How Well Do You 'Know the Night'?

The night can be a beautiful thing: starlit, breathtaking, and filled with possibility. It can also be a frightening thing: a boundless void that accentuates our solitude. For Maria Mutch, in her debut memoir Know the Night (Simon & Schuster), those "dark hours" become both as her experiences with parenting a child with special needs give nightfall a new meaning.

While struggling to raise a speechless and restless son diagnosed with both Down Syndrome and autism, Mutch comes to develop an intimate relationship with the night. With lyrical, fluid prose, she chronicles her two years of sleepless living, offering a deeply intimate portrait of the challenges of motherhood, both universal and unique, and crafting a story about self-discovery, understanding, the freedoms and restrictions of communication, and the extraordinary bond between mother and son.

When the book opens, Mutch's son Gabriel is 11. It has been nearly two years since either she or Gabriel have gotten much sleep, and nearly four years since Gabriel has spoken a single word. At age five, when his “words began to make their exodus,” Gabriel's speech was gradually replaced with raucous outbursts — nightly marathons of shrieking, laughing, slamming, and stomping — and since then Mutch has spent most nights awake caring for him or anticipating the sounds of his waking. Though her husband offers to share their nightly duties, more often than not Mutch choses to face the task alone, wanting “ownership of the Odyssey,” and it is in the isolation of those “small hours,” sleep deprived and frustrated as she struggles desperately to understand Gabriel and rescue him from this “midnight vortex,” that she continues to make new discoveries about herself, the night, and the endless complexities of her son.

Organized into chapters that span from midnight to 5 A.M., Mutch’s memoir alternates between rich anecdotes and deep internal analysis as the story of her son's childhood unfolds. With impressive clarity, she is able to recount deeply personal moments of her frustration, desperation, and fascination with Gabriel. “The mind wants so badly to understand, to get it, that it will chase meaning relentlessly, pursue it straight through the dark,” she says, describing her constant struggle to find meaning in Gabriel’s repetitious behaviors. And she remains candid even at her most desperate. “Parenthood delivers with it an assumption of strength, knowing what to do, how to rescue. How not to hate him. How to reach in and find a boy,” she says, “and yet the knowledge wasn’t there. Just paralysis, guilt, a breaking heart.”

In those raucous, but silent hours faced alone, Mutch finds solace in the stories of mountaineers and explorers and she begins to collect books about polar exploration, most notably Admiral William Byrd’s Alone, in which the Antarctic explorer recounts his survival of months spent in an isolated hut during the Antarctic winter. Her copy, marked-up and tattered from countless readings, is her bedside companion and she uses his stories to contextualize her own. She too is exploring the unknown by diving into the darkness of parenthood and throughout the memoir, she draws extensive parallels between their solitary nocturnal existence, recounting, in lengthy detail, Byrd’s experiences and interweaving them with her own.

While her writing frequently drifts into long, dreamy tangents of internal reflection, sometimes vague and strange, Mutch remains a candid raconteur, balancing her metaphorical musings with moments of sharp realism and lucid honesty. We see Gabriel at his worst — scenes of him emptying dresser drawers, flailing pieces of clothing in messy heaps across the room, and then we see him at his best — scenes of him peacefully enchanted while engrossed by the live sounds of a sweaty, bopping jazz band.

Soon we discover, alongside Mutch, that jazz is the one medium through which Gabriel can fervently converse, a language he understands even better than most and indeed, the sweetest scenes come during these moments when mother and son peruse the night and disappear into the depths of underground jazz clubs.

While in Gabriel’s world communication seems so restricted, it is the very absence of his words that broadens Mutch’s own notions of language and communication, and ultimately it is her masterful grasp of language, her elegant, vivid prose, that captivates the reader and takes hold of the soul. Know the Night is an exhibition of literary eloquence, a tale set in darkness, but filled with light, and a moving debut memoir about maternal love — its beauty and strength, its complications and contradictions, and most importantly, its boundlessness.