Tag Archives: Memoir

Nobody Nowhere: The Extraordinary Autobiography of an Autistic by Donna Williams

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There are so few books about Autism Spectrum Disorders written from a female perspective, especially of those few published in the 80’s and 90’s, when Autism was still considered a mysterious malady and high-functioning ASD and Asperger’s had barely even entered the picture.

And although it would be unfair and inaccurate to apply autobiographer Donna Williams’ insights about her condition to all diagnosed youngsters (with all due respect, the diagnosis of Autism was barely skimming the surface of Williams’ issues,) “Nobody Nowhere” is an emotional roller-coaster with the heart-grabbing readability of the best fiction.

Donna was born to an abusive and negligent middle-class family and early into childhood it was apparent that something was very ‘off’ about the little girl. Donna records her attempts to be like ‘everyone else’ culminating in channeling the character of Carol, a mirthful but shallow persona; her struggles with her cruel mother and older brother and her painful school days.

She takes us through trials and failures, relationships with good men and bad, and her gradual journey to self-insight and recovery. At no point does Donna blame her fraught relationship with her mother as a ‘reason’ for her Autism Spectrum Disorder (Donna did not know she had Autism until her late twenties and merely feared she was ‘mad.’)

Instead she speculates that a world lacking warmth and a real sense of family taught her to be independent and took her on an important journey. In the meantime, the abused and dejected Donna dabbled in self-destructive behavior including self-mutilation and deliberate self-soiling, and was repeatedly treated like crap by guys who saw her as an easy target. However, she also recounts experiences with kind people, even complete strangers, who attempted to offer support to this wild troubled girl through her times of turmoil.

I you can get through the two introductions at the beginning (dry!,) “Nobody Nowhere” is actually a involving read. I helps if the reader has an interest in abnormal psychology and/or Autism, but author Donna Williams had a truly fascinating (if singularly unfortunate) early life. While many of her ‘symptoms’ are most definitely not typical for the majority of Autistic young people, one must remember that Donna is ultimately not representing anyone but herself in this intense life story.

I wouldn’t recommend this book as a manual for ‘understanding’ Autism (though I would not necessarily recommend any one book for understanding Autism,) but I would heartily suggest it for building upon what you know about the disorder and also early trauma as well as child psychology in general.

I was saddened to hear about Donna Williams’ breast cancer on her personal blog. I felt almost like I was hearing bad news about a friend, though of course I had never met her. I was also angry. How much bad luck can one person get? ( I am not referring chiefly to her Autism but instead to her  abusive upbringing and her emotional issues, which I consider related yet separate.)

On the other hand, she’s apparently married to a good man and feels content with her sense of self. I wish the best for Donna and I will read her other books (“Somebody Somewhere,” this book’s sequel, and “Like Color to the Blind”) when I get a chance.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle

Truth is truly stranger than fiction, and Jeanette Walls, the wildly talented author of The Glass Castle‘s childhood being ‘raised’ by nomadic, outrageously negligent parents, was weirder than most. The said parents (if you could call them that, since parenting or even being adults was not their perogitive), Rex and Rose Mary Walls, were an anomaly- self-taught and highly intelligent people who had no concern for their childrens’ welfare and made no effort to make those awkward adolescent and pubescent years any more tolerable. The Glass Castle reminded me of Augusten Burrough’s blackly comic account of familial insanity Running With Scissors, only less sensationalistic.

This memoir will move you, make you angry, and kick your parental instincts into overdrive. Jeanette Walls and her siblings move from place to place, on the run from the ‘FBI’ and ‘the Gestapo’ (i.e. the tax collectors and the authorities.) Jeanette’s mom is an flaky, unstable artist who wants nothing to with her children. Her dad is a big-talking B.S.-er who can weasel himself out of any tough situation, except for the disintegration of his family unit. Together- the Walls children must take care of each other, facing sexual abuse, poverty, bullying, and other hardships.

I respect Jeanette’s unconditional love for her parents, but I really had no sympathy for them, even when they ended up on the streets of New York. The author really is a born storyteller, but there were times I had my doubts that she really remembered the events she was documenting with the lucidity she claimed. Walls gave detailed descriptions of things that she recalled from childhood; sometimes I wondered if she was taking liberties with her material. This isn’t really a criticism- a lot of memoirists do add improbable details- just an observation.

Walls develops her three siblings well so that you almost feel like you knew their childhood selves. Brian was my favorite- he was a tough cookie. It doesn’t take just any seven-year-old to chase a pedophile out of their house with a hatchet. At least one kid was irreparably damaged by the events of their childhood, the rest seemed to make the best of it as well as they could.

The bizarre thing is that the author only records her father hitting her once, so calling the parents ‘abusive’ might seem like a bit of a stretch to people who haven’t read the book. But between the dad’s abuse of the mom and both parties’ total disregard for the safety of their children, in the end, it’s hard to consider the parents anything other than abusive. Some of the aspects of their childhood seem desirable- freedom, being encouraged to read great literature- but others are atrocities that stand up against the hardest childhood memoirs.

I would highly recommend this book because it is beautifully written and has a fascinating story. Some scenes might be triggering to victims of sexual abuse- I’d nearly run out of fingers if I counted how many times the Walls children are mishandled, either by neighborhood kids or family or strange adults, and their parents’ apathy is infuriating. What is best is Jeanette Walls keeps a certain distance from the material and avoids self-pity. With tenderness, wit, and deft touches of dark humor, she tells the story of a childhood that would break the hardest individuals.

 

Parallel Play: Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger’s by Tim Page

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A few years ago, I fell in love with John Elder Robison’s enlightening and entertaining autobiography Look Me In the Eye: My Life With Asperger’s. I was deeply appreciated Robison’s ability to shed a light on his foibles and faults, both within the diagnosis of and apart from his Asperger’s Syndrome. Little did I know that I would love Tim Page’s small but effective memoir, Parallel Play, even more. A former music critic and only recently diagnosed Aspergian, Tim Page is a brilliant, funny, and insightful writer. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought he’d been planning this book all his life, constructing the sentences so exquisitely so that the fellow Aspie could nod in agreement and wonderment, marveling that at last someone understood them.

“Parallel Play” chronicles Page’s life from the age of about four (a tricky age where he describes himself as a ‘grim little athiest,’ struggling with daunting existential questions) to the slump of middle age. In the years in between, Tim Page experiences many struggles, from crippling social anxiety and depression to drug and alcohol use. His love for books, music, and films keeps him afloat. Page’s self-deprecating wit lightens passages that might otherwise be hard to read (his adolescent suicide letter, the drunken car crash that took the life of several of it’s passengers and left him alive.)

The chronicle of Page’s childhood is insightful and often laugh-out-loud funny. His youthful years were lonely, yes, but also shaped him as a human being. He describes his love of music culminating at an early age, his dislike of his baby sister Betsy, and his father’s paranoia-fueled Cold War anxieties (I wonder if his dad had a touch of Asperger’s himself.)

Tim Page describes Asperger’s to the outsider looking in. The condition, a collection of social awkwardness, obsessive hobbies, sensory issues, and a unique wordview, is often confused with eccentricity, insanity, or just plain entitlement to the uninformed observer. But, in fact, Asperger’s does exist, and it’s not always so easy to be Asperger’s in a neurotypical world.

The later chapters are less about Asperger’s and more about Page’s misspent youth- pot, hallucinogens, and high alcohol intake that only exacerbated his panic attacks. He isn’t afraid to portray his younger self as ignorant (albeit brilliant,) pedantic, and snide. In a world of memoirs that portray their creators as victims in an uncaring world, how refreshing it is to see a man who is not afraid to shed light on his weaknesses! Furthermore, I found his chronicles of his urges and youthful sexual experiences fascinating rather than awkward.

You really walk away with a better sense of who this man is, rather than bogging us down with Asperger’s rhetoric. Some parts of the book were boring (like the passages that went on and on about classical music and the opera- Chapter 8 was particularly dry,) but if you indulge Page during the wordy parts, the rest of the memoir is incredibly rewarding.

 Parallel Play is honest and real where other memoirs are self-pitying and meandering. Tim Page has an incredible mind, and to read this book is to cast a deep, penetrating look into it. A slim volume, the book can be read in a couple days (incidently, I took longer) but you will not regret it. Tim Page should write another book for his fans!

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