Finding Her Voice
In Carly’s Voice, a father intertwines a poignant and honest portrayal of his love for his autistic non-verbal daughter with her own words, tracking her subtle evolution “from victim to spokesperson.”
By Lauren Reisig
I am dreaming a dream I’ve had many times since Carly was born. The two of us are sitting in the kitchen. Or maybe it’s the den. We are talking. Carly is talking. She’s teasing me about something.
“How do you like my haircut?” I ask her.
“It looks like your head got caught in a food processor,” she deadpans.
I wake up laughing out loud. Then I roll over on my side and cry.
These are the words of a heartbroken father, mourning not the loss of a daughter, but the presence of a daughter he fears he will never truly know. This honest, raw emotion provides a compelling narrative for Carly’s Voice: Breaking Through Autism (Simon and Schuster], a joint venture between Arthur Fleischmann and his nonverbal daughter Carly, who was diagnosed with autism, developmental delay, and apraxia at the age of two.
Carly’s formative years were marred by the daily struggles resulting from her inability to communicate with the world around her. She spent most of her childhood trapped in herself, unable to vocalize her thoughts and grievances to the parents who loved her and therapists who struggled to help . Beneath Carly’s incoherent noises and erratic movements, however, were a strong personality and an equally intelligent mind. At the age of ten, following a fit of restlessness during another seemingly futile therapy session, Carly’s therapists pleaded with her to help them understand. Carly’s hands made their way to the keyboard, “H-E-L-P T-E-E-T-H H-U-R-T,” her right index finger typed across the screen. With those three words, Carly finally found her voice.
Her voice, as it turns out, was not unlike the one her father dreamed: Quick-witted, sharp-tongued. “As years of noisy silence died, a prima donna was born,” Arthur Fleischmann quipped. In Carly’s Voice, Fleischmann seamlessly intertwines his poignant and honest portrayal of a father’s anguish and unconditional love with Carly’s own words, tracking her subtle evolution “from victim to spokesperson.”
After years of remaining a virtual stranger to her own parents, modern technology, namely instant messenger, provided Carly a medium with which to communicate and establish a relationship with her family. She teased her older brother, strengthened her bond with her twin (though they never required words to communicate), and coherently expressed her emotions and desires to her parents. Punctuating pages of Carly’s Voice with their IM conversations and her personal letters (many to celebrities), Fleischmann doesn’t merely describe Carly’s development. He allows Carly’s own words to serve as proof.
As the book progresses, so does the content of Carly’s messages, which gradually expand from short thoughts to complete sentences. And while such improvements are a clear indication of her growth, an equally thrilling feat is her emerging personality and sassy disposition, revealed through the evolution of her unique voice. Carly, now 17, like all perceptive teenagers, learned her parents’ weaknesses, and which strings to pull to achieve her desired outcome. “Guilt is a powerful tool Carly had mastered with the deftness of a Jewish grandmother,” Fleischmann writes.
Over time, Carly’s penchant for writing evolved into a gift for composing letters. At the end of each letter, Carly’s closing salutations highlight an acute self-awareness, which her father describes as “one of her most moving and endearing qualities.” Carly’s first letters were fairly uniform. She signed them, “Love your fan, Carly,” or simply, “Love, Carly.” As she gained confidence, however, she signed them with her trademark sass and an enviable matter-of-factness: “Your autistic late night guest, Carly,” or “Your famous super diva, Carly.” With every subsequent letter, Carly became increasingly bold and vivacious: “Dear Cool Doctor” signed, “Your cool patient, Carly;” “Your computer savvy pen pal Carly;” “Your overly patient waiting friend, Carly;” “Your overly patient friend that was wishing she was with you, Carly.” Never one to hold back, she signed her letters to Larry King “your true autism expert, Carly fleischmann [sic]” and “Your optimistic and able to back it up believer, Carly Fleischmann.”
It was undeniable. Carly had a voice, and a strong one at that. Yet, she still yearned to be heard.
When Carly was nearly thirteen and on the precipice of her bat mitzvah, she was tasked with writing a speech. Carly quickly embraced the idea of writing about tzedakah. But she did not want guests to simply read what she had to say, she wanted them to hear, to listen. Carly composed a letter to Ellen DeGeneres, asking her celebrity role model to be the voice for her bat mitzvah speech. Through the dedication of Carly’s parents, their friends, and diligent networking, Carly’s letter reached the hands of DeGeneres, who granted this young, audacious girl’s request. When the evening finally arrived, Carly, fighting her body’s instincts to expel loud noises and movements, simply fidgeted as she sat patiently next to the screen projecting the video of DeGeneres reading her speech. DeGeneres’s delivery, with her sharp sense of humor and impeccable comedic timing, brought tears to the eyes of the Fleischmanns’ friends, family, and even the jaded catering staff. DeGeneres was the one talking, but it was Carly’s words which captivated the otherwise silent room. Carly was speaking, and for the first time, everyone was listening.
“Sometimes when you are in a crowded room the best way to be heard is to yell,” Carly writes. “But the best way to be understood is to explain yourself.”
Lauren Reisig is an intern at Jewish Woman magazine.