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Family & Relationships Autism Spectrum Disorders

Intelligent Love

The Story of Clara Park, Her Autistic Daughter, and the Myth of the Refrigerator Mother

by (author) Marga Vicedo

Beacon Press
Initial publish date
Mar 2021
Autism Spectrum Disorders, Children with Special Needs, Women's Studies
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2021
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2022
    List Price

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Winner of the History of Science Society's 2022 Davis Prize

How one mother challenged the medical establishment and misconceptions about autistic children and their parents

In the early 1960s, Massachusetts writer and homemaker Clara Park and her husband took their 3-year-old daughter, Jessy, to a specialist after noticing that she avoided connection with others. Following the conventional wisdom of the time, the psychiatrist diagnosed Jessy with autism and blamed Clara for Jessy’s isolation. Experts claimed Clara was the prototypical “refrigerator mother,” a cold, intellectual parent who starved her children of the natural affection they needed to develop properly.

Refusing to accept this, Clara decided to document her daughter’s behaviors and the family’s engagement with her. In 1967, she published her groundbreaking memoir challenging the refrigerator mother theory and carefully documenting Jessy’s development. Clara’s insights and advocacy encouraged other parents to seek education and support for their autistic children. Meanwhile, Jessy would work hard to expand her mother’s world, and ours.

Drawing on previously unexamined archival sources and firsthand interviews, science historian Marga Vicedo illuminates the story of how Clara Park and other parents fought against medical and popular attitudes toward autism while presenting a rich account of major scientific developments in the history of autism in the US. Intelligent Love is a fierce defense of a mother’s right to love intelligently, the value of parents’ firsthand knowledge about their children, and an individual’s right to be valued by society.

About the author

Contributor Notes

Marga Vicedo, PhD, is a philosopher and historian of science. She is a professor at the University of Toronto, where she teaches and writes about the history of biology, psychology, and psychiatry since the turn of the twentieth century. She is on the editorial board of numerous journals, including the Review of General Psychology and Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, and is the author of The Nature and Nurture of Love: From Imprinting to Attachment in Cold War America.

Editorial Reviews

“[A] thoroughly researched and reported history of autism . . . Expect to boo for the mother-blamers and to cheer for the entire Park family.”

“A philosopher nestles a compassionately crafted, extraordinary family drama within a broader discussion of the contentious, and often shocking, history of autism in the US.”
Shelf Awareness

“This excellent book describes the experience of disability for the child and the parent, with both encountering discrimination and hostility.”
British Society for the History of Medicine

“In this beautifully wrought, meticulously researched story of one mother’s challenge to the medical establishment’s misconceptions about autistic children through much of the 20th century, Marga Vicedo tells an intimate story wrapped inside a much larger one.”
Washington Post

“A beautifully written and carefully reconstructed history of autism in the United States.”
Intellectual History Review

“It is challenging enough to tell a compelling human story, or write original history, or pursue ambitious philosophical goals. In Intelligent Love, Marga Vicedo does all three beautifully.”
Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences

“People who are interested in psychology, psychiatry, and the human sciences more generally can find valuable material in Intelligent Love.”
Medical History

“A synthesis of rigorous historical research and beautifully told biography, moving seamlessly between its two modes, and appealing to historians who work on childhood studies, women’s studies, disability studies, and the history of psychiatry and a wider, lay readership.”
Journal of the History of Medicine

“Vicedo’s book is itself an act of intelligent love: written with heart as well as brain.”
Psychology of Women Quarterly

Intelligent Love is deeply researched.”
Social History of Medicine

“Vicedo’s brilliant book shows the epistemological danger of ‘eyes that turn away.’”

“A literary and intellectual tour de force.”
—Peter Galison, author of Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps

“A history of autism told through the eyes of the mother of a child diagnosed as ‘autistic’ in mid-twentieth-century middle-class America. Vicedo’s compelling subject is the tension, even incompatibility, between maternal love and scientific reason that plagues the history of autism. This book is a vehicle for exploring profound questions about the meaning of love, intelligence, and disability in our cultural history.”
—Evelyn Fox Keller, professor emerita, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author of Making Sense of Life

“A vital book that illustrates the complex and unsettling history of persecution that autistic people and their families have suffered through the ages. Readers will journey from a time when an autistic diagnosis was perceived as a devastation to now, when the neurodiversity movement and the voices of autistic people themselves are finally beginning to drown out the negative medicalized model so long perceived as the norm. Read it; you won’t be disappointed.”
—Emma Dalmayne, CEO of Autistic Inclusive Meets and author of It’s an Autism Thing . . . I’ll Help You Understand It

“Through her engaging reconstruction of the fascinating relationship of Clara Park and her daughter Jessy, Marga Vicedo reveals not only how science affects life but how lives affect science. In the process, she invites us to break down the harmful dichotomies that set ability against disability, good mothers against bad mothers, and logic against love. A compelling and compassionate read.”
—Alexandra Rutherford, professor of psychology, York University, Toronto

“Vicedo reminds us how far our understanding of autism has come. This book is a much welcomed contribution to the worldwide autism literature.”
—Stephen M. Edelson, PhD, executive director, Autism Research Institute

“With sensitivity, Marga Vicedo captures the fierce determination Clara Park brought to her writings and activism that helped reorient diagnoses that targeted mothers as agents of their children’s so-called inadequate psychological development and that inspired parents of other autistic children.”
—Rima D. Apple, author of Perfect Motherhood: Science and Childrearing in America