Thursday, April 09, 2009
Book Club: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime
My book club met last week and we discussed last month's selection THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME by Mark Haddon. I admit that I was initially skeptical about liking this book. It is told from the viewpoint of an autistic 15-year-old boy, so as you might imagine, the story seemed to lack emotion when I first began reading the opening chapters. If you saw the movie Rainman, you know that most people with severe autism don't express emotion in the way that is considered "normal" by the majority of us. But, as it turns out, Mark Haddon is a gifted writer! As he told the story of this autistic boy methodically and logically trying to solve the mystery of who murdered his neighbor's dog, Haddon captured and relayed his main character's voice and personality so perfectly that before I knew it, I began to care about the kid, understand him, and realize that just because he didn't express emotion in a way I'm used to, did not mean he did not experience fear, love, anger, etc., in his own unique manner. I also learned alot about autism in general. Mark Haddon's biography states that he used to work with autistic children. His experience definitely came through in his writing. The book was funny and poignant and sad. I recommend it.
One of the women in my bookclub -- Donna -- who just so happens to be one of my best friends since junior high -- teaches special needs middle school kids, some of whom are autistic. Before we began our discussion, she gave a wonderful presentation to help us understand even better what it means to be autistic. Like the protagonist in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, many autistic people do not like to be touched; if fact, many of them find human touch painful. Donna touched each of us with a piece of sandpaper to demonstrate how physical human contact might feel to an autistic person. Also, while she spoke, she had the television on with the volume up as well as many other distractions going on in the room. It was chaotic and difficult to stay focused. Which was her point: autistic people are extra sensitive to sensory stimulation, as if it is more intense to them than most folks. This makes it hard for them to concentrate if there are too many things going on around them at once, even things the rest of us are able to easily tune out. Colors, sounds, movements -- all of these and more can cause distress in an autistic person.
The thing Donna said that made the biggest impression on me was in response to a comment I made. I said that despite the funny moments, I thought the book was so sad and felt so sorry for the boy because he isolated himself from people and his life seemed so lonely. Donna told me, "You feel that way because you want autistic people to be like us, and they aren't. The boy is happiest when he's alone." (Loose quote. Forgive me, Donna!) That statement really opened my eyes. What constitutes happiness for one person, may not for another. Maybe we should stop trying to make everyone fit into the most common mold.
Donna's statement also brought to mind another book I read a long time ago (non-fiction) called PARTY OF ONE, about extreme loners. As someone who has always cherished time alone, I learned that I don't come close to the level of introversion discussed in this book. I need fairly frequent interaction with people to balance out my alone time or I start to get weird! However, PARTY OF ONE also emphasized that it is not wrong to be a loner, simply different, and that society should stop trying to make naturally shy children conform to the "norm" of being outgoing by forcing them to join social activities they find extremely uncomfortable and unnatural. They are typically happier engaging in solitary activities -- reading, playing with dolls, painting, building things on their own, and why is that wrong? Anyway, the book was great food for thought and really interesting.
Our new book selection for this month is THE DOCTOR'S WIFE by Elizabeth Brundage. Can't wait to dive in. In the meantime, I'm reading THE SLAVE by Isaac Bashevis Singer, a gift from my oldest son who called it one of the most "incredible" books he's ever read. It won the Nobel Prize in literature years ago. So far, I'm enjoying it and learning a lot about traditional Jewish customs.
Until next time, happy reading!