only came across The Mind Tree because I was struggling to relate to the non-verbal children I work with, and wanted more information on the subject.
The first chapter of “The Voice of Silence” is called “The Window of my World” and could not be more aptly named. Although written in third person, it is an autobiographical piece concerning the childhood of Tito and his mother’s determination to unlock his potential. We witness Tito going from ‘expressing himself not through speech but through a frustrated temper tantrum’ (Tito, p. 1) to expressing himself very eloquently through prose and the use of an alphabet board. Strong mothers tend to be a common theme in stories concerning autistic children. This is something I can certainly relate to. I know I wouldn’t have learned to communicate effectively or received the right support for my Asperger’s Syndrome without help from my mother.
However, in these kind of stories is it can become too easy to portray the parents as selfless martyrs and the child as a destructive force, especially if written in first person from the parents perspective. Autobiographies like Carly’s Voice and A Friend Like Henry contain examples of these stock characters. Far from providing insight into autism, they perpetuate the myth that autistic children behave destructively without cause, and do not have the ability to empathise or love. Tito portrays his mother in a realistic, well rounded manner. Many times, we witness her lose patience and smack Tito, or take him for an exorcism because given her cultural background it’s easier to believe her son is possessed by a demon than face up to the reality of autism. However, she still works very hard to ensure her son does not remain locked within his autistic world.
One passage depicting Tito’s speech is difficult to read because of the sheer effort Tito has to put into something most people take for granted. His mother must push on his chest before he can utter a single syllable.
‘She gave the boy the first push, and the boy said “uh!” meaning ‘I’. At the second push he said “wah”, the first part of the word ‘want’. Similarly with the next two pushes, he said “wuh” and “tuh” for the word water’ (Tito, p. 82).
From the first few pages of The Mind Tree its apparent that Tito is intelligent, self-aware and capable of expressing himself eloquently through the written word. He also has severe classical autism. This creates a paradox that many people on the autism spectrum face, including myself. What do you do if you know your behaviour is inappropriate and causes others to stare, but are powerless to alter that behaviour?
This paradox is summed up through the metaphor of two selves:
‘One was the complete one- the thinking self- which was filled with learnings and feelings. It could feel the sorrows, joys and satisfaction. It could even create the abstractness in the surroundings… The other self was the acting self that behaved and had no self-control. It was weird and full of actions. The actions which this self-displayed, were not symmetrical to his thoughts. His well-wishers told him that it was not proper to do this or that… Once a table fan attracted him and he went to touch it. He cut his fingers, of course, but could not caution himself, though he had full knowledge of current, electricity and the dangers involved with it. The two selves stayed in their own selves, isolated from each other.’ (Tito, pp. 77-78)
Neurotypicals can assume that if a person behaves strangely, they must have no self-awareness or intelligence. For example, Carly Fleishman’s therapists described her as moderately retarded for years because her autistic behaviour was so pronounced. After she demonstrated the ability to type, it was established that Carly was an intelligent woman ‘locked inside a body [she] cannot control’ (Fleischman). Like Tito, Carly had two selves, a thinking self and an acting self. This is a perfect way to explain the paradox created by autism.
I’ve focused on “The Voice of Silence” because I felt it was the most well written section of The Mind Tree and offers unique insight into classical autism. However, the rest of the book is well worth a read.
“Beyond the Silence” is an autobiographical piece that continues from where “The Voice of Silence” left off. Unlike “The Voice of Silence” it is written in first person. This allows the reader to empathise more with Tito. For that reason “Beyond the Silence” is more entertaining and less informative than its predecessor. Writing “The Voice of Silence” in third person and never calling Tito by name (he is always referred to as ‘the boy’) acts as an alienation technique that creates distance and allows the reader to learn about autism, instead of being lost in a flood of emotion. Then again, perhaps “Beyond the Silence” is written in first person to signify the fact that Tito has found his voice and identity, whereas in the “The Voice of Silence” the protagonist is not named because his identity is yet to form.
“All Through the Rainbow Path” and “The Mind Tree” are both fictional pieces, which Tito highlights clearly in his introductions. ‘This book is born out of a realization of a lonely world which the mentally challenged person faces. The characters are totally imaginary and bear no resemblance to anybody I know of’ (Tito, p. 125). Although the narrative voice in “All Through the Rainbow Path” clearly has a cognitive disability, it is unclear what that disability is. I feel this works in Tito’s favour as it means the reader can enjoy his story without being influenced by stereotypes and pre-conceptions relating to disability.
“All Through the Rainbow Path” is a highly imaginative piece. Its prose has a dreamlike, lyrical quality to it that reminded me of Angela Carter’s magic realism. “The Mind Tree” (the title piece of this collection) shares this dream like quality, but Tito takes it several steps further. At times I found “The Mind Tree” difficult to understand and was forced to look up certain aspects of it on the internet. I believe Tito uses the image of a tree to represent the human mind. The tree’s trunk and branches are its conscious thoughts, exposed to the elements and visible to everyone. Whereas its roots, completely hidden and going down for miles beneath the earth, are the minds unconscious thoughts.
For me this idea was complicated by the fact that the narrative voice of “The Mind Tree” is an actual tree. Tito’s descriptions of this tree, its thoughts and its environment allowed me to picture it vividly.
‘A reptile crosses my roots while idle ripples of a chill body while I feel it’s cold length crossing my anchoring roots. I feel it’s movements with envy. Any movement makes me envious. I wonder where it could go…’ (Tito, p. 171)
Perhaps the ‘anchoring roots’ represent the rigid thought processes of people with autism, and in writing about a tree being jealous of a lizard Tito is writing about his own desire to mimic the fluid, free flowing thinking of neurotypicals. Then again, perhaps he is simply describing a tree. All I know is that this section of “The Mind Tree” is beautiful, compelling and baffling.
The Mind Tree is an intelligent, entertaining and well written book that offers unique insight into autism and other neurological disabilities. It is remarkable that a young boy with non-verbal, classical autism was capable of expressing himself so eloquently. However, an interest in autism is not essential in order to enjoy The Mind Tree. I look forward to reading the rest of Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay’s books not because he is an autistic writer, but because he is a wonderfully talented writer.