[Originally posted on June 9, 2014 here]
Know the Night: A Memoir of Survival in the Small Hours
by Maria Mutch
This debut memoir is Mutch’s account of a two-year period during which her oldest son Gabriel, from age eleven to thirteen, didn’t sleep much, and as a result, neither did she.
This book stands apart from other parental memoirs of disability on many fronts. Far from being a hand-wringing rant, or even a tale of coming to terms, Know the Night is deeply contemplative, and reading it felt a little like being allowed into a quiet, private chamber. During the chronic night wakings, as she staggered through days of mind-numbing sleep deprivation, Mutch became intimately acquainted not only with her son, but with the night itself, in all it’s vastness and mystery.
“I tend to think that if he spoke, the night, too, would be different. The spell broken. Night would seem cold and clean and beautiful again. I have stood on the lawn in November wearing five layers of clothes to watch the Leonid meteor showers, or bathe my face in moonlight, or simply to see how immense the sky is and experience that twinge of becoming tiny in its indifferent embrace as it twirls unstoppably. I’ve witnessed aurora borealis, too, when I was twenty-one and floating at night on an Ontario lake in a small rowboat. I slipped over the side to swim in black water, drifted on my back, the dark rim of pines seeming very close. Above me drifted the smudged galaxy, and Leo, Hercules, and Cassiopeia. I floated there, felt myself being erased in the lake’s black ink. And there it was, a brilliant green rolling over the Earth’s magnetic arc, one stream after another. And along with it, a physical presence, a silence, enveloping and dark and honed.”
Born with Down syndrome and later diagnosed with autism, Gabriel began developing a vocabulary as a toddler, but had lost all of his speech by the age of six. During those sleepless nights, Mutch pondered Gabriel’s absence of speech and discovered that there are many languages that are not verbally spoken, that communication comes in surprising forms, including silence, which she observes not only in her son, but in the story of Thelonious Monk being detained by police in the 1950s, and in the frozen desolation of Antarctica.
Jazz and the Antarctic both play major roles in Mutch’s memoir. Jazz is a refuge for Gabriel, and a language he understands and loses himself in. Mutch, clearly a knowledgeable fan herself, plays jazz for Gabriel at home, and they are such regulars at local jazz clubs that several of Gabe’s birthday parties are held in one or another.
Interspersed with Mutch’s recollections of their sleepless nights and her contemplation of jazz is also the story of Admiral Richard Byrd‘s expedition to Antarctica in the 1930s. Mutch read Byrd’s account of his expedition, which included five months of utter solitude living in a hut and barely escaping with his life, during the period of Gabriel’s sleeplessness. Byrd’s isolation and harrowing polar survival struck a chord with Mutch as she navigated nights of isolation and harrowing survival of a different kind; it’s an interesting parallel and juxtaposition.
In the end, this memoir lacks the usual heart wrenching, tear-jerking, and even soapbox-stomping which makes it stand apart. Although there is a patina of melancholy, her telling of “survival in the small hours” during Gabriel’s prolonged period of wakefulness reads like a meditative odyssey in search of a deeper understanding of her son.
Her prose is gorgeous and begs to be savored. As I read, I folded down the corners of many pages because there were so many passages I wanted to reread just to let the words roll over me.