Recently, someone has come in to my life who was diagnosed with Asperger’s a few years ago. At his urging to “read a little about it”, I picked up Look Me In the Eye at the public library. (Side note: I am shocked at how little there is out there about this condition.)
John Elder Robison is the brother of Augusten Burroughs (Running with Scissors, Dry), and while I vaguely remember Robison from Burroughs’ memoirs, he reminds the reader that he and his brother had “different parents”, and having read both brothers’ accounts of their childhood, that’s very true. Robison is older by several years, born before his mother’s descent in to madness and his father’s alcoholism became his tragic downfall.
From the beginning, Robison remembers feeling different. He describes trying to make friends at school and in the neighborhood, but not knowing how to go about it, and when he does make the attempt, the kids think he’s weird or a misfit. Later, after his brother is born, and his mother goes insane and his father begins drinking himself into a blackout every night, he acts out in larger ways. (There’s a particularly uncomfortable scene involving a store mannequin and a power pole that would have ended very differently in this decade.) Finally, he feels he has no choice but to leave – leave school, leave the family, leave his brother, leave town.
The middle part of the story lags a bit for my taste. Robison falls in with KISS (yes, the band, of all things), making pyrotechnic guitars and other special effects. He eventually moves on to work for Milton Bradley, and then finally finds happiness in opening his own automotive garage. While I found it interesting – that’s a pretty varied career arc – I didn’t particularly want to read about the specifics of the smoke bombs used on stage. But I believe that those very specifics are in keeping with Robinson’s personality – it’s what’s interesting to him – so in a way, I don’t know how he could have left them out.
It isn’t until the last few chapters of the book that Robison returns to explaining why he does what he does, which was my purpose in picking this up. Those few chapters are extremely enlightening, and paint a picture of a man who, at his core, really isn’t all that different from the rest of us. We all have anxiety, we all wonder if we’re making the best decision in the moment, we all obsess over certain things, we all wonder if our “flaws” will be passed on to our children. What won me over – because at times Robison’s behavior is a little on the jerky side for my taste – were two things: his love and concern for his son, and his obvious love for his wife. “I like married life a lot,” he says. And I can’t think of a more romantic and honest sentiment.
Robison clearly wants to make a difference by writing this book and I think that he has, if in no other way than he has healed himself – and those he loves – a little bit. I don’t know as Look Me In the Eye is The Book on Asperger’s – and honestly, I don’t know as it should be; maybe it should just be The Book on John Robinson – but I think it’s a good start, and I think that anyone who loves someone affected by it should pick this up. It won’t unlock the mysteries, but it will shine a little light on things.