"I don't really understand why it's considered natural to stare at someone's eyeballs." John Elder Robison has Asperger's Syndrome. He grew up thinking he was inferior to normal people. Among other things, he had trouble looking people in the eye. Later he learned that this is typical for the people he calls "Aspergians." He also likes to invent names, and once invented, they must never change. He calls his wife "Unit 2" because she is the second of three sisters and has no idea why she would mind being asked, "Did I get the best sister?" After all, you ask your friends if they think you have the best car. Luckily, his wife doesn't mind and always expresses total confidence in her strange mate.
As a child growing up in a dysfunctional family, John was abused by an alcoholic father and confused by a mentally-ill mother. In turn, he tricked and teased his younger brother whom he named Varmint (his brother Augusten Burroughs wrote RUNNING WITH SCISSORS). Lonely and desperate for affirmation, John even tried to talk to the family dog. He spent most of his youth alone, playing with tinker toys and, later, explosives. By the time he was a teen John was troubled indeed, and his parents had him in family therapy with a bizarre shrink/guru who told him two useful things: he could call his mother and father by whatever names he chose (he picked "Stupid" and "Slave") and his father could not physically abuse him anymore (his father abided by the agreement, and he and John were reconciled many years later).
John's fascination with pyrotechnics began as a series of angry pranks --- setting paint stripes afire in a blazing pentagram underneath a realistic department store dummy hanged in effigy is but one example. Later, though, he still hadn't figured out how to have friends, which is what he wanted most. He found a temporary career and fame of a sort as a designer of flaming guitars for the outrageous rock group KISS. He parlayed those accomplishments into a job designing computer toys for Milton Bradley but continued to suffer from social deficiencies, even among the geeks in the research wing of MB. He was called everything from "not a team player" to sloppy and anti-social.
But he persisted in mainstream employment until he was pushed from engineering to the management level, where he floundered, not able to believe that managers were superior to engineers and therefore totally unsuited to tell his staff what to do. Finally, he hit on the idea of doing what he liked and trying to make a living at it. He loved to rebuild old, fine cars. That became the basis for his current successful small business, working on Land Rovers, Rolls and other high-ticket, beautifully engineered machines.
One of his customers gave him a book about Asperger's Syndrome (sometimes referred to as high-functioning autism), and he finally had a name for the disparate, often tormenting symptoms that had plagued him all his life --- the social ineptness, the high degree of focus on machinery, the inability to interpret the feelings of others and reciprocate emotionally. He now believes that had his parents had an awareness of his syndrome early on, he might have been spared a great deal of misery. Yet, logically, he knows he can't go back. And Aspergians are nothing if not logical.
LOOK ME IN THE EYE should be required reading for teachers and human services professionals, concerned parents and anyone who likes a well-crafted story of a life zestfully lived to the beat of wildly different drums.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on September 25, 2007