Archive for August 1st, 2011

Hugh Dancy as Adam

Dear friends and readers,

A critique and review of Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. File this under reviews meant to alert readers to a book or film (or art-work of whatever kind) that works to harm people. Kate Chisholm’s supposedly empathetic book on anorexia, My Hungry Hell is deeply hostile to anorexic women; it harms those it purports to help. You and Me and Everyone We Know does not liberate people sexually; it invites viewers to enjoy sordid bullying of vulnerable lonely people. Merely venally Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is disingenuous and meretricious: she pretends to critique the medical establishment to sell her concoction (her bad book is Truth and Beauty). It’s true that far from claiming a desire to help Aspergers people, Haddon claims he did not know he was writing a book describing an Aspergers person, with the implication he did not. We are reading “Aspergers traits” into his book. Haddon says it makes him angry that his book sold so widely, and that he made such a lot of money on this false understanding. (Did he donate any to austistic causes?)

Well, nonsense. The book was deliberately written in this way: the author has read descriptions of behaviors said to be typical of the autistic, and then gone about to dramatize each, feature by feature. The book is quite consistent. Its limitation is the author reads simplistic descriptions which are unconsciously very critical of Aspergers and regard autistic people as sub-human, or inhumane. For example, one can read that the person is without empathy, or is intensely into and knows to absurd lengths some (ridiculous) area of knowledge (e.g., loves numbers). Underlying the book is a kind of glee with the central narrator being a kind of freak show. A literary (ahem) equivalent of unscripted “reality” TV shows where the idea is to expose someone.

The reality of Aspergers is (this is just one aspect) there is a disconnect neurologically between the Aspergers’ persons emotions and his or her ability to communicate them in a socially acceptable way, not that they are without emotion. A good example is one I experience (I have a number of Aspergers traits): I feel too strongly and have to control evidence of this strong feeling, for if or when I show it, while the immediate response may be sympathy or empathy (it may not), in the situations I am thinking about what happens is later on when the person is not there any more, I discover they estrange themselves. My sense of one of the afflictions of Aspergers is that Aspergers people feel every bit as strongly as neurotypicals, and sometimes stronger, for other people, but because we (or I) seem not to know how to show it in ways that are acceptable, I’m driven to hide it and then the NT person doesn’t know it’s there or can conveniently ignore or manipulate it. Some who is an Aspergers person has told me that for him a single or what seems a casual encounter can mean a great deal when it doesn’t the NT person. Not to reduce this, my metaphor is that of a child with one train; that child values that train; where the child with many, doesn’t value any particular one that much.

This idea that it is irregularity and not knowing how to deal with emotion that is the problem is backed by serious research:


Mark Haddon’s novel is in fact a cruel and hollow caricature of an Aspergers person. I suspect it sold widely because it held out a lurid portrait of a person as a “mind blind” freak. The book probably works to reinforce the worst kinds of prejudices against Aspergers people as zombies who would (or could) kill a dog with a fork and not care in the least or not be aware of it. Haddon made lots of money by feeding the average person’s enjoyment of such sensational melodrama.

One problem I’ve noticed are news reports or books or essays which purport to be sympathetic and helpful but are actually hostile and create a negative and false idea of autism. I saw one on Fox News (no surprise there) which horrified me; we are shown a monster little boy who beats his pathetic mother up. Message: put this creature in institution. Most are more subtle; you don’t pick up how coercive and unfriendly they are (the person must be “cured” of this awful “syndrome”) and filled with false caricatures which demean and make worthless people. Hugh Dancy as Adam, an Aspergers young man, is meant to be compassionate, but it feeds the idea that the Aspergers person need only force himself to be social, that unless you socialize you have no life, there are no talents one can excercise and fulfill outside networking.

It’s improbable Haddon didn’t know what he was doing for his other work shows him dramatizing simplistic notions of mental troubles, distresses, illness, for example, the fashionable fad for defining people as “bi-polar” The book has sold widely, presumably read as well as bought by many people who word-of-mouth made fascinated by this idea he was describing an Aspergers person. It’s part of the “clever hook” that he alludes to Sherlock Holmes as weirdly brilliant: the title of Haddon’s book alludes to a famous enigmatic question in The Hounds of the Baskervilles.

On this book, it’s good to remember John Lanchester’s “It’s not true to say that only bad books make the bestseller list. But it is a little bit true, and it is always the case that bad books greatly outnumber good ones at the top end of the charts. Sometimes, too, you come across an example of pure negative correlation between the quality of a book and the level of its sales.”

See my blog on MacNeil’s reports on Autism today: The Grandfather’s Story.

Also Wretches and Jabberers: a film about autism

Ellen Moody

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