Matthew’s Enigma by Matei Calinescu: a father’s honest and affectionate portrait of his son that had autism and unexpectedly died at age 25

Matei Calinescu, Matthew’s Enigma. A Father’s Portrait of His Autistic Son

Published 2009 by Indiana University Press. Translated by Angela Jianu, 212 p

In limba romana: Portretul lui M, Editura Humanitas, 2016, 256p


Matei Calinescu (1934 – 2009, Romanian professor of comparative literature, writer and literary critic) left communist Romania and moved to United States in 1973. His happy marriage and flourishing career were sadly shadowed by a diagnosis stating that Matthew, his son, had autism.

Matei Calinescu, copyright Editura Humanitas
Matei Calinescu, copyright: Humanitas

He came, it seemed, from another world, bearing a message I could not decode, a mystery I perceived only as a distant, rare, strange radiance that shone upon us… I remember that when I first heard the diagnosis – wounded in my stupid pride, in the arrogance of my grandiose dreams for my son’s future, not unlike, in fact, any parent’s pride and arrogance – I had fantasies for a while of the two of us withdrawing from the world and leading a strictly monastic life.

In a decade when autism was not much understood and was rather perceived as an embarrassing disability, Matei Calinescu had to accept it and learn to admit the fact that his son was different. The initial tendency to ignore the gap between Matthew’s intellectual and emotional age was soon replaced by an eagerness to read all the studies on the syndrome and acquire the most suitable techniques to deal with it – games, communication strategies and emotional approaches. Their social life affected, Matei and his wife, Uca chose to help and unconditionally love their son.

Matthew was 4 when he was suspected of having something – an inferiority complex they called it at first – because he was clumsy, sometimes aggressive and refused the communication with the children in his play group. He rejected physical contact and lacked the thirst for the curiosity all children have. Honest and affectionate, Matei Calinescu speaks about 20 years of witnessing his son’s disability and describes the most difficult and also the happiest moments in their new life. Searching for meaning, Calinescu experiences insomnia, depression but in the end understands that his son expressed differently and his needs were different.

I was affected in a powerful, oppressive way. I don’t know what to do with such emotions, how to grasp them, how to tame them, what weight to assign them in my inner life. They remain within me as stubborn, uncontrollable, and deeply disturbing impressions, produced by a persistent recurrence of a cluster of contradictory images: his beautiful face contorted by anger in the center, and around it, illuminating it with a faint extraterrestrial light, an aurora of other images, his past and future smiles.

Unfortunately, when he was in high school, Matthew started having epilepsy seizures and they were fatal to him; he died in 2003 when he was 25. Calinescu wrote the book in the 40 days that followed his son’s death, “the forty symbolic days that follow all deaths”. Diary entries, old and recent observations are meant to outline Matthew’s portrait but also to comfort and balance the writer himself.

Innocent and extremely fragile, Matthew complicated his family’s life but offered them precious lessons of empathy, honesty and love.


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