NDJ:7 Catherine Ambrose, LCSW

Bad Words

For about the nine-thousandth time my son and I are engaged in a conversation about swearing. His summer program requires an hour commute in each direction, and no matter what diversions I come up with at some point in each trip he introduces the topic. He is somewhere on the autism spectrum, so once he latches on to a theme it can be nearly impossible to dislodge him from it. He has figured out these words are powerful, that there is some mystery, some secret in them, but the key to understanding lies in more words, and language is the core of his disability.

My son did not speak at all until he was four. Even now, at thirteen, his language is impeded by constant confusions—he reverses opposites, or subjects and predicates, and often can’t distinguish between related but different words, such as day, month, and year. Recently we went for a bike ride to a place I described as a reservoir, and when we got there he expressed relief that it didn’t look like “a place of war.” To him “voir” and “war” sounded the same. He had assumed, uneasily, we were visiting some kind of battlefield.

I have yet to find a way to avoid the swearing conversation. I can’t get away with letting my thoughts drift and a vague “uh huh” while he natters on. When he catches me wandering, which he always does, he says things like, “You have to learn to be a better mom. Other moms listen to their kids.” He literally can’t add one and one, but he seems to have a direct link to my superego. So I have to participate. Even if he could not easily tap into my enormous well of maternal guilt, any effort to forbid or limit or divert this conversation is met with his frustration, rage, and relentless pestering.

Part of me would prefer a rules-based approach—no swearing—simple and clear. But, for one thing, this does not deflect his wish to understand the meaning of these mysterious and charged words, and for another, I can see he is not going to follow a simple rule. He often gets into the car with a new experimental curse—“It was a frickin day,” he announces, or “It was all hell and crap.” He is such an incompetent swearer I am torn about whether my greater maternal obligation is to teach him not to swear or teach him to swear right. Sensing my uncertainty, he wheedles or bullies me into the same conversation, time after time.

Today he wants to know what fuck means, so I tell him, trying to use short sentences and words with as few syllables as possible. He looks at me with eyebrows raised and eyes wide with disbelief. “Why would somebody say that when they are mad?” he wonders, utterly mystified. Or, he has asked on other days, “Why is it bad to say Jesus Christ when Jesus Christ was good?” Or “Why is it worse to say shit than poop if they mean the same thing?” There is a certain genius to these questions, and reluctantly, because I know it is a minefield, I try to answer them. And day after day, I fail to explain in a way that makes sense to him, and my son gets irritable and frustrated as all of his difficulties with language spread out like an incoming tide between us. The more we talk together, the more confused we are. Halfway through our commute, we are lost in a muddle of sex, defecation, God, heaven and hell. Some days he tells me I’m stupid, I’m obviously lying or misleading himSome days we do okay. Some days he dissolves into tears of frustration. Some days I would like to, I feel so bruised, angry, and helpless.

The most painful blow is this one: my whole life, my whole mind, revolves around conversations and stories, a feast of words from which I can only feed him morsels, and then grieve in the face of his desperate hunger for more. In this conversation, he takes me to the place where he must live and I can barely stand to visit. It is a terrible, unimaginable place where words do not dance in the beautiful, mysterious there not-there between the concrete and the symbolic, but instead sink like heavy stones into a dark pool. I am left with only the meaningless exclamations of protest and destructive, passionate rage that we are struggling, and failing, to define.