The Beales of Grey Gardens

Two brothers, Albert and David Maysles, made a documentary film in 1976 about these two remarkable women. The Beales trusted the brothers and because of this the public was able to get to know these unconventional women, how they lived day to day, and why they wouldn’t leave their home. They were non-conformists whose heyday was during the 1920’s – 40’s, a time where there were few options for women. Big Edie had a wonderful voice and wanted a singing career; Little Edie had aspirations to become a dancer.

Their money ran out in the 1960’s and the house began to fall into decline. Big Edie’s husband died in 1958 so there was no more income from him. With no servants or housekeeping skills, the house fell into complete disarray. When the Department of Health first did a raid in 1971, they found raccoons and feral cats living there, 200 bags of cat waste in the basement, no running water or heat, and garbage everywhere. The Beales story made the headlines of major newspapers. Jackie Onassis stepped in and paid to have the house cleaned up. Little Edie sold Grey Gardens in 1979.

This story is fascinating to me because I suspect that both women may have had Asperger Syndrome. Little Edie had an unusual way of talking and dressing. She had alopecia and wore unconventional head scarves made from shirts and sweaters tied in an unusual way. She often accented this look with a brooch of her mother’s from the 1930’s. Her outfits were creative originals – a turtleneck under a bathing suit, pantyhose and something draped over that – maybe a small tablecloth? Little Edie was like a child still full of wonder. Her stories and observations about the world around her are interesting. She wrote poems and kept journals.

Big Edie became infirm and kept to her bed. She never wanted to leave Grey Gardens even though she would have fared better somewhere else. She spent her day lying on a filthy mattress surrounded by cats and bursting into song occasionally. She and Little Edie spent $150 a month on ice-cream.

What impressed me about these women was their originality. They lived by their own codes and terms which were not to societal conventions. When I saw the state of their house and lack of money I thought, “Why didn’t these women get jobs?” But as the documentary film progressed I could see why they couldn’t hold down a job. Neither women seemed to have executive functioning skills yet they had daily routines that allowed them to survive. If they had never come from money, perhaps both women would have been homeless.

Asperger Syndrome in women is under-diagnosed because the diagnostic scales created for assessment are based on male observation. Author Catherine Faherty asked are women with autism doubly challenged by the added assumptions that society places on the female gender such as marriage, having children and keeping a home? One women in Faherty’s female autism group said, “Problems related to the[autism] spectrum are combined with problems of society’s expectations of women. How one looks, what one wears, how one is supposed to relate socially, that a woman is supposed to have a natural empathy towards others, expectations about dating and marriage…” Women are affected by autism in the same ways as are their male counterparts; however, they are doubly challenged by the added assumptions that society places on the female gender.”

When I look at my own daughter who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, I think she may have gone undetected had she not had a severe language delay. She presents so differently from her brother who has the same diagnosis and it’s not just because they are different people, but because there are gender differences.

To find further resources on this subject, the Center on Human Policy, Law and Disabilities Studies at SyracuseUniversity has an excellent reference list on their website. A good general book to start with is Girls Under the Umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorders which covers a wide range of ages and voices from the spectrum.

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