A celebrated novelist decrees that "imagination always trumps research." A father of a boy with Asperger's disagrees.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon's debut novel, was the sort of mammoth best-seller writers dream of, a work that garnered both near-universal critical acclaim and enormous commercial success.
It was the Whitbread Book of the Year for 2003, a New York Times Notable Book, and an entry on countless end-of-year best-of lists. "Original and affecting," said The New Yorker. "Clever and observant," gushed The Washington Post. "Funny, sad, and totally convincing," added Time.
Curious Incident has sold more than two million copies, and continues to fly off the shelves. It is a staple of book clubs. It is widely taught in schools. A film adaptation is in development.
If there is a contemporary canon, Curious Incident is in it.
I read the novel early in 2006, on the recommendation of a writer friend, but I wasn't impressed by it. To me, Curious Incident is a gimmick novel -- a well-conceived one, perhaps, but a gimmick novel just the same -- and one hindered by a lame third act. When I finished, I filed it on my bookshelf and forgot all about it.
At the time, my son was 18 months old. He'd not yet been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.
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The novel's appeal lies in its 15-year-old narrator, Christopher John Francis Boone, whom Slate lauded as "[o]ne of the strangest and most convincing characters in recent fiction."
Boone describes himself as "a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties," but despite this stylistic obfuscation, we're not left to guess at his diagnosis. Early book jackets made explicitly clear that he has Asperger's syndrome.
As an official medical diagnosis, Asperger's is relatively new. It was first included in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, in 1994, just nine years before Haddon's novel was published.
Curious Incident may not have been the first work of fiction ever written on the subject, but it was certainly the first "Asperger's novel" to achieve widespread notice. It introduced me to the term. Christopher John Francis Boone, Haddon's "most convincing" narrator, was the first "aspie" I knew.
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My son is now six and a half. In the three years since his diagnosis, I've learned quite a bit about Asperger's and autistic spectrum disorder, both from personal observation and diligent research. And I've come to see what an inaccurate picture of Asperger's Curious Incident paints.
Asperger's tends to be a relatively mild form of autistic spectrum disorder. Most aspies are "high-functioning." They don't refuse to go to school if they spy a yellow car, or curl up into a whimpering ball on a train because there are too many people around, as Boone does in Curious Incident.
Indeed, if Christopher John Francis Boone has Asperger's, as we've been led to believe, he has one of the most extreme forms of the disorder ever recorded.
Although there are those on the autistic spectrum who found Haddon's portrayal of Asperger's on base -- William Schofield, then a student at a London college for aspies, wrote in The Guardian that "the similarities are very convincing between Chris and me especially, in my opinion" -- it is telling that many of Curious Incident's 73 one-star Amazon reviews (there are a staggering 1,720 reviews in all, most fours and fives) were submitted by aspies. Here's a smattering:
"Stereotyped, inaccurate, horribly offensive... this isn't how it is." "Haddon does not understand Asperger." "Stereotypical view of an autistic child." "I find it hard to believe that Mark Haddon is an autism expert, because Christopher Boone isn't like any other child with Asperger's that I've ever met." "A major disservice to the Autistic Community." "An excellent portrayal of autism...NOT!"
The aspie reviewers, as it happens, were onto something. Haddon, by his own admission, is clueless about Asperger's. "I know very little about the subject," he confessed on his website, in an blog posted on July 16, 2009. "I did no research for Curious Incident... I'd read Oliver Sacks's essay about Temple Grandin and a handful of newspaper and magazine articles about, or by, people with Asperger's and autism. I deliberately didn't add to this list."
Then he added: "Imagination always trumps research. I thought that if I could make Christopher real to me then he'd be real to readers....Judging by the reaction, it seems to have worked."
Oh, it worked, all right. But at what cost?
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In 1989, Rain Man won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Dustin Hoffman), Best Original Screenplay (Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass), Best Director (Barry Levinson), and Best Picture.
The character of Raymond Babbitt is based on Kim Peek, a man capable of astounding feats of mathematics and memory. Posthumously diagnosed with Opitz-Kaveggia syndrome, Peek had no corpus callosum connecting the two halves of his brain.
In the film, Babbitt is called an autistic savant...but the real Kim Peek was not autistic.
Nevertheless, Rain Man became the popular culture's introduction to autism.
Thirty years later, the belief persists that autistics can reliably count a pile of toothpicks at a glance. This is a powerful negative stereotype that autistic children (and their parents) must overcome.
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Six years after the release of Curious Incident, Haddon, curiously, began to back away from Boone's book-jacket Asperger's diagnosis. "Curious Incident is not a book about Asperger's," he wrote on his blog. "It's a novel whose central character describes himself as 'a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties'. Indeed he never uses the words 'Asperger's' or 'autism' (I slightly regret that fact that the word 'Asperger's' was used on the cover)."
Was his regret only "slight" because he knew that without those magic words on the cover, the book might not have sparked as much interest, or sold as many copies?
More importantly, why did it take six years for Haddon to recant? Was he (belatedly) empathizing with the Asperger's community, the writers of those 73 one-star reviews, who now must deal with Christopher John Francis Boone as their pop-cultural representative? Had he awakened to the dangers of irresponsible fiction? Wherefore his dramatic reversal?
No. He wanted to explain, once and for all, why he always turned down requests from autism awareness groups. "Unsurprisingly," Haddon explained, "I'm often asked to talk about Asperger's and autism or to become involved with organisations who work on behalf of people with Asperger's and autism, many of whom do wonderful work. But I always decline, for two reasons: 1) I know very little about the subject...2) Curious Incident is not a book about Asperger's."
Curious Incident is not a book about Asperger's? Sure -- and Moby Dick is not a book about a whale.
* * *
I don't begrudge Haddon his freedom of speech, or his ability to make a living as a man of letters. He can write about whatever he pleases. What I find objectionable is that he seems unaware of -- or, worse, indifferent toward -- the fact that he has made both his name and his fortune exploiting the Asperger's community, my son included. After all, if his aim were to present an honest portrayal of the disorder, his research would have involved more than skimming an essay about Temple Grandin, who isn't even an aspie.
It may be that Haddon did not set out to create a character with a specific DSM diagnosis; Schofield, in his Guardian essay, suggests as much. It may be that Haddon wasn't responsible for the words "Asperger's Syndrome" appearing on the back cover of his novel; publishers, not authors, usually have the final say on book jacket copy. It may be that Haddon didn't intend to negatively stereotype those with Asperger's; Morrow, the Rain Man screenwriter, who gave his Academy Award statue to Kim Peek, certainly did not intend to negatively stereotype autistics.
But the fact remains: Haddon did write an Asperger's character, he did take advantage of the words "Asperger's Syndrome" in his marketing campaign, and knowingly or not, he did create a negative stereotype. And if he felt anything but indifference toward this literary exploitation after the fact, he would not have used the same narrator-with-relatively-rare-psychological-disorder gimmick in his follow-up novel, as he did with 2006's A Spot of Bother, replacing Asperger's with hypochrondria.
In any case, the damage is done. Christopher John Francis Boone is to Asperger's what Raymond Babbitt is to autism. And aspies everywhere -- including my son -- must now live with it.