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What it's really like to live with Greta Thunberg

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Greta Thunberg, right, with her parents Malena Ernman and Svante Thunberg, and her sister Beata Credit: Greta Thunberg

Helen Brown reviews Our House Is on Fire by by Malena and Beata Ernman with Svante and Greta Thunberg

2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appIrony. According to the standard diagnostic guidelines, people with Asperger syndrome, or high-functioning autism (HFA), aren’t meant to get it. Greta Thunberg thinks that’s funny. She has Asperger’s, and she’s intensely alive to the irony in how many of the world’s most powerful people have responded to a teenager’s attempts to stop them destroying the planet.

2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appShe laughed when short-fused Donald Trump tweeted that she “work on her anger management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!” And she altered her own Twitter bio to mock him right back, as she had done when patronised by both Vladimir Putin and the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who called her a “pirralha” (a brat).

2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appIn fact, the 45th US President gets less flak than you’d expect in this quirky – and inevitably difficult – book by Thunberg and her family. “At least Donald Trump is honest,” she says. “He prioritises new jobs and more money and blows off the Paris Agreement, so everyone calls him an extremist. And rightly so, but we’re all doing the exact same thing.” Turns out, the Swedish girl who has devoted the past three years to speaking out about man-made climate change once didn’t believe in it herself. “I remember thinking,” she says, “that it couldn’t be true. Because if it was, we wouldn’t be talking about anything else.” When the reality sank in, she had a kind of breakdown.

Although the tangle of voices in this memoir are hard to separate, the story of Thunberg’s crisis is mostly told by her mother. Malena Ernman is an opera singer and brings the strange drama of her art form to the page as she describes watching her 11-year-old descend into a “hell” of depression, self-starvation and selective mutism.

Because both of my children also have ADHD/HFA diagnoses, I relate entirely to Ernman’s account of parenting square pegs in a system designed for round holes. Not only is life with kids who don’t sleep or conform exhausting, but also: you will frequently be assumed to be the problem and consequently receive little support or sympathy. You will be caught between wanting to protect your children from the world’s judgment by helping them mask their difficulties, and yelling about their difficulties from the rooftops.

In this book, Ernman is laudably frank about her own tantrums and denial. She describes her tears and her husband falling to the floor as they battle to get Greta to eat – it could take her 53 minutes to eat one third of a banana. Things got worse when her younger sister was also diagnosed with ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder, which caused her to scream abuse and hurl DVDs at her already broken parents. Ernman expresses frustration I’ve felt myself at the lack of scientific acknowledgement about the equal-but-different issues faced by girls on the autism spectrum, because most of the old definitions were based on and designed to support boys.

Ernman’s own – inevitable – “burnout” begins when she collapses on stage during a performance she can’t remember but is told was magical. Getting an ADHD diagnosis of her own allows her to see her family’s neurodiversity as an asset.

Greta Thunberg and family Credit: Greta Thunberg

Thunberg credits her Asperger’s with giving her clarity on the terrifying facts most of us convince each other to put on a back burner. She reminds us that a burner is A FIRE. It’s time to panic. She disrupts the personal narrative of her entertainer mother to say: “This is a book about climate change and it’s supposed to be boring.” The numbers she offers, however, are more hair-raising than boring. One flight from Sweden to Japan, she reminds her parents, undoes 20 years of recycling.

2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appThe story of her “school strike” in August 2018 and her rise to international celebrity has often been derided as a conspiracy, in which a naive child’s fame-hungry parents pushed for media attention by proxy. Here, Ernman snorts at the idea that she has the energy to mastermind some kind of “eco-fascist global superstate”. She is honest about the fact that, if Greta weren’t her daughter, she might have ignored her, too.

The family have had to deal with death threats and with excrement pushed through their letter box. But Ernman celebrates the “magic” of her daughter’s transformation. A girl who didn’t speak found her voice and began to eat. She found the courage and commitment to speak truth to power. What parent wouldn’t be thrilled? Most of us barely get through a school recycling project without weeping.

2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appAlthough this is a patchy and occasionally disorienting read, tossing together memoir, science, ideology and poetry, it’s also a surprisingly funny and optimistic book. Thunberg and her family might be screaming “FIRE!” on a crowded planet. But they believe we have the power to put that fire out if we act, right here, right now.

Our House Is on Fire by by Malena and Beata Ernman with Svante and Greta Thunberg is published by Allen Lane at £16.99. To order you copy for £14.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit