The Heartbreak of Encountering Your Child’s Experience of the World
Melanie Abrams on Motherhood and the Mysteries of Synesthesia
I’ve known my youngest child (who uses they pronouns) was more. . . shall we say. . . sensorial than most since they could crawl to the abandoned Amazon box and roll around in the packing peanuts. As a toddler, they slept with seemingly random objects—the TV remote, a small marble Ganesh, a handful of discarded painters’ tape. At preschool, they had their hands in everything—tubs of paint that the other kids carefully dipped their brushes into, bowls of applesauce, a box of paperclips hidden on the teacher’s desk, other kids’ shoes. And at nine, they fidget. With everything. They turn a tiny paint chip on the bathroom door into a foot-long eyesore. They steal the blue tack from the back of artwork previously attached to the wall. They collect the sticky stuff that keeps coupons fastened to junk mail.
It is not the I-can’t-have-tags-on-my-clothing kind of hyper sensitivity (I have one of those too), but rather the I-need-to-feel-all-things-on-and-in-my-body kind of hyper sensitivity (beads have been removed from noses, specialized chew necklaces have been bought). They want to have sensory experiences. They can’t help but have sensory experiences. It’s a quality I recognize in myself. I tear straw wrappers into tiny bits at restaurants, test the legitimacy of every Wet Paint sign, and am the only adult on the swings at the park. But in my kid, this compulsion seems in overdrive.
Still, it wasn’t until two years ago, when my youngest was seven, that I realized that this sensory desirous behavior (I’ll let the psychologists handle the Sensory Processing Disorder diagnoses) was also going on inside their mind: they paired abstract concepts with things they could maybe not touch, but that they could feel. Numbers had distinct and unchanging personalities. Letters had specific temperaments. They weren’t going around tracing their finger over all the “nice” letters they saw, but they experienced their ABCs as having personalities as clearly as I knew one of my neighbors as the curmudgeon and the other as the enthusiastic sharer of backyard fruit.
I should pause here to say that I did not come to this realization by accident. For about a year previous to this, I had been researching synesthesia, the neurological condition that allows the brain to process information using several senses at once, with the vague idea that it might find a place in a novel I was writing. I had the beginnings of the book that would become Meadowlark—photojournalist grows up on strict spiritual compound and later reconnects with childhood friend who now leads a commune that is in the midst of a criminal investigation—but I suspected synesthesia might work as a focal point that brings the characters together.
My fascination with synesthesia had started when a friend of mine told me the word eucalyptus tasted like brussels sprouts. She mentioned it casually, as if it had never occurred to her that someone might find the ability to taste words mind blowing. I couldn’t stop asking questions: could she actually taste brussels sprouts (she could) and what was it like (“like someone put a dropperful of flavor on my tongue”). She heard words—paycheck, Malibu, crop—and had them materialize in her mouth—metal, raspberries, creamed corn. My mind was, indeed, blown.My fascination with synesthesia had started when a friend of mine told me the word eucalyptus tasted like brussels sprouts.
There were people out there who could taste words, and, I found out as soon as I could get my hands on a search engine, could see music, could smell sounds, could hear colors. It seemed completely magical—this ability to hold two sensory experiences at the same time. What would it be like, I wondered, to walk through the world without these barriers? I wanted to know, and now I had a novel to rationalize my research. What if the photojournalist had a daughter? What if the daughter had synesthesia. And, maybe, the mother did too? After all, synesthesia is often inherited and is more prevalent in women. It is, also, more burdensome in childhood and often fades with aging. What would it be like to be a child overwhelmed by your senses? What would it be like to be a mother with access to some of your child’s inner world, but also to be so hungry for more? So, I went down the rabbit hole of research.
Over the next year, I talked to dozens of synesthetes, infiltrated synesthete online forums, read studies, and volunteered as a control group in an online experiment. I learned about the different types of synesthesia. There is mirror-touch synesthesia (watching someone touched and feeling the same sensation) and auditory-tactile synesthesia (when certain sounds produce a tactile sensation in or on the body), and chromesthesia (seeing colors and patterns with certain sounds).
Chromesthesia is a common one for musicians (Tori Amos, Duke Ellington, Billy Joel, and Pharrell Williams all have it). I interviewed one college student with chromesthesia. He was a music major at UC Berkeley but only learned to read music when he arrived at college because he remembered symphonies like tapestries, each colored thread a different note (his metaphor not mine).
I spoke to a woman in England who perceives months in space (sequence-space synesthesia), but also has forms of synesthesia that don’t conform to any one type. She feels objects. The closer she moves to a garbage can, a lamp post, a mailbox, the hotter these objects become. And she sees color with pain. A sharp pain like stubbing a toe is “yellow and braided.” A dull pain like a headache is a “tangerine-y ball shape.”
I talked with many people with grapheme-color synesthesia (the most common form). These synesthetes associate numbers and letters with colors, and even though only four percent of the population has synesthesia, when I talk about the phenomenon at dinner parties, there’s often some mildly embarrassed guest who thinks everyone sees letters in specific unchanging colors (see Rimbaud’s poem “Vowels” for this in action).
My brussels sprout-tasting friend has lexical-gustatory synesthesia, the rarest (only .2% of synesthetes), and to me, one of the most astounding. How can a taste simply manifest? And, even more astounding, how could the trigger be a word? As a writer, I believe words hold great power, but they cannot literally manufacture sensation.
Of course I have had those moments when words trigger feelings. The long and ridiculous line “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” from Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” makes me break out in goosebumps no matter how many times I read it. And all poets know the Emily Dickinson quote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” But this is not synesthesia. The stimulus (a word) does not produce a response (the taste of an Abba-Zabba bar). It is not literal. It is not predictable. Words can only do so much. To be honest, I found it a bit demoralizing.
And it was in this semi-disheartened state that I first asked my kids if words made them taste, see, feel, hear things. The older one, nine at the time, looked at me as if I was crazy. The younger one, then seven, said, “Of course not. Only numbers and letters do that.” I remember simultaneously feeling as if “the top of my head were taken off” while also knowing that I needed to tread lightly. Kids can smell a loaded question a mile away, so I tried to act casually. I didn’t need to. The sensory hungry youngest was eager to share.
One was nice, they told me, but two was “just like Anya; she seems nice, but she’s really mean on the inside.” Three was annoying (“everyone says three is lucky, but that’s just wrong”), four is always grumpy (“I’m glad I don’t remember being four”), five, six and seven were just numbers, but eight was obviously a fat, jolly man in a top hat. Letters had personalities too. ‘A’ had a mustache and ‘K’ was “very huggy.” I’m too much a writer to say my mouth hung open, but it might have.
My husband and I often exchange covert looks regarding both the kids. The youngest is such a mini-me and the oldest such a mini-him that it’s hard not to smile when they tow this party line, but here was my mini-me having access to something (ordinal linguistic personification) that I had not only been obsessed with for a year, but also desperately wanted to experience. What was it like inside their head and how could I access it? To say I was jealous would be true, but more than wanting this experience myself, I suddenly wanted the vicarious experience. I wanted to feel what they felt. If ‘L’ was “like, really, really dirty,” what did that mean? Did my mini-me pull inward when they saw their sister’s name? Or was it more like wanting to give that poor letter a bath?
I tried to ask more questions: did the first letter of a word taint the rest of the word (it does for many synesthetes)? What about double digit numbers; whose personality took over in 31? What about 13? But this was where even a precocious seven-year-old with an immense desire to experience the world and then share it was done. They didn’t want to talk about it anymore. They wanted a snack. And they wanted it while watching a show.
Motherhood can be such an infuriating practice. You spend the first years of your child’s life desperate to get inside your baby’s head, to be able to anticipate what they need and want, and the years after desperate to understand who they are. Sometimes you get it right. I remember following the youngest into a toy store and knowing, out of the thousands of options, exactly what they would choose – the ridiculous rubber chicken. There are a lot of examples where I got it right, but this one stands out because of both how silly it was, but also how proud I was. Of myself. I knew that kid would bond with that hard plastic, beady eyed, absurd gag prop as surely as I knew how much I would love that they did.
It’s this knowing, this small moment of connection that feeds parents, but also what makes us desperate for more. We can only access what these small people allow us to. And this is both the pleasure and the pain of parenting—to know that a whole world exists inside our children, to know that we’ll never really know it. So when my mini-me declared that letters and numbers evoked feelings just like people do, what they were really doing was unknowingly asserting that I would never really know them, that they were their own person, that the pleasure of parenting didn’t come without the pain.
There are different theories for why synesthetes process information the way they do. Simon Baron-Cohen, who studies synesthesia at the University of Cambridge, theorizes that synesthesia is a result of too much neural connectivity. In us non-synesthetes, each of the senses has its own contained part of the brain. No cross-communication allowed. But in synesthetes, there are no barriers.
No barriers. It seems a lovely thing to have in a brain. And a lovely thing to have in parenting. But of course, this is not true. Every kid who grew up with enmeshed parents (me! me!) knows the importance of barriers. And anyone parenting in this hyper aware world of child raising knows that boundaries help a child feel safe, help a child differentiate and grow into their own person. We may delight in the idea of a mini-me, but if we really want to do this parenting thing “right,” we better get used to being shut out because these little people start doing it from the moment you delightedly find them wearing your shoes and say, “hello Mama!” and they reply, “Me not Mama.”
Sometimes before my youngest goes to sleep, they’ll beg for five minutes more of snuggles, but then go rigid. It’s something that’s happened so many times that I know exactly what is coming next. “Are you my real mommy,” they ask, “or a witch?” I assure them that I am, indeed, their real mommy. “But how do I know? What if you’re a witch and you’re just pretending to be my mommy?” What follows is a half joking, half serious list of questions to prove authenticity: “What did I think my name was when I was two?” Answer: ‘Me.’ “What’s something I slept with when I was a baby?” Answer: a banana.
It is endearing. And painful. I know this dance as well as they do. How, they’re really asking, do I know we’re connected? How can I know that without getting inside your head? You can’t, I want to say. You can’t. That’s the affliction of being human. You will forever feel this way. With every friend, with every lover. And, perhaps, most agonizingly, with your own child. Maybe it won’t be the inaccessibility of feeling the number nine, but it will, assuredly, be something else. And this, this is the unavoidable heartbreak of motherhood.
Meadowlark by Melanie Abrams is available from Little A.