Autism as Metaphor

By POLLY MORRICE

SOME time ago, while trolling the Web, I came across a 30-year-old paper by William P. Sullivan, originally published in The Bulletin of the West Virginia Association of College English Teachers, that describes Melville’s Bartleby as ”a high-functioning autistic adult.” The notion struck me as far-fetched, but it certainly has had legs. A recent search using the words ”Bartleby” and ”autism” turned up, among other results, a 2004 Modern Language Association essay on the pale scrivener’s ”autistic presence” and a University of Iowa study guide that asks if Melville might have ”observed some of these attributes in himself.” Bartleby even appears on a site listing literary figures with autistic traits — along with Pippi Longstocking, Sherlock Holmes and several characters from ”Pride and Prejudice.”

What’s behind the impulse to unearth autism in the classics? In part, it may reflect our growing awareness of the disorder and its milder cousin, Asperger Syndrome. Critics seeking to diagnose literary icons may also be taking the current vogue for finding autism in dead geniuses — Michelangelo, Wittgenstein — to its logical conclusion. Given these trends, it’s not surprising that the wave of fascination with neurological quirks has also touched contemporary literature. Over the past decade or so, novelists and short-story writers in various markets — from genre authors to writers of young adult fiction to avant-garde experimentalists — have all created characters who could be labelled autistic.

It’s easy to see autism’s appeal to storytellers. Even mildly autistic people have problems communicating and understanding social behaviour; what’s more, these difficulties remain tantalizingly unexplained in an era when medical advances have demystified so many other ailments. We now know too much about, say, cholesterol, for a writer to portray heart disease as metaphorically as Ford Maddox Ford did almost a century ago in ”The Good Soldier.” But writers can still turn to autism when they’re looking for an ailment that can drive a plot and convey what English teachers once called ”layers of meaning.”

Not very long ago, those layers had a narrow range, from dark to darker. In ”M31: A Family Romance,” Stephen Wright’s 1988 portrait of a malevolently loony family, the youngest child, Zoe, slams her head against walls, yelps and echoes other people’s words. These symptoms almost caricature those of severe autism, but Zoe’s father, Dash, interprets them as the signals she uses to commune with extra-terrestrials, whom he considers his ancestors. It isn’t until the end of the book, after Zoe emits the ”scary cries of an undomesticated and certainly illegal beast,” that Dash starts to realize his ”jungle daughter” is damaged. Applying animal metaphors to disability seems jarring today, but it conforms to the professional belief current at the time: that autism was untreatable and tragic.

Sue Miller’s 1990 novel ”Family Pictures” also features an ”animal child,” or so David Eberhardt conceives of his autistic son, Randall, whose existence determines the choices his family makes over 35 years. Born in the late 1940’s, Randall stops speaking at age 4 and never learns any skills. But instead of trying to penetrate his silence, Miller uses him to explore two approaches to the problem of human suffering. Randall’s mother, Lainey, chooses religious acceptance; she loves her son unconditionally, despite realizing that ”nothing she did really helped . . . nothing changed, nothing developed.” In contrast, David, a psychiatrist, responds to Randall’s problems analytically, and at first he accepts the psychogenic conceit that rejecting mothers cause autism in their children, blaming Lainey for Randall’s illness.

Unsentimental and slyly ironic, Miller lets us know that David, who sees Randall as ”the son he would wish away if he had the power,” is in fact the rejecting parent. But Miller sustains at least one romantic notion, current when she wrote her novel- that autistic children are more beautiful than other children. Randall is ”undeniably the prettiest” of Lainey’s six children. As a teenager, he is ”still beautiful sometimes, in a nearly spiritual way,” but as a man, he has ”thickened and coarsened.” The idea of Randall as a failed Peter Pan is revealed most clearly at his death, when he’s described as ”free, in some sense, of human experience.” Compared to his rebellious and brilliant siblings, Randall has, in fact, always been barely human.

No recent character in contemporary fiction has been as intractably autistic as Randall. A possible explanation: during the 1990’s, we began receiving the hopeful news that symptoms of autism might range from marked to mild, and that early treatment can help the autistic child. Perhaps as a result, in the past decade the disorder has been dealt with most frequently in young adult fiction. The more reader-friendly autistic characters in novels like Nancy Werlin’s ”Are You Alone on Purpose?” or ”The Truth Out There,” by Celia Reese, sometimes speak fluently and have savant skills.

The best entry in this field is Gennifer Choldenko’s coming-of-age novel ”Al Capone Does My Shirts.” Its narrator, the 12-year-old Moose, faces the double challenge of living on Alcatraz Island in the 1930’s and babysitting for his older sister, Natalie, a math whiz whose behaviour would earn an autism diagnosis today. Choldenko has the teenage Natalie do something highly unusual among autistic literary characters: she learns pronouns and gets a crush on an inmate. In short, she develops.

The best-known fictional savant in the past few years is 15-year-old Christopher Boone, the prime-number-crunching narrator of Mark Haddon’s novel ”The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Although Christopher sets out to discover who killed his neighbour’s poodle, the book is less a mystery than an exploration of how Christopher’s mind functions (”My memory is like a film”) and how his extreme detachment dismays his down-to-earth English family. It’s also the work of a writer who has done his research but usually resists clobbering us with it. At one point, for example, Haddon wryly slips in the theory-of-mind concept of autism, developed by British researchers in the 1980’s. Christopher recalls how, as a young child, he failed a test meant to measure his ability to infer other people’s thoughts. His teacher predicts he’ll always have trouble with such tasks, but Christopher now knows he can puzzle out these tests — just as clever autistic teenagers have done in real life, dislodging the theory’s supremacy.

For parents who, like me, have a child with some of Christopher’s traits, the least believable aspect of the novel isn’t his stupendous math talent but his utter remoteness from his family. Yet Christopher’s inability to connect with the people who adore him (he likes dogs better than their masters) is what the novel is all about. If he were to hug his dad, it might be a more authentic rendering of his form of autism, but as fiction it would strike a false note.

Which leads to a deeper question about autism in fiction. Should writers be held to account for putting a metaphorical spin on a disorder that affects so many real people? Or for describing it inaccurately? Susan Sontag rejected using illness as metaphor, but that’s a losing battle. Novelists have always turned misfortunes to their advantage. Forget the potential autism in ”Pride and Prejudice” and note instead how adeptly Austen packs Jane Bennet off to a sickroom with a bad cold so her sister Elizabeth can be brought together with the haughty Mr. Darcy.

In Dean Koontz’s thriller ”By the Light of the Moon,” an autistic savant named Shepherd teleports people from one place to another. Upon hearing someone utter a common expression of impatience, Shep responds, ”Almond, filbert, peanut, walnut, black walnut, beechnut. . . . ” When it comes to this sort of portrayal of autism, a simple ”nuts” would do just fine.

New York Times Published: July 31, 2005

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