THIS IS A STORY behind the story that Curt and Ana Warner never wanted to tell.
My involvement started in the fall of 2014, when I received a cryptic email from Curt Warner regarding “ … the possibility of writing a book.” Absent details, the message had the brevity of an old-time telegram, and sounded like a mysterious summonsing.
Curt had fashioned a brilliant career as a running back with the Seahawks in the 1980s, but few knew much about his post-NFL life. Didn’t he have a car dealership, and then moved away somewhere? I was intrigued enough to investigate, and was soon sitting at the kitchen table of the Warners’ house in Camas, in southwest Washington.
Curt was fit and lean, but naturally less imposing than the chiseled athlete of 30 years before, when he was one of the most elusive running backs in pro football. Soft-spoken and guarded, he seemed very much like a man who might run a small insurance agency. Which he does now, after having quit the car business. He mostly paced as we talked.
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Gracious and hospitable, Ana was very easy to imagine as the aspiring model she had been when she arrived in Seattle from Brazil in the late 1980s. She wore a lanyard around her neck supporting the electronic key cards that controlled the elaborate alarm system that monitored every door and window in their house.
When I noticed the keys, she kidded: “Sometimes I feel like I’m a jailer.”
From upstairs came a steady clangor, to which Ana was unwaveringly attuned, but paying particular attention whenever the noise briefly subsided. Occasionally, she gave Curt a nod, and he would withdraw to check on their twin sons.
As soon as I pulled out my tape recorder and notebook, Curt and Ana seemed like fictional characters come to life, narrating the secrets that had gone unspoken during their inexplicably cloistered lives. The drama built, playing out in cliffhanger chapters.
To offer the narrowest synopsis of their story, they had become isolated by their need to fully focus on parenting twin sons who are profoundly affected by autism spectrum disorder. Over the years, they employed an army of therapists and attempted every promising treatment, finding occasional progress often followed by disappointing regression. But the story became so much more, growing darker, and once even threatened their survival.
As Curt and Ana sketched the outline of their story, they sometimes smiled at my astonishment. Somehow, through death and danger, grief and depression, and the years of fending off hopelessness, this couple now appeared remarkably composed. When one was dispirited by a memory, the other took up the thread of the story. In the process, they repeatedly credited each other’s support for allowing them to reach this moment, still united as a family.
They never sounded aggrieved or resentful. I wondered how many ways this could have unraveled as they fought exhaustion and frustration, and the powerful undertow of deep emotions, particularly when they realized there seemed to be no cure in sight.
How in the world did this couple stay together? Neither had to think before answering that question.
Ana: “Whenever I got way down, he picked me up.”
Curt: “And when I got down, she picked me up.”
My eyes pulled into a skeptical squint. Really?
“We’re not saying there weren’t tough times,” Curt said. “There were, as tough as it could get, but I think we always knew it would be worse if we weren’t together. We needed each other … here we are.”
I put down my pen; I had a pronouncement to make.
“Yes; I’ll help you with your book,” I said. “Because whatcha got here, guys, is one helluva love story.”
We all agreed: The family-love component needed to be the foundation of what would become their best-selling memoir, “The Warner Boys.”
But even then, it took almost two years of interviews before they would unearth the full depth of their truths.
THESE WERE THE world’s most reluctant memoirists.
The notion of a book was planted years ago by the late Ken Hutcherson, a former Seahawks linebacker who became a pastor and a close friend of the Warners. He was one of the few who knew their circumstances. It was his opinion that they should write a book that might help others raising special-needs children, who might be comforted by the fact that they weren’t alone.
Ana was so consumed by high-intensity parenting that she couldn’t even consider such a diversion. Curt’s objection was more visceral: He never wanted to go back through it all again, to extract memories from those deep internal boxes where he had stored them.
And when they finally considered a book, they first stressed what they did NOT want. They didn’t want people to think they were experts on autism issues. “We’re not scientists; we’re not doctors,” Curt said. “We’re just parents trying to do our best, like so many others.”
They feared readers might think they were complaining. They understood how gifted they had been in so many ways in their lives. People with far fewer resources were dealing with similar trials, a realization that “breaks my heart every day,” Ana said.
They didn’t want to foment more debate among the emotional factions in the ASD “community.” People trying to deal with the struggles of their beloved children don’t need anybody judging them or their opinions, they stressed.
Yes, they were certain they wanted to emphasize how important their faith was in getting them through the darkest days, but never to suggest that gave them a patent or copyright on inner strength.
Two developments caused them to re-evaluate their opinion on telling their story. When the twins reached their late teens, their behavior stabilized to a degree, with fewer violent outbursts, giving their parents more time and energy. The second prime motivator was to raise awareness of a disorder that continues to grow more prevalent (affecting 1 in 40 American children now, according to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics). And also to raise funds for causes related to adults with autism — including their own twins.
For the most part, Austin and Christian Warner, who are 24, have “aged out” of the social-assistance system. The reality forced Curt and Ana to examine their mortality, and consider who would take care of the twins when they were gone. They certainly didn’t want to leave the financial burden to oldest son Jonathan (26), or their daughter, Isabella (12), who was adopted in 2007.
The process was for Curt and Ana to tell me their stories through interviews, in person at times, but mostly via weekly Skype sessions, and I would organize them into a manuscript for their approval. I often had to remind them that being humble and forbearing are admirable human qualities, but they can really starve the narrative.
They would have to open up.
ANA AND CURT viewed our weekly Skype interviews like doctor visits. Ana said the incremental unburdening was cathartic, and called our chats “therapy sessions.” For Curt, they were like root canals.
“I lived through it once, and didn’t want to have to think of it all again,” he said. It took a while to earn his trust, and some persistent arm-bending before he would open up beyond superficial answers.
We also needed to construct a vocabulary for their emotions, and devise ways to decode the boys’ complicated behaviors. When they are asked to elaborate on the twins’ sometimes-violent or destructive actions, Curt and Ana often prefaced their answers with a comment about what sweet, good-hearted boys Austin and Christian are, and how fortunate they are to have them. It was more than just a note of parental grace. Even if needy, the twins were alive, and that was a blessing Curt and Ana fully appreciated because their first pregnancy had culminated in 1991 in the full-term stillbirth of son Ryan.
The loss of Ryan was a topic Curt was most reluctant to re-examine. He couldn’t effectively put his emotions into words, but instead created a poignant image by recounting the strongest memory of that time. He remembered staying in the hospital room with Ana, never leaving her side. They talked and grieved all night, and — oh yes, he said — he would never forget the haunting cries of all the healthy babies up and down the halls of the maternity ward.
A February day in 2008 was another Warner episode that took many tellings before the full story came together. Acting out a scene in a Disney movie, Austin started a fire in his bedroom that burned down their home. Ana nearly died of smoke inhalation. Son Jonathan heroically helped everybody get out of the house.
It took time, but Ana claimed that the loss of almost everything they owned was a veiled gift. By having so much taken from them, they could easily identify what held meaning in their lives: their family’s health. Everything else is “stuff,” she said. And stuff means nothing.
Another vague descriptor they used for certain elements of the twins’ behavior was “meltdowns.”
They didn’t really know whether there was an actual medical term for those times when their twins would start screaming and frantically waving their hands; or repeatedly kicking holes in walls; or biting themselves or their brother; or, worst of all, tossing themselves down and savagely pounding their heads against the flooring.
As I interviewed Curt and Ana, we worked hard to express the feelings of a parent trying to console a child in such a state. As hard as they tried, they kept reverting to only one word to describe their feeling: helpless.
We decided that would do.
CURT AND ANA always sat side-by-side in front of their laptop when we Skyped. One of their dogs was often in a lap, and Austin and Christian occasionally popped in to wave at me. Ana was always transparent and articulate and in touch with her emotions, even though she sometimes apologized for looking exhausted. Many times she would later email well-expressed addenda to the topics we’d touched on via Skype.
Asked to pinpoint her darkest moments, she looked at Curt and decided that might be something she’d think about and get to me in an email. Her response was heartbreaking. After the loss of Ryan and a series of miscarriages, the rapid-fire births of Jonathan and the twins left her limp with exhaustion and depression. Worry and stress were persistent as breathing.
When the inexhaustible twins would have her at a breaking point, the only way to calm them was to get them in their seats in the back of the car and drive them around. On those drives, often in tears, her thoughts grew darker, and she began to think life might be better for Curt and Jonathan if she and the twins were gone. “For months, I didn’t want to live; I was too overwhelmed,” she wrote. “Many times I thought about ending it all.”
She gradually came to realize that her family needed to be together, and she slowly clawed her way back, and eventually was diagnosed with PTSD. During the next Skype visit, I asked Curt how he had responded to Ana’s low point.
“Truth is … I didn’t know it had gotten that bad until she told you,” he said.
AUSTIN AND CHRISTIAN are now full-grown men, with the cognitive capacity and communication skills of 5- or 6-year-olds. They are still highly dependent and live at home. They deal with health problems sometimes associated with ASD, particularly Christian. Christian, the thinner and quieter of the twins, works two hours a day in a job adapted for developmentally disabled people. Austin is not currently employed.
Curt and Ana have been saving to buy a house at a ranch/treatment center in Ellensburg that features full-time caregivers and therapists. Without significant discoveries of curative treatments, the twins are unlikely to ever live independently. Curt is 57, and Ana 56; they know they have to plan ahead to assure lifelong security for the twins.
Curt sold his car dealership in 2010 and learned the insurance business as a job that would give him greater flexibility to get home when he was needed. He has been added as a member of the Autism Society of America’s board of directors. Ana has taken classes to become an integrative nutrition health coach, but still can’t find enough time to practice, with both twins at home the bulk of the days.
“The Warner Boys” was published by Little A, an Amazon imprint. It was selected by editors for Amazon’s First Reads promotion for the month of November 2018, and immediately was listed as an Amazon No. 1 best-selling memoir. With a “starred review,” Publishers Weekly raved: “Healing and transformative, this memoir of love and faith shows no situation is beyond hope.”
NOW THAT Curt and Ana Warner are published authors, they speak to readers and appear at conferences, often talking about their “journey.” Again, they sound like fictional characters whose narrative arc has traced a path almost Homeric in its trials. They had set off looking to cure their twins’ autism but ended up, instead, learning to see triumph in their unity, and in finding peace with the lives they lead.
From the start, Ana was convinced that whatever troubles the twins encountered, she was to blame. The moment the doctor told them Austin and Christian had autism, Ana’s first question was: “What did I do wrong?”
Now she can say, “I’ve done the best I can … it wasn’t my fault.”
They each say the experience has revealed to them the depth of their strength and commitment to each other, things a couple can’t truly fathom until tested.
So many times Ana was stunned that Curt would come home from a day at work and, when he saw she was exhausted, tell her to go rest; he would take the night shift with the boys. And in the morning, without sleep, he’d go off to work again, never uttering a word of complaint.
So she never questioned his strength. But one moment she recalled when his humanity outshone everything else. It involved how Curt responded to Christian having a meltdown in a crowded Denver airport. Screaming incoherently, Christian threw himself on the floor and started banging his head. A crowd gathered, some yelling critically, “What are you doing to this child?”
Ignoring the insensitive remarks, Curt lay on the floor next to his son, tried to cradle Christian’s head to protect him and whispered consolingly until the moment passed. “How do you not love a man like that?” Ana asked.
Her remembrance emphasizes the extraordinary range of Curt’s story arc. He’d been at the pinnacle, an NFL star, who withdrew to take on a personal challenge. Beginning that journey stoically, like Atlas shouldering an entire world of pain, he saw this as the mandate of a man. There were no timeouts nor substitutions, and it went on for decades, with “winning” as only a vague existential construct. He made himself, literally, prostrate to the needs of his children.
I came to see Curt’s development as the most universal message of their book, an updated paradigm for what constitutes modern masculinity. Now emerged and once again visible, Curt Warner’s example can help further deconstruct whatever is left of the arcane mythology of gender responsibilities in parenting.
“We are a team — we have our faith in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior — and we have each other,” he explained.
This is the message they present now, armed with their experiences, coming out of the shadows and moving together into the Third Act of their lives.