Al Campbell’s The Keepers is a book about possibilities, imagination, and most profoundly, love. It opens with a scrapbook entry about the death of an autistic child who has escaped from respite care. Imminent death is a constant possibility, and Jay, the mother of autistic twin teens knows this well. She curates all of the other (known) possibilities in a series of notebooks about the fates of (mostly) autistic people. These entries—derived from non-fictional events in recent Australian history—are a stark reflection of what happens when we don’t have a social model of disability. Instead, the world does not accommodate and so does not sufficiently protect those who need it. Indeed, it often feels to Jay that the world would simply prefer not to have to deal with what disability can look like at all.
Jay, coming from a traumatic upbringing of abuse knows what it is not to have been loved enough, and yet she loves her sons in abundance. During her own childhood, Jay conjures a companion that she names Keep. Keep is no ordinary imaginary friend. In some ways, he appears benignly nightmarish, but this is not the kind of thing to frighten the child Jay, who takes comfort from his companionship in the worst of times. Keep remains a sporadic presence in Jay’s life, and towards the end is able to provide a kind of magical thinking worm-hole view of a future in which Jay’s son Frank lives in a best-case scenario, balancing independence and agency with loving care. Her other son, Teddy, who is more ‘problematically’ disabled in the present, is absent in this possible future. A future for Teddy without Jay’s caring presence lies beyond the realms of imagination. This terrifying blank is amply foregrounded by what occurs when Teddy, non-verbal, becomes seriously ill and Jay faces the reality of medical care for a child who cannot elucidate his own symptoms. Though what Campbell has written is a fiction, what happens to Teddy could as well appear in the scrapbooks kept by his mother, as the parent of every child similar to Teddy (myself included) knows all too well. What happens to Teddy in the hospital happens in some iteration every day. Any parent of a child like Teddy dreads the possibility of serious illness, the spectre of physical and chemical restraints, not to mention preventable death.
Though Jay is constantly braced both for the possibilities that each day might present and for the long-term future, she is also consistently finding small pockets for the possibility of hope for her boys, despite her expectations. Sometimes circumstances and people surprise her and cause her to realise that all is not bleak or as she has imagined it to be. If small things can get better in the present, there opens the space for a future. Even in her scrapbooks, Jay’s final entry veers away from fear and into a finger of belief in the inherent good of the society that she will eventually have to trust to care for her sons.
The Keepers is a love story, and it reads also as a call to action, a call to do better, to support the NDIS in its original vision, to provide much better training to doctors and other health providers, to keep disabled people safe so that there is no need to fear. In this way, the text begs not just for awareness of the needs of autistic people, but for acceptance, respect and love. It asks that we pave the way for a better future. I thank Al Campbell for such a book with all my heart.
(This review was originally posted on Goodreads)