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Matthew's Enigma: A Father's Portrait of His Autistic Son

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Matthew's Enigma unfolds the complex relationship between a father, who is a Romanian emigré and distinguished university professor, and his son, who was diagnosed with autism when he was 7 years old. Matei Calinescu's desire to understand Matthew -- his namesake -- is the theme of this moving memoir. Calinescu's determined search for the meaning of his son's enigmatic illness continues even after Matthew's sudden death at age 25. Reminiscences about Matthew's life are interwoven with observations of his behavior and reflections on the difficulties that autistic persons encounter in social situations. Drawing from journals that he kept, beginning with Matthew's birth, as well as from his experience as a scholar of literature and philosophy and a reader of psychologists' and brain scientists' writings about autism, Calinescu has composed an inspiring and lyrical essay about love and illness, memory and forgetfulness, sociability and alienation.

This is a biographical portrait of my son, Matthew, who was born on 24 August 1977 in Bloomington, Indiana, and who died on 1 March 2003 in his hometown, not yet twenty-six. It was written during the forty days after his death, the forty symbolic days that follow all deaths. Throughout those days I was incapable of anything but thinking of him as I wrote, transcribing fragments from my intermittent diaries, trying to capture the fragile truth of memories which haunted me and which, I knew, would inevitably be lost in the dusk of time. I did not count the days, but it so happened that on the fortieth I felt reconciled to my pain, almost serene in my sadness. The outcome is this reflection on his life, and also on that part of my life when I did my best to understand the enigma he embodied. I never did, but I gained a different insight—that he was, in his own way and in the way he continues to live in my memory, a gift. God’s gift? I cannot be sure, but his name, which is also mine, contains a divine echo of that gift from the depths of biblical etymology. A name is a sign, it has often been said—nomen est omen—but the omen is always indecipherable: it is a small mystery wrapped within a greater mystery, one that is in fact infinite.

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