Look Me In The Eye: My Life with Asperger’s
by John Elder Robison
I try to make a habit of picking up books written by people on the autism spectrum – it’s part of my effort to read inclusively, but it also has a personal component, since my husband is on the spectrum. (You can see my list of books on this subject here.) Look Me In The Eye is a book about growing up in the 70s, when an autism diagnosis usually meant a kid entirely incapable of most communication – they didn’t really understand the spectrum yet. John Elder Robison was not that child, so he didn’t discover his diagnosis until his 40s. Autistic adults discovering the reason for their quirks is a very common story, though these days it’s more often women who fall through the cracks than men.
It’s always amusing to me spotting the similarities between autistic memoirs and my husband – one of them came very early in the book, when Robison is talking about a book shown to him by his father.
We looked at books together, especially the Boy Scout Woodsman manual. I can still remember the pictures that showed how to make a trap, and the correct way to step over a fallen log.
I dreamed about trapping wolves and bears, but garter snakes and frogs were as close as I got. And I’ve never forgotten the woodsman’s log-crossing techniques that I learned at five.
My husband, similarly, has mentioned a book of survival skills he read as a child, and was particularly fascinated by the traps. (He also still remembers those pages clearly.)
The blurb on the cover says Robison is a natural-born storyteller, which his brother also mentions in the Foreword to the book – and they’re right. This book just flows. Robison has a wonderful writing style. He’s funny but still shows the hardship of growing up with an alcoholic father and a mentally unstable mother. (He called them “Slave” and “Stupid” until he moved out at sixteen.) He maybe be critical of other peoples’ actions in his past, but he also admits to leaving his brother head-down in five-foot deep holes and pulling other “pranks” that probably weren’t as funny to the people around him. (The mannequin he wrapped up and hung from a powerline above a burning pentagram deep in the woods before calling the local police to report it was rather amazing, though. Teenagers, man.)
This was a great look at growing up before a diagnosis existed; struggling to make up for the ways an autistic mind works differently when the world won’t meet you halfway. My favorite kind of books about autism so far have been the memoirs. This is, I think, my fourth. The Journal of Best Practices was written by another man, and Pretending to be Normal and Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate by women.
From the cover of Look Me In The Eye:
Ever since he was small, John Robison had longed to connect with other people, but by the time he was a teenager, his odd habits – an inclination to blurt out non sequiturs, avoid eye contact, dismantle radios, and dig five-foot holes (and stick his younger brother in them) – had earned him the label “social deviant.” No guidance came from his mother, who conversed with light fixtures, or his father, who spent evenings pickling himself in sherry. It was no wonder he gravitated to machines, which could, at least, be counted on.
After fleeing his parents and dropping out of high school, his savant-like ability to visualize electronic circuits landed him a gig with KISS, for whom he created their legendary fire-breathing guitars. Later, he drifted into a “real” job, as an engineer for a major toy company. But the higher Robison rose in the company, the more he had to pretend to be “normal” and do what he simply couldn’t: communicate. It wasn’t worth the paycheck.
It was not until he was forty that an insightful therapist told him he had the form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome. That understanding transformed the way Robison saw himself – and the world.
Look Me In The Eye is the moving, darkly funny story of growing up with Asperger’s at a time when the diagnosis simply didn’t exist. A born storyteller, Robison takes you inside the head of a boy whom teachers and other adults regarded as “defective,” who could not avail himself of KISS’s endless supply of groupies, and who still has a peculiar aversion to using people’s given names (he calls his wife “Unit Two”). He also provides a fascinating reverse angle on the younger brother he left at the mercy of their nutty parents – the boy who would later change his name to Augusten Burroughs and write the bestselling memoir Running With Scissors.
Ultimately, this is the story of Robison’s journey from his world into ours, and his new life as a husband, father, and successful small business owner – repairing his beloved high-end automobiles. It’s a strange, sly, indelible account – sometimes alien, yet always deeply human.