Autism’s “fearless” researcher takes on the big questions.
When David Mandell’s mother became sick in 1997 from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he left New York City and moved back to Baltimore, Maryland, to be close to his parents and start graduate school. He had grown up there before leaving for college in New York, so it felt like a strange homecoming.
Mandell’s parents had been a big influence on him. They had both grown up poor in New York City — his father in Brooklyn and his mother in the Bronx — and they had cultivated strong commitments to civil rights. Conversations around the dinner table in the Mandell house focused on matters such as race and fairness, his parents saying that racism in Baltimore drove disparities in housing, hiring, police interactions and more for Black Americans.
Through these conversations, Mandell had come to understand that race and class could affect the margin of error allowed in life. But he had also been influenced by their careers. His father was a clinical psychologist who researched substance misuse treatments at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and his mother was a special-education teacher who helped design programs for the mayor’s office, aimed at reducing child abuse in Baltimore.
Mandell was able to spend about 10 months in Baltimore, cooking and cleaning in the three-story brick house in which he grew up, and keeping his mother company during her treatments. When she died from an infection related to her weakened immune system, Mandell was still only in his 20s, and the grief changed something in him, showed him a different side of the world.