Note: Portions of this blog entry were taken from a paper I presented at last year's Pop Culture Association (PCA/ACA) Conference in Albuquerque, NM.
In a recent article published in the Wall Street Journal, author Eli Gottlieb describes his struggles with creating a novel told entirely from the perspective of a first person narrator with ASD. Gottlieb first explains that realistic novels should instruct readers, implying that he hopes his book will instruct his audience about the characteristics, differences, and challenges of living with ASD. However, the author says that he comes to an impasse when trying to write from this distinct point of view.
I find myself continually shoved up against a paradox: How do you make interesting a world which is by definition pathologically self-enclosed? How does the tool kit of the novel, with its venerable elements of dialogue, landscape and plotting, persuasively present the first-person experience of someone who is overstimulated by the input of life and yet lacks the cognitive means to process and communicate it? (par. 2).
In response, Landon Bryce, author of I Love Being My Own Autistic Self and supporter of neurodiversity, writes, “Someone who feels that autistic people are ‘pathologically self-enclosed’ is not, as the Wall Street Journal headline claims, ‘Giving a Voice to Autism.’ He is, with the best intentions in the world, giving a voice to bigotry” (Bryce par. 2-3).
This dialogue demonstrates the dilemma faced by both writers and readers of fiction narrated in first person by characters with ASD. While the writers of these novels often have the expressed intention of enlightening and instructing readers through their depictions of the nuances that exist along the autism spectrum, they may grapple with giving these characters an authentic voice. In some of these novels, autism is depicted as a disorder. In some, a difference. In some, both.
The pattern I have observed in these novels is that the authors attempt to recreate the voice of a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), or Asperger’s Syndrome through a first person narrator. In the beginning of the novels, the effect is that the reader comes to understand these neurological differences and appreciate them. However, the narrative arcs of these books often concludes with the narrator being “transformed” by the love of a partner, family member, or friend. The result? The narrator appears and sounds less autistic than they did at the beginning of the novel.
In some of these novels, autism is depicted as a disorder. In some, a difference. In some, both.
I find this incredibly problematic. While people with ASD can learn how to better communicate through increased social interaction, the idea that people can or need to be changed through a parent’s love or the love of a boyfriend or girlfriend is ridiculous. More distressing is that the transformation is treated almost as a transition from a childlike state to a state of maturity. Again, having ASD does not make a person less mature or more childlike. Yet, this coming-of-age character arc of maturity and transformation occurs in book after book.
Now, having said this, I love the books discussed here. I think they are well written and, in the case of several, bittersweet and poignant. However, I feel the same way about these novels as I feel about retellings of Cinderella—they’re fun to read, possibly even touching, but not always realistic.
Marcelo and the Real World by Francisco Stork is perhaps the most realistic of these novels. Marcelo begins his story as a socially awkward teenager. Through a job at his father’s company, Marcelo meets and falls for a young woman working in the mailroom. In Marcelo’s narrative arc, he starts out completely naïve and slowly comes to fully comprehend what is going on around him. Marcelo feels the pain and struggles that others go through, and begins to develop neurotypical emotional awareness he did not previously possess. By the end of the book, Marcelo is able to overcome deficits previously caused by ASD. The story is tenderly depicted and Marcelo still retains his “special interests” and non-neurotypical narrative style even though he has become more mature.
British author Mark Haddon published one of the first novels featuring a narrator with Asperger’s Syndrome. At the opening of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, fifteen-year-old Christopher is a socially isolated child who has great mathematical abilities. Christopher also has violent repetitive reactions when overwhelmed by sensory input, which can include anything from too many people in a room, to seeing too many yellow cars in one day. His negative behavior includes screaming, groaning, refusing to speak or eat, and smashing things (Haddon 46). At the beginning of the book, he shows an extreme lack of empathy, even while misreporting his mistaken belief that his mother is dead (Haddon 26). By the end of the novel, Christopher retains his academic prowess, but is also able to have an in-depth conversation with his parents about trust (Haddon 218). His violent behaviors diminish, and like Marcelo, he becomes more mature.
Literary critic Tom Cutterham explains that in Haddon’s book, as well as in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, “the alienation of the autistic perspective is continually being countered by structures of loving protection, radiating out from family, society, and the state” (par. 15). In the same way, both Jodi Picoult’s House Rules and Jael McHenry’s The Kitchen Daughter feature narrators who undergo a coming-of-age experience through the power of familial love.
This coming-of-age pattern can also be seen in Australian author Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project and its sequel The Rosie Effect. Don, a professor of genetics with ASD begins the first book as a socially isolated man driven by his obsessive routines. After he falls in love with Rosie, many of his ASD characteristics disappear. In order to repeat this cycle in the sequel, Don’s ASD qualities reappear when the newly married he discovers that his new wife is pregnant. Then, the narrative arc is reestablished, so that by the end of the novel, Don is able to again fully communicate and narrate his thoughts and feelings while empathizing with his wife.
These novels all demonstrate an authorial attempt at solving the “dilemma” of autism by using the very lens of ableism they have tried so painstakingly to eliminate. In truth, the answer to solving this dilemma is simple: instead of attempting to “cure” these narrators, authors need to allow readers to connect with these characters in spite of and because of their neurological, social, and communicative differences. In doing so, readers can gain a better awareness of autism and can come to appreciate these differences rather than feel distanced from them.
Perhaps novels of this type will come from writers who themselves have ASD, or perhaps, they will come with time as more people learn about and come to accept the principles of neurodiversity. Whatever the case, there is a need for accurate representation of this population, which can only be accomplished through realistic plots in which characters are allowed to grow and develop without losing their unique neurologically diverse perspectives.
For today’s blog, I’m tying my thoughts in with the #FolkloreThursday group on Twitter, something that I have come to love and look forward to every week!
I started on Wednesday night considering modern folklore and the stories and “urban” legends we began to see online—first with email forwards, then Facebook posts, then tweets, and then (for the most part) ads made to look like stories.
There is one I received my first year of college. Now, over 10 years later, it still crops up here and there, though I think most people now realize the threat is no longer as dangerous or deadly as it once was.
The story goes something like this:
A young college coed named Mary went on Spring Break with her friends. While partying on the beach the first night, she met a handsome stranger. They hooked up immediately and fell into bed together that night. For Mary, it didn’t seem like a one night stand. He called the next day, and came over every night that week. Mary thought she had fallen in love. The last day of her trip, the young man took Mary and her friends to the airport. He gave her a small box and told her not to open it until she got on the plane. Mary’s heart leapt for joy, believing that this Spring Break fling was now something real. Perhaps her gift would be an engagement ring! Before takeoff, Mary’s friends leaned over as she ripped off the paper and opened the box. Inside was a tiny gold casket. Inside the casket was a small slip of paper which read, “Welcome to the world of AIDS.”
Two things always strike me about this story when reading it now:
Live deep and suck out all the marrow out of life.
The story is a modern day retelling of Daisy Miller, the novella by Henry James of a beautiful American girl traveling throughout Europe. First in Switzerland and then in Rome, she risks her reputation by going about unchaperoned with various suitors at night. After one of these excursions, she becomes ill from “Roman Fever” and dies.
While reading Ellen Hopkins Crank with my Children’s Literature class this semester, I noticed a similar pattern. A girl on vacation meets a boy, has her first encounters with love, lust, and drugs, which lead to her almost ruin. She gives into temptation while vacationing. Away from her real life, her real home, her real problems, she becomes someone else entirely—Bree instead of plain Kristina.
The idea which is reinforced in all of these tales is that, for a woman, leaving your daily responsibilities and stepping outside the boundaries of your prescribed role will lead to ruin.
In truth, these narratives can be viewed as retellings or adaptations of Little Red Riding Hood. In the tale told today, Little Red Riding Hood wanders off the path prescribed by her mother. She ventures into the woods and speaks with a wolf. The wolf finds her destination first, eats her grandmother, and attempts to eat Little Red. Then, a hunter or woodcutter comes and saves the day. Sometimes this man is Red’s age (if she is a teenager). Sometimes, he is a father figure (if she is a child).
The earliest versions of this tale include two major differences:
That’s it. There is no father or love interest to save her. She veers off the path and dies.
Her punishment for having the fever is a casket. (Well, not really, since there are no remains, except perhaps a few small bones the wolf spits out, but you get the idea)
One of the only inversions of this pattern is “Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton. I hesitate to even discuss it here for those who have not read it. The tale is a brilliant feminist response to Henry James, and the entire Little Red Riding Hood paradigm. In it, the woman struck by “Spring Fever” while in Rome triumphs over her puritanical adversary by revealing just what joys that fever brought her. It is a story of shifting values and the differences between Victorian and Modern sensibilities.
I think that these folktales do demonstrate something about the way in which we view sex and women who have even the appearance of impropriety. For the most part, what I find interesting about this is that sex should not exist in this dichotomy of good vs. bad. And neither should those who have it or choose not to have it. For all the stories of girls getting AIDS on vacation, there are more girls mocked for not having sex on vacation—for being prudish and not letting go. They are judged and ruined socially just as much as Daisy was over 100 years ago for being bold and exploring Rome (and perhaps more) with a young man and no chaperon.
I think too that women can own their sexuality and become empowered without having sex outside marriage, or with multiple partners or with random hookups. People do not always talk about this. I sometimes think that women have been given a choice by society today: Be prudish and stick to the path of staying “pure,” getting married, and having children just like the good little girl and little woman society expects you to be… or be wanton, bold, and daring and hike “off trail” and do whatever you want.
People who hike off trail can be caught in quick sand or fall down cliffs. They can also have adventures that allow them to learn and grow. But going off the path does not require having multiple partners or experimenting. Women can be bold and claim their sexual power while exploring their lives, their careers, and their world in other ways.
So, my last thought would be this: If you feel as if you are fenced in like Little Red Riding Hood before her story begins—stuck at home baking bread for your grandma all day like a good little girl when all you want to do is go out and explore that big world…
You don’t have to rebel experimenting with alcohol or drugs or sex to stop being that perfect little Victorian doll on the shelf or that stereotypical 50s housewife. Female empowerment can mean sex, but it doesn’t have to. It can mean saying “No” when your employer asks you to take on one more project so that you can stop juggling and just breathe for a minute. Maybe for you, empowerment means that you stop be polite or a doormat and start being more assertive. Maybe it means dumping that boyfriend who cheats on you and never calls you, or asking out that special someone you've had your eye on. It could mena being honest with your parents about how they mistreated you as a child, or making time for that art/ music /dance /gym /whatever class you’ve always wanted to take, writing that book you’ve always wanted to write.
Follow your passion. Because I don’t think Red or Mary or Daisy wanted to go off with the wolf. I think they just wanted to have adventures. In the words of Thoreau, they, “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”
In a year when our news is dominated by political figures vying for leadership by making horrible accusations against each other while screaming and yelling, I found this book about an American secretary thrust into a leadership position quite refreshing.
Peggy is an American secretary originally from Ghana. After the death of her uncle, the chief of her village, Peggy is called upon to become the first female king of her village. She travels to Ghana for her coronation and begins to see the decay that has taken place because of neglect and political corruption that began during her uncle’s reign.
Peggy’s shows great courage and fortitude when faced with the fact that she has been chosen for leadership based on underhanded reasons, and I admired her tactful strength as a leader. I also greatly enjoyed learning more about Ghana and the culture of that region.
The prose is lovely and the descriptions reminded me of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. For example, upon arriving in Africa, the power goes out. The author writes, "The electricity had gone off about an hour earlier, and Peggy wondered how long Cousin Comfort's starched robes and head wrap edged with gold lace would stay crisp, how long her black wig would remain perfectly coiffed, how long her rouge would stay perched on her wide mahogany cheekbones before it slowly glided downward and landed somewhere between her jaw and her chin."
This image of starched robes slowly melting into a literal hot mess is a vivid one, but more than that the voice and style of writing is different from terse prose typically used in autobiographies. Culturally, the people of Ghana are not direct in their communication style. I found the writing here to be an authentic representation of the way in which the Ghanaians speak and relate to one another.
I loved this book. There are some themes of American preeminence, and the belief that American styles of leadership and communication are better than those in other countries. However, the biography primarily focuses on female empowerment and the challenges of negotiating power when family is involved.
This novel is filled with colorful characters, and I fully recommend reading it.
Buy it on Amazon Here!