Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

House Rules

I'm reading the book House Rules by Jodi Picoult, and have been for quite some time. Or rather, I started reading it before I got my Kindle, then abjured any reading material that came in non-Kindle form for a minute, and now I'm reading it again. 
It's about an 18-year-old man with Asperger Syndrome who is on trial for murder. I think part of the reason that I've been taking so long to read it, aside from the abjuring of all things paper, is that the book irks me, a lot. See, the main character, Jacob, is an asshole. The book keeps switching first-person narrators, from his mom, to his brother, to him, to his lawyer, and I think we're supposed to get a whole picture of the world of Asperger Syndrome or something. I'm getting a picture of a person who is an asshole. I don't think that's what the author was going for.
So I guess I should define Asperger Syndrome first. People with Aspergers display a lot of the symptoms of autism, but tend not to have as many of the verbal and cognitive issues that go along with autism. I don't like the term high functioning, because it makes me think of stereos and toaster ovens, but that's a term used a lot to describe people with the condition. Some of the symptoms follow:

  • Difficulty with interpersonal social interaction (difficulty with eye contact, maintaining a conversation, understanding non-verbal cues such as tone and pitch of voice, difficulty taking turns in a conversation)
  • Obsession with routine 
  • Perceived lack of empathy
  • Stereotypic behavior (rocking, flapping, pacing)
  • Obsession with or fixation on a few subjects, lack of interest in almost anything else
  • Tendency to be literal, matter-of-fact, or exceptionally honest
Obviously, this is a pretty general list and likely sounds like about a dozen people you know, so I'd advise you not go about diagnosing people with it. I, for instance, rock, flap, pace, am obsessed with a few subjects and have a difficult time taking turns in conversations. I definitely don't have Aspbergers.
Often, these symptoms can cause a person with Aspergers to appear to be an asshole. Take the old "do these jeans make my butt look fat" conversation. Let's say John asks Mary, who has Aspergers, whether these jeans make his butt look fat. Mary replies that yes, in fact, John's butt looks very fat in those jeans. John gets upset, and Mary doesn't understand why; maybe Mary even gets defensive and argumentative about it. John starts crying, and Mary doesn't appear to care.
Under the surface, Mary is answering the question honestly because she believes that it is wrong to lie. Maybe she knows that there are circumstances under which it's appropriate to lie, but she's not sure which ones are which, so she's honest, because honesty is the best policy. When John gets mad at Mary, Mary's at a loss because she thought she was doing the right thing. Maybe Mary's a little indignant because Mary is trying really hard to be a good friend to John and John is angry that Mary is trying to be a good friend. When John starts crying, Mary doesn't know what to do. Not only does she not feel bad because she was only telling the truth, she's not sure what the socially appropriate response to someone crying is. When Mary's upset, having people touch her, hug her, engage her, makes her more stressed out, and she doesn't want to do that to John so she just does nothing. Or maybe she's so frustrated and overstimulated by the whole experience that she shuts down and goes off into her own world.
Really, if you look at it from Mary's perspective, John is the one who is being rude. John has changed the rules without telling Mary - he wants Mary to lie, but he doesn't tell Mary that. Then he's getting mad at Mary for not playing the game by the rules that he just made up. Then he expects Mary to feel bad for failing to know that the arbitrary rules have arbitrarily changed. Who is the asshole?

Anyway, the book House Rules fails to convince us that Jacob cares about anyone or anything. He is selfish and self-centered. He doesn't care if he hurts your feelings. In fact, he does really hurtful things, on purpose, just because, and then blames it on his disability. And Jacob, and his mother, and the author, for that matter, seem to think that the solution to the problem is to have the entire world change to accommodate Jacob's behavior. Of course it's fine for him to run through life telling people their butts are big. But the majority of people are always going to get upset if you tell them they have a big butt. If Jacob continues to tell people they have big butts, people are going to continue not to like him and not to hang out with him. Nobody says "Hey Jacob, just so you know for next time, usually when people ask if they look fat, their feelings will be hurt if you say yes. If you are fine with that, okay, but if you're not, let's talk about some alternate answers to that question."
From my fancy new DSLR to you

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