Reviewed by Marianne Atterbury.
Susan Dunne writes bluntly and courageously about her life lived with Asperger’s: a life of personal trauma, isolation, failed coping strategies and, in the end, a healing process with horses at its core.
Different readers may find different gems in this book, but gems they will find. Liane Holliday Willey, who is also on the autistic spectrum, writes the foreward and says that Dunne’s stories “resonate with me…sometimes as if I was looking at my own past.”
As the mother of an autistic and non-verbal young man, I found most moving the passages where Dunne explains, with astonishing clarity, why she acts as she does in social situations, providing me with an insider’s view of my son’s closed world.
Other readers—horse and dog lovers, for instance—will find the pleasure of a fellow zealot in the eloquent passages about Dunne’s relationship with her dogs, horses and miniature ponies.
Dunne writes briefly about her childhood in urban Lancashire in the 1960s and 1970s, where she first developed a love of horses, but she rarely mentions her family again. The book begins on the day her 18-year-old self boards a train south for university.
“The sliding doors of the train taking me away to university slid shut and, as they did, so did those in my mind creating a see-through barrier on the past. I carried no one inside me – I was too afraid….As the world I had known all my life – that of people and family and places – receded through the train windows, it also receded from my mind in a strange blocking-out process.”
Struggling to fit in at university because of her as-yet undiagnosed autism, Dunne largely retreated into her books, and a new obsession:
“I entered the anorexic world as I entered all obsessions: excluding and mono-focussed, protected from and holding the world at bay. With hunger, came the licence I wanted not to talk, not to smile, to stay away from everyone lest (God forbid) they might lead me into the temptation of eating….I was no longer a social failure because I had no need of society at all. I was safe in my vastly superior, cut-off world,” she writes. She would battle eating disorders for the next 10 years.
After she received her degree, still cut off from her family, she lived through a period of homelessness in London; an abbreviated teaching career in Europe; a stint at a kibbutz in Israel. Some of these passages make for uncomfortable reading: She misread signals from a man in Israel, and thought he really was offering her a cup of coffee when he invited her to his flat. What followed was a sexual assault and, shortly after, a horrific incident of self-harm and the breakdown that led Dunne to return to the UK.
Needing to support herself, Dunne worked at various jobs and fell into work that fit her overriding need to be alone. She ended up working the night shift at a hostel that housed offenders on probation.
“In order to preserve my autistic world from the overload of the everyday world, I frequently had to opt for work that would demand little of me, where for the most part I could be alone, preferably where I would have time to read to fuel my voracious inner life and the space to write,” she writes. “It always came down to a case of survive on a pittance with self intact or aim for something higher and risk annihilation.”
A serious assault by a violent resident, however, left her nursing life-threatening injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. Several months after the attack–after becoming even more isolated because of the fear overlaying her autism–a chance remark from a doctor led Dunne to reconnect with horses. She sought riding lessons at nearby stables, and gradually found that the horses helped her heal from her trauma, and also made a huge difference in dealing with her autism.
“Above all activities, horse riding forces us to rethink our body, its movements and its effects. The smallest motion of the head, a change of direction of the eyes, a shift in body weight can all lead to a different response from the horse. …I was learning to piece together parts of myself to learn new movements, new responses,” she writes.
Later, when she bought her own horse, Bailey, the lessons continued:
“Bailey taught me about different coping mechanisms and how to think about and be responsive to another sentient being. In the process I had also learned that I was no longer a sole operator…It was no longer possible to retreat into the inner isolation of autism; partnership means doing things together , being responsible for how your actions affect another. I learned about how he was witnessing and experiencing the world as an equine, imagining myself in his place, doing that thing that autistic people find so difficult – putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.“
Dunne eventually bought another horse, and then, two miniature ponies to keep the horses company.
“They had become the family I never felt I had, and if it hadn’t been for the assault, none of this might have happened. It occurred to me that probably once you start looking closely, there are many people in the world who are cut off or have limited options, people who might like to experience some of this magic I now had with horses every day.”
In particular, she noticed people were drawn to the two miniatures, Alfie and Spot. A new career for the ponies, and for Dunne, was launched: She now runs a pony therapy project where she visits care centres with her ponies to share the warmth.
Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2015