Autism: A Struggle in Black and White

Angie Dickinson and Burt Bacharach’s daughter, Nikki, was tormented by asperger’s in an era when the syndrome wasn’t even recognized. The actress shares Nikki’s story

When Nikki Bacharach was born in the summer of 1966, her parents were among the most sought-after couples in Hollywood. Angie Dickinson was a gorgeous film star who had appeared opposite John Wayne, Lee Marvin, and Frank Sinatra. In the ’70s, as the lead on NBC’s Police Woman, she would become the first actress to carry a hit drama in prime time. A brilliant composer, Burt Bacharach had already written hits for Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, and Tom Jones and would win two Oscars before Nikki turned three. From early childhood Nikki suffered from the effects of her premature birth and the symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome. Socially withdrawn and obsessive, she craved repetition and fell into bouts of frustration and rage. This was at a time when autism was believed to strike only the severely impaired—“far gone mental cripples,” as Life magazine put it—and didn’t apply to highly verbal, precocious kids like Nikki. The American Psychiatric Association wouldn’t include Asperger’s in its diagnostic manual until 1994, when Nikki was 27. She was diagnosed several years later, but her symptoms continued to worsen. In January 2007, at age 40, she committed suicide. Angie Dickinson, now 78, recalls the life of her only child.

My water broke three months early. It wasn’t complete bed rest, but practically. That lasted only a week. Then the infection set in, and the baby started to abort. So I went to Cedars. I was in labor for 26 hours, and I was out of it, but I heard them say, “Angie, you’ve had a girl.” That’s all I remember. Nobody thought she was going to survive—she was one pound, ten ounces. I was in the hospital five days, and I never went down the long hallway to see her through the window. I didn’t want to have that memory and then have her go. She was probably up to two pounds by the time I saw her, the day I left the hospital.

For two weeks I had to stay in while the infection cleared up. After that there wasn’t a day Burt and I didn’t go to the hospital and just stand there looking through the window, watching her sleep. She was gorgeous to me, but she looked like a tiny sculpture of a prisoner of war because her legs were thick as a finger, and she had fairly big feet. Nikki had been put immediately into a preemie isolette, which is an enclosed incubator, and she lived there for nearly three months. In those days there was no touching of the preemies. No one was allowed to cuddle or soothe them—not the nurses, not even their mothers—in order to protect them from disease.

Even the doctors back then didn’t know the value of touch, that if you never get touched or hear a loving voice or get held in those first months, you won’t ever feel real or feel connected to anything. Not so long ago I was watching 2001: A Space Odyssey for the umpteenth time with Nikki, and it hit me: You know that scene where the astronaut gets cut off and just floats into space? That’s how Nikki felt—how kids who have autism feel every minute of their lives. For the rest of us who can connect and ground ourselves so easily, it’s impossible to comprehend.

While Nikki was in the isolette we asked her pediatrician if there was a chance of brain damage, and he firmly said, “I’ll have none of that.” That was the end of the conversation. When she was released, she weighed about five pounds—still quite small—but she seemed contented and normal. In my opinion, she was doing wonderfully. Before she was a year old, though, she began having difficulties with her eyes. It turned out she had strabismus, which is where the eye turns inward, and all the rest of her life she could use only one eye at a time. We got to know the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA very well, sad to say.

Nikki didn’t speak until she was three years old, but then Einstein didn’t either, and now they believe he might have had Asperger’s. The doctor used to say, “If she wants the ball, the reason she’s not talking is because you’re giving her the ball before she asks for it.” I think that was half true, but she was obviously storing a lot of information, because one of her first words was “meditate.” That’s the word I’d use when I’d see her sitting in her infant seat on the bench looking out at the trees and the sky, so she probably got it from me. She always loved when I would tell that story. She was proud of it, too.

People talked about my legs, but Nikki had legs more like her daddy’s—shaped great and very strong. As a kid she was wonderful at gymnastics, horseback, ballet, scuba diving, and swimming. When she was only four, she could play piano like a prodigy. She’d make up songs with fast rhythms and notes that all went together. Once when Nikki’s paternal grandfather was out here, we sat listening while she played for us. When she finished, he said, “I know this sounds silly, but I haven’t heard any wrong notes.” There were none. Funny, but neither one of us considered that Nikki might have inherited some musical ability from her daddy as well. One of the original songs she played for us was called “I Can’t Cope with My Purple.” How interesting, since not having the ability to cope is the key to her disease.

I find most people don’t absorb the phrase when I tell them that with Asperger’s, you’ve got no coping skills. People think, “Oh, coping skills—that means that you can deal with it if you sprain your ankle or you didn’t get the job.” The other person does not know and will never know that it means not being able to cope with anything—any noise that bothers you, any disappointment, any fear, any pain, any strain, any sadness. Anxiety, frustration, abandonment. Loss, fear of loss. You have no way of blowing it off. It affects every breath you take.

One of the early odd things Nikki started doing was cutting all the hair off her dolls and off the manes and tails of her toy horses. Later on, around four, she began saving everything—a broken toy, a piece of glass, an old battery, dog poo, if we didn’t happen to notice—in a mound about a foot and a half high on top of a dresser in her closet. She would come up with new names for herself, like “Yellow Collar” or “Instead Blender.” So you had to call her by those names. You don’t address your child much by her name anyway—it’s “Honey” or “Sweetheart” or “Come over here” or “Get the hell over here!” She must have been about five years old when she decided she was Lorne Greene. She never watched Bonanza—at least that I know of—but she was Lorne Greene for months. When she had some exploratory surgery on her eyes, she wouldn’t let them put the wristband on unless it said Lorne Greene. So they had to make two bands, and she was Lorne Greene. One day we were at the doctor’s office, and who should be at the end of the hall but Lorne Greene. I introduced him to Nikki. I don’t know what I said Nikki’s name was, but after that Lorne Greene was over for her. Go figure.

I had decided not to work too much, especially away from home, until Nikki was seven—since in the Catholic Church that’s when you reach the age of reason. In 1974, I took on the lead role on Police Woman, which would give me a chance to act and still be a mother without having to leave L.A. But I pretty much took care of her for those first seven years—thank God. I think that’s one of the reasons for her incredible progress: the total love and the total joining. I was continually keeping her connected, talking to her, hugging her, keeping her in a realm of comfort and familiarity, not letting her “drift into space.”

We enrolled her at the UCLA Lab School, an experimental elementary school for kids of all backgrounds, some of them disabled. By then Nikki was so easily picked on, so easily criticized and ignored. She didn’t consider herself an oddball, but she knew people stared at her because of what her eyes looked like. Still, she did manage to make friends with kids who were more understanding and nicer to be with.

I once asked Nikki what her favorite year was. “When I was ten,” she said. “That was the sexy year.” At UCLA she was friends with four or five girls who were as normal as they come. They called themselves “Judy’s Kids,” after those wonderful Judy Blume novels about adolescents going through puberty. I took pictures of them all at parties, and Nikki’s always one of the gang; she seems to be having as much fun as everybody else. She seemed so perfectly normal then—despite the obsessive talking, the shaving hair off the dolls, the upsets and frustrations. Sure, Nikki broke her glasses at times, and as she got older she would tear pages out of books or kick a wall once in a while out of sheer frustration. When you can’t cope, you grab at the closest thing around. For me, these were just some of Nikki’s “difficulties.” I didn’t understand why she couldn’t do things or deal with things, so I couldn’t help her do them or tolerate them or change them. I just found her excessive.

In the early ’70s, you have to understand, we did know about mental retardation, and maybe a few doctors talked about autism, but how could Nikki possibly have either of those when she could express herself, draw, and play piano so brilliantly, when she had a great sense of humor, did well in school, and got along so beautifully with her friends? How could somebody say there was anything really wrong when we’d never met or even heard about anyone who was going through what she was going through?

Burt was much more into pushing Nikki to be on her own than I was. He’d tell me, “Let somebody else do that for her—take her to school or whatever.” For Burt and me, dinners had been about candlelight and conversation, but for Nikki, dinner was a time to talk endlessly about horses and gymnastics and imaginary friends. Afterward, when she was in therapy, Nikki would be told she was not the center of the universe. But she was. Remember, isolette—isolation. That made her the center of her own universe. She always felt, as extreme preemies do, that she was not grounded and not part of our universe. So Nikki was tough. She also had needs, and they had to be met constantly. In these kinds of situations the father usually can’t understand why the mother just can’t make everything right. Most fathers either blame the mother or inadvertently blame the mother. They lose the love and then they lose the interest and then they’re gone. Burt and I split up in 1976 after 11 years. It’s really, really hard, and I don’t blame anyone for leaving.

 When Nikki was 14, she became a Sikh. The Sikhs were loving and they were gentle—which Nikki had to have. Perhaps the uniformity of the dress and the rituals made her feel like all of them as opposed to an outsider being looked at and stared at. I never asked why. She loved it, and that was all I needed. It lasted two or three years. They gave her the name Sat Kartar, which we didn’t think translated to anything exciting at the time. I later found out it means something like “Walker of Truth.” We would get up at 3:30 a.m., and I would drive her down there for sadhana, the devotionals you had to do before sunrise. I’ve got one picture of Nikki in her white turban with a rat sitting in it. She’s holding another rat. Nikki loved the rats. We had 13 at one time. That’s a lot of rat shit.

Being a New Yorker, Burt was very pro-psychiatry. In his world you did that sort of thing—go to psychiatrists. I’m from North Dakota, and there we didn’t. We go barefoot. Nikki began getting psychiatric treatment when she was about eight. The psychiatrists had no answers. There was one I would kill if I could get away with it. He’d tell me that when she’d act out or keep talking or repeating herself, I should just say something like “doorknobs” or “spaghetti.” Something to make her go “Hmmm?” That’s hardly explaining why she can’t cope. He didn’t get to the heart of what she needed at all.

Burt still believed Nikki was not doing well enough when she was a teenager and felt that it would be good to get some distance from me, because I was very symbiotic and too permissive. And I thought, Maybe he’s right. Maybe that’s what she does need. Perhaps I’m too close. That’s the reason I gave in. The place we found for her was the Constance Bultman Wilson Center in Faribault, Minnesota. I kept telling Nikki that all kids go away to school to learn and grow on their own without their loving mamas. I convinced her, I guess. We flew to the Wilson Center in August of 1983. Weeks after she arrived, she called me and said, “It’s not a school, Angie. It’s a hospital.” One of Nikki’s psychiatrists back here told me, “Be prepared. It could take as long as nine months or even a year and a half for her to get well.” She was there for ten years.

We did have a lot of phone contact, and I would see Nikki at least four or five times a year. They gave me permission to take her on trips to places like the Canadian Rockies, the Tetons, and the Yucatán. Once when I flew out for Thanksgiving, the director of the center wanted to invite Nikki and me to Thanksgiving dinner, but we’d already gone out. The local truck stop was the only restaurant open that day, so she called there. A girl picked up the phone, and the director asked her if Angie Dickinson was there. The girl thought it was a joke. “Yeah,” she said. “She’s sitting right here, next to Robert Redford.” We actually went to that truck stop a few times.

Nikki did make some friends at the Wilson Center and had a couple of jobs. She did amazingly well, especially considering what I know now about the extent of the problems she was dealing with and how completely incapable of helping her the center was. She studied piano, but it got to the point where the strain of trying to see those notes became too much for her eyes. (The glasses she wore made her see things smaller than they really were. Try looking through binoculars from the other end—that’s how Nikki saw things. Little things became even littler.) So she gave up the piano and began drumming lessons; she was a natural drummer. She played barefoot. She could sit in with the band and keep up with everyone, even if she didn’t know what the songs were. Burt did a concert for charity in Minneapolis once, and he let her be the drummer on “Heartlight.” Mrs. Hubert Humphrey was in the audience, and I have a picture of her presenting Nikki with a bouquet of roses.

When Nikki entered the Wilson Center, she had beautiful thick hair that ran down past her shoulders. Washing, grooming, general hygiene—these were all burdens for Nikki. At home she had been used to taking showers for as long as 25 minutes, obsessively scrubbing and rescrubbing her arms and legs, but at the center they wouldn’t allow her to stay in anywhere near that long. She ended up not washing her hair much, and after a few years of their bitching at her to get it clean, she said, “I’ll fix it for you.” She buzzed it off and kept it that way. I’m pretty sure she did it out of spite, but when anyone asked her why, she said, “For convenience.”

They were trying to make her into something she was not—somebody who could hold down a job. Somebody who could drive. They forced her to drive, which was insane. She totaled one car and wrecked another pretty good. They were trying to make her like everybody else. Her psychiatrist there told her, “Nikki, someday your mother is going to die, and then you’re going to have to be responsible for your own self”—which put her into a spiral she never got out of.

Nikki wanted to be a geologist, so when she was about to leave the Wilson Center in the winter of 1992, I started to look for schools with geology programs. Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks had a very good one, and I knew she would like that area. It’s about an hour northwest of L.A.—it’s beautiful and quiet. When Nikki was out here on leave, we found an apartment close to the university, and from Minnesota that’s where the moving truck went. There was a fantastic karate studio nearby, and Nikki began lessons and got so good, she earned her green belt.

At Cal Lutheran she had great teachers. She could only handle one class a semester with her poor eyesight. She did great on tests, of course, but writing was difficult. I missed one of her oral presentations, and she always said, “I wish you could’ve been there. I was terrific.” I just loved her tenacity and her guts. Imagine what this brain could’ve been had it not been afflicted with so much.

Most geology students study earthquakes because they’re part of the course work, but earthquakes are what made Nikki want to study geology in the first place. She loved feeling the power of earthquakes, and she always wished they would happen more often but without all the devastation. Most people feel like they’re leaving the ground during an earthquake, but for Nikki it was one of the few times that she felt grounded, that she truly felt the ground. Sylmar in ’71 was her first. When the Northridge quake—the huge one—hit in ’94, she was about to come home from vacation in Hawaii and she missed it by less than 24 hours. She was devastated. Thank God for her karate master, Mr. Graham. He helped her through one of the most difficult times of her life. He was one of her most beloved friends to the end.

The first time I read about Asperger’s was in Newsweek. My sister sent the article to me and said, “This sounds just like Nikki.” The article is from July 2000. I still have it. I circled the last paragraph where it says that an institution is the last place these people should ever be sent, but it was too late for Nikki. I finally went to UCLA, and after examining her, the doctor there said she might have Asperger’s. I said, “Doctor, she does have Asperger’s.” He didn’t disagree. For Nikki, knowing what she had just didn’t help at all. She still simply couldn’t cope.

The noticeable deterioration came in the last ten years of her life; it was horrendous toward the end. The worst seemed to start when I moved into a new house in ’94, and the helicopters drove her crazy. Helicopters, lawn mowers, motorcycles, leaf blowers, and weed whackers were like a drill in her ear. She just really was suffering. She couldn’t get rid of the sounds in her head. And she had to fight the eyesight thing every waking moment of every day all her life.

I finally said to myself, “You know what, Angie? You cannot live your ‘other life.’?” I realized that there was only one way to find real peace for Nikki, and that was to stop doing the “other things.” Don’t go to dinners or functions. Don’t play poker. Just pretty much give it up, and I did. It helped. Nikki and I did everything together. We traveled together and saw movies together, even more than before. My life—conscious, subconscious, every conscious—was Nikki; I was completely dedicated to her. She just was my soul mate.

In 2006, we went to Alaska, Las Vegas, Russia, and Paris. We had melted cheese sandwiches with french fries every night at the top of the Eiffel Tower, and we’d laugh and say, “This French food is great.” We loved Tahiti. Nikki went 31 times. (She counted them in her passports.) It’s not only warm and hot there, but it’s beautiful and peaceful, so her brain could really have a wonderful few days.

Nikki couldn’t bear the thought of my death. It was obvious that the obituaries were filled with people my age. I asked her once about when it became so overwhelming for her, and she said, “When you turned 70, I realized it could happen.” It hit her hard—the realization she could lose me and be left alone without somebody who cared about her or knew her needs. No one could take my place.

She talked a lot about suicide. She was very open about it, even to people she didn’t know well. She read Final Exit, a book about planning suicide, and she found that asphyxiation was the most peaceful way she could do it—like going under anesthesia at the dentist.

What could I do? I had promised her I would never ever let her go into another hospital—never—and I meant it. One time when we were being lighthearted, I said, “Nikki, what would my life be without you in it?” She said, “Oh, you will be laughing on the phone and telling jokes and playing poker before you know it.” She didn’t know how much I loved her and would miss her and was entwined with her—how much I wanted to make everything right for her. But I couldn’t.

On her last Christmas Eve we went to church services. Nikki had always wanted to sing like most people, but she really couldn’t, maybe because singing is so much about bringing out what’s inside you. It’s about letting people know how you feel and who you are, and Nikki had always been isolated from the outside world and so unable to get through. But that night Nikki just sang and sang. I could hardly hear her over everybody else, but when I looked at her, I smiled at how much gusto she had singing those Christmas songs. She was free and at peace at that point because she knew where she was going.

Photograph by Ellen Graham