Remco told me of Aunt Auk, his father’s aunt. She was a tough but kind old lady who doted on his father when he was a child, and doted on Remco and his brothers too. She’d never had children herself. That is, until she got Alzheimer’s. One day, when Rem’s parents visited her, she was going to fetch her children, a boy and a girl. She was very proud of them; they liked drawing and reading, just like Rem and his brothers. She lived in a flat, but went out of her front door and called for them up the communal staircase. Rem’s mum got her back inside: “I’m sure they’re busy drawing. Just leave them at it, and they’ll come down later.”
We find a similarly confused old lady in Curse of the Cat People (1944), produced by Val Lewton and directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise. We feel sorry for her, as we feel for the little girl around which the film is built. However, we also need to feel sadness for the daughter the old woman rejects, and the little girl’s mother, who feels she’s competing with the memory of her husband’s first wife. And then her husband, the little girl’s father – he too is caught up in a cage of his own making.
Cat People (1942) gave us the tale of the tragic Irena (Simone Simon), whose hereditary curse was to turn into a panther when aroused sexually or in anger. In this sequel, we learn that after her sad, violent death, her widower Oliver found happiness with another woman, Alice. If the film drifts away from its predecessor tonally, it tells an equally atmospheric and moving story of the couple’s daughter, Amy. Brought up in Tarrytown on tales of the Headless Horseman, playing in Sleepy Hollow at recess, Amy is nevertheless “away with the fairies” in a way that causes conflict with her parents. This isn’t a film about autism, but its themes of loss, loneliness, and people who cannot see their children for who they really are will resonate for many of us who grew up misunderstood.
Amy is different from the other children at school. When she chases a butterfly she’s enraptured with, a rough boy grabs it to present to her, killing it in the process. Dismayed, she slaps his face. At a meeting with Oliver and Alice, teacher Miss Callahan is sympathetic, calling her “a very sensitive and delicately adjusted child,” but to Oliver, “sensitive” is a step away from “defective.” She’s also a child of rigid logic, who gets As in arithmetic, and believes exactly what she is told, to the letter. When her birthday party guests don’t turn up, it emerges that she posted their invitations in the “magic postbox”; a tree stump her father told her about when she was three years old. Nobody had considered that Amy would regard that as the only place to post things forever after. Oliver has a serious talk with her about being dreamy and wishful, then contradicts it by telling her to wish on her birthday cake candles.
Amy makes a serious wish: to be good and play with other children, as her father wants. But we can only control our own behaviour, and not that of the people around us, as many a lonely child has to learn. We see the other children torment a cat, crush a butterfly, tear up flowers and cruelly reject Amy, yet it is she who is viewed as the social failure, particularly by her father. Autistic people often spend our childhoods adrift from our peers, but develop friendships with younger or older people, via common interests or mutual eccentricity. We’re often honest to the point of our own detriment. Amy befriends an elderly, housebound neighbour, Mrs. Farren who has seen the other children refuse to let her play. But when she relays the story to her father, he only has to hear her say that a sweet voice called to her from an old dark house, and he assumes it’s a dangerous delusion, rather than waiting to hear the mundane truth of a neighbour’s kindness.
Oliver projects his fear and guilt about Irena – the last woman in his life to believe odd things – onto his daughter: “It’s something else – something moody, something sickly. She could almost be Irena’s child.” Ironically he hits on a refraction of the truth, because the spirit of Irena actually does give his daughter the tender attention she should be getting from him. After making another wish, this time on a ring given to her by Mrs. Farren, Amy’s loneliness seems to call up Irena’s ghost: a fairy godmother of sorts, whom only Amy can see. From now on, it will be Irena who fills her play hours, who comforts her when she has bad dreams.
The parents of unusual children sometimes prefer the appearance of normality to the truth, and Amy’s father is pleased when he sees her running around looking cheerful. She’s happy because she finally has a friend, one who her parents can’t see, and who has sworn her to secrecy. Her parents assume her previous introspective demeanour was the reason for her friendlessness. These are uncomfortable scenes to watch if you had the standard undiagnosed autistic childhood, but not only that – how many children of many kinds, rejected or bullied, are focused on as the problem, when they’re simply different from those around them? And how often does a child become the focus of their parents’ unresolved tensions?
Mrs. Farren is also wrestling with an absence. She treats her daughter – her sole carer and companion – as though she were an impostor: “My daughter, Barbara, died when she was six. That was long ago. You’re only the woman who takes care of me.” Barbara is hurt and tells her she was out of her head “back then,” suggesting some family tragedy for which her childhood self became the symbol, and beyond which there was no place for her to grow up, accepted. “My child is upstairs,” her mother says, to the daughter who is the scapegoat for her pain. To Amy, though, Mrs. Farren is a lucid and gracious host, telling her tales of Sleepy Hollow, and warning her that if she stands on its bridge at the wrong hour, she’ll be swept up in the Headless Horseman’s cloak, to ride with him forever.
Barbara has found a different fate, one of drinking and social isolation, due to the emotional and personal toll of being sole carer to someone who rejects her. People don’t understand her mother’s mental confusion – indeed, the neighbourhood children believe Mrs. Farren is a witch – but there’s also a shame, undeserved though it is, attached to being the child of parental rejection. So Barbara and Amy actually have a lot in common, but Barbara sees Amy as a threat, and tells her mother that she will kill the child if she returns. She claims that her mother is worse after Amy’s visits, and perhaps that’s true: the balm of a six-year-old, her age an unfortunate coincidence, might leave Mrs. Farren even more confused and grief-stricken after she leaves.
From an autistic perspective, there’s also resonance in the way that Mrs. Farren treats Barbara as a sort of changeling. A common theory holds that changeling folklore was a way for our ancestors to interpret changes in behaviour as autistic children grew up: social withdrawal and loss of acquired language, for instance. Amy’s tragedy is a little different, but still familiar to many a child whose guileless honesty has been misunderstood and punished. In Barbara, that child still exists, and comes out when Mrs. Farren opens a Christmas present from Amy, a 25-cent ring: “You didn’t even open my present, and I’m your daughter.” Once again, she gets only rejection from her mother: “My daughter died long ago.”
There is a thread through the film of Amy’s connection with animals, of a young girl’s growing understanding of the inevitability of death – while her parents still agonise about when and how they will eventually tell her about Irena. Mrs. Farren tells Amy a story of Herne the Huntsman, who walks abroad on Twelfth Night and leaves death in his wake, and when Amy sees a dead deer in the snow later, she is confounded: “But where has it gone? Where’s all the strength and the quickness?” Nobody has an answer for her, and she resolves to ask Irena, setting up the film’s final act.
Back home, Miss Callahan, Amy’s teacher, has come to visit, and as the Christmas decorations are being dismantled, talk turns again to Twelfth Night traditions and memories, and the photo album comes out. From it flutters the photograph of Irena, who Amy recognises as her friend, leading to an interrogation from her father, who sees this as evidence of a runaway imagination. After Miss Callahan witnesses the row, she tries to persuade the couple that Amy does not consider herself a liar: “She needed a companion, so out of her own hunger she created one. In her mind her friend was in the garden. In her mind her friend never leaves her. Right this very minute I’m sure she’s upstairs sobbing out her grief to a friend who exists only in her mind.” She says that once the “emptiness” in Amy’s life is filled by her parents, in the real world, the stories of Irene will fade away. Basic child psychology, in other words.
Persuaded to heal the breach between them, Oliver discovers that Amy is not in the house. She has gone into Sleepy Hollow in search of Irena – and there’s a blizzard. After a terrifying blunder through the woods, she somehow finds her way to the Farrons’ house, where Barbara and her mother are at loggerheads, and their fight reveals to us the truth: that when Barbara was six, Mrs. Farren had driven home on a similarly stormy night against all advice, that her car overturned, and that after the accident, her memory was gone for a decade. Even when she re-emerged, she would not accept the then sixteen-year-old Barbara as her own child.
And that night, as Amy finds her way through the storm to the Farren home, she arrives in the wake of a brief moment of lucidity and connection between the two. Barbara’s resentment of Amy has boiled over, and her mother believes her earlier threat to Amy if she visited again. Mrs. Farren tries to hide the child from her daughter, but her heart gives out. Amy, having so recently understood the permanence of death, realises that Mrs. Farren has died. Barbara is grief-stricken and enraged: “Even my mother’s last moment you’ve stolen from me.”
Irena appears to Amy in the place of this angry woman. Amy walks up to Barbara and embraces her, and Barbara’s hands, poised to crush her, melt into an embrace, the spell of her anger broken. We hear the dogs of the search party outside, and Amy’s and the police parents blow in with the snow. Her father realises what he almost lost. “Amy, from now on you and I are going to be friends. I’m going to trust you. I’m going to believe in you.” When he asks he she can still see Irena, Amy can, and says so. Her dad, playing along, says he sees her too. Or maybe he does see Irene, if only in his imagination – one last time, before she fades away.