Our House Is on Fire is a memoir tracing the lives of the members of the Ernman/Thunberg family through chaos to clarity. Although credited as being by all four members of the Swedish family, this book is clearly in the voice of Malena Ernman, the matriarch of the tribe.

Through her eyes we follow the slow-motion collapse of a family trying to hold it together and the rise of an unlikely champion. It is a remarkable book on many levels: it’s an unflinching description of the climate crisis, it’s an intensely intimate portrait of a family in freefall and it’s a deeply moving coming-of-age story of one of the heroes of our time.

 

This is a story about people who are different, who don’t fit the mould of what we think we are supposed to be. Or maybe they just have a harder time pretending to fit that mould than most of us do.

"Differentness is the basis of all art. And without art everything is going to slowly, slowly crumble into nothing," the authors state.

Malena Ernman and Svante Thunberg are "cultural workers:" performers in opera and theatre, respectively. They are incredibly ambitious, sharing a vision of finding a new audience for opera, pushing the boundaries of the art form to speak to a new generation. And they are immensely successful.

But when their children, Beata Ernman and Greta Thunberg, each begin exhibiting signs of extreme behavioural disabilities, they cancel all their contracts and focus on the needs of their daughters. They are aware of the amount of privilege they have that makes this possible.

KENA BETANCUR / AFP</p><p>In this 2019 photo, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (left) and her father SvanteThunberg arrive in the U.S. after a 15-day journey crossing the Atlantic in a zero-carbon yacht.</p>

KENA BETANCUR / AFP

In this 2019 photo, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (left) and her father SvanteThunberg arrive in the U.S. after a 15-day journey crossing the Atlantic in a zero-carbon yacht.

Beata’s difficulties stem from an extreme sensitivity to sound and touch. It takes her five hours to dress for a trip to the zoo; the stiffness of her clothing is agonizing to her. She insists the family use plastic cutlery to avoid the sound of metal on china. After years of stress and chaos, she is finally diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Asperger’s, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).

Greta’s condition is much more severe. At age 11 she is "slowly disappearing into some kind of darkness." She cries constantly, she stops laughing, she stops talking, she stops eating. In two months, she drops over 20 pounds. It takes her more than two hours to eat five pieces of gnocchi. She cannot speak in the presence of anyone but her immediate family. She is simply unable to cope. In addition to selective mutism and anorexia, Greta is diagnosed with autism.

The connections between the crisis facing the planet and the internal struggle of this family are rendered clearly and rationally. Like most disabilities, the experience of living with autism and ADHD give these individuals an opportunity to perceive aspects of the human condition that are less apparent to most of us. For Greta, the unreasonable demand that we all live in the disconnect between what we know and what we do vis-à-vis the climate crisis is simply intolerable.

Because she cannot lie to herself, Greta must act in a way that is consistent with what she knows to be true. She is in thrall to her integrity. With incredible courage, her parents back her up.

Malena knows how to do this because she too lives with ADHD. She knows her daughters cannot discipline themselves to give their attention to anything that doesn’t interest them. While others might think Greta and Beata’s behaviour is wilful or obstinate, Malena knows the opposite is true. She also knows that given the support to follow their own curiosity, they will excel beyond all measure. Indeed, this strategy led to Malena’s remarkable musical career.

Svante and Malena throw themselves behind their daughters’ obsession with the climate crisis. They arrange meetings with scientists, they take a road trip north of the Arctic Circle in their electric car, they become vegans, they stop flying. They do everything they can to help Greta pursue her interest in the science and the politics of the climate crisis. And all the wisdom they gain about the shocking reality of the crisis we have created is laid out in black-and-white, woven into the story of this family finding their way through chaos. We cannot look away.

With this support to follow her passions, Greta begins to cope a little better, but she remains a high-needs child. She and Beata are full-time jobs for both of their struggling parents.

When Greta proposes the idea of the climate strike — of refusing to go to school for three weeks and instead to sit in front of the Swedish Parliament for seven hours a day — her parents’ unconditional support is put to the test. They worry about her fragility and warn her that she will be on her own — they cannot hold her hand through this journey. She is undeterred.

It is incredibly moving to watch, through the eyes of her terrified parents, as this silent, fragile, apprehensive child finds a voice that thunders with conviction, blazes with passion and reverberates around the world.

Although this book was first published in Sweden in 2018, this new translation is an extremely important book for our times. It provides a context for understanding the ways the pandemic has changed our world, how we have made a global effort to address the crisis and offers hope for our ability to take the drastic action needed for the planet.

As the authors write, "it’s the crisis itself that is the solution to the crisis.

"Because in a crisis we change our habits and our behaviour.

"In a crisis we are capable of anything."

Let us hope so.

 

Debbie Patterson is a "cultural worker" and an advocate for disability justice.