Janet Grillo ’80
In my senior year, I was lucky enough to study with the poet, Annie Dillard. Her impassioned, incisive critiques demonstrated how to access and express the interior, through exterior craft. Although we studied and wrote poems, she provided a template for all my creative work to come. Annie taught us how to dig deeper and look harder for what was unique to each of us, and true.
That year, I also met Jonathan Shestack ’81, a junior studying film, who was roommates with my fellow theater student, Bradley Whitford ’81. Flash forward 17 years later, and my 2 ½ year old son was diagnosed with autism. I had heard, through the Wesleyan grapevine, that Jon’s son was also on the spectrum. In the face of this staggering disorder he demanded solutions, and co-founded Cure Autism Now Foundation with his wife, Portia Iverson. Reeling in anguished confusion, I stumbled into a C.A.N. meeting, reconnected with Jon after more than a decade, and began the long and winding road to help my child lead his fullest life. Brad Whitford joined the cause, lending his celebrity as C.A.N. spokesperson. As the organization forged inroads in research and treatment, my son was the happy beneficiary, accessing more of his capabilities through cutting edge interventions.
Flash forward another 12 years, and my son was doing well. (He's now 20—and pictured with me in the photo that accompanies this text.) As he exercised increased autonomy, I could exercise mine. After years waking each day to be my son’s mother, I began to recall who I was before he was born. The lessons I learned in Annie’s class came rushing back. As did the joys and challenges of acting lessons with Bill Francisco, and writing and directing original plays at Theater 92. Soon I had written and directed two short films, including one starring my friend, Dana Delany ’78; Flying Lessons. It told the story of a single mother of a teenage son with autism, struggling to get through the day. Jeanine Bassinger generously invited Dana and me to screen it in the illustrious new Cinema Center, further encouraging me to expand that short into a feature—Fly Away.
The only narrative fiction feature about raising a child on the Spectrum written and directed by the parent of one, Fly Away tells the story of a single mother of a teenage daughter, confronting her child’s adulthood. What will sustain her child, and herself, into the future? Fly Away premiered as one of eight films in Dramatic Competition at SXSW Film Festival in 2011, opening in limited release to critical acclaim, including the New York Times, LA Times, New York Observer, Huffington Post, Variety and Hollywood Reporter. By now, C.A.N. had merged with Autism Speaks, into the national advocate for families on the Spectrum. We linked arms with them to promote the film to our community and beyond. Three years later, Fly Away continues to reach audiences around the world via Netflix, iTunes and Amazon. My ability to dig deep, look hard, and hone my specific experience into universal story, is rooted in courses I took and professors I met at Wesleyan. Serving others by doing so, was inspired by classmates I also met those many years ago.