Tuesday, August 5, 2014

"Life, Animated": Hope in the spectrum

It's hard to review a book that took so much courage for one of my favorite authors to write.  Any author who chooses to reveal the struggles of his or her family in the hopes that their story might help other families dealing with the same difficulties, makes my heart open to that author.  The reason I love memoirs so much stems from this simple fact - sharing your story honestly will make others care. It will connect you to people who have had similar struggles. It will increase empathy and understanding.

That's why it's even harder for me to admit that I didn't love Ron Suskind's book "Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism"  about his family's struggles and triumphs with their autistic son, Owen, who started as a relatively normal boy and retreated into autism at age 3 after the family moved to Washington, D.C..  I wanted to love it and wanted it to teach me more about autism, but I found the repetitive nature of the book which explores Owen's eventual connection to Disney animation as a communication bridge a bit tedious (sorry Mr. Suskind).

To be completely honest, I am in awe of Suskind's work.  "A Hope in the Unseen" ranks up there with my favorite all time books.  The story of Cedric Jennings and his harrowing journey out of inner-city D.C. and away from the "dream busters" who didn't believe he would be able to make it to the Ivy League, made me reexamine everything I knew about education and the Oprah "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality that anyone can make it if they just try hard enough.  Knowing that as Suskind wrote "A Hope in the Unseen" he simultaneously struggled with his own version of "dream busters" in his personal life with his son Owen, makes me love "A Hope in the Unseen" even more.

Just like when I read "A Hope in the Unseen," The hair on my arms did stand up in certain points while I read "Life, Animated." In the very beginning after Owen is diagnosed as PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder- Not Otherwise Specified) and before the family starts using the daunting word Autism, Suskind thinks about, "how many wild-eyed expectations you carry around about your kids, especially when they're young. Presidents? Nobel Prize winners? Global celebrities? Super Bowl quarterbacks and prima ballerinas? It could happen" and then thinks further about the "damaged goods" kids like Owen and the "new planet" they have arrived on where expectations shift of your child's future, and where the goal on many days is to find a way to ease the frustrations of both the child and the family members.

I also got teary eyed when the person who Owen idolizes, Jonathan Freeman (a.k.a. the voice of Jafar in Aladdin), calls Owen at the prompting of Ron Suskind's letter.  When Freeman asks Owen what the real meaning of Aladdin is, Owen replies, "I think it's about finally accepting who you really are, And being okay with that." Even the man who did the voice for the evil Jafar gets a little sniffly with that profound statement.

The highlight of the whole book for me wasn't the ending (very unlike a Disney ending where everything works out beautifully since Owen's future still remains uncertain), but when Owen gives his graduation speech from KTS.  Instead of an impressive guest speaker at this monumental occasion, each of the 18 graduates prepared a speech about the lessons they learned at KTS.  "Each speaker simply says the truest thing they know. And that's why there are so many awed faces looking up toward the stage, waiting for their moment to express the truest thing they know: that, yes, each graduate is more than worthy.  When the crowd gets a chance at the end to cheer, they won't stop. They can't."

I wanted the whole book to feel that way - the not wanting to stop cheering at Owen's triumphs over the dream busters (like that horrible kid who threatened him in music class), but I didn't feel like that most of the way through.

Don't get me wrong, Suskind is brilliant, and this book definitely goes to the heart (unflinchingly) of Autism's impact on an entire family.  I just wanted less of it rather than more, which means to me that although I love Suskind and Disney, too much of a good thing can feel over indulgent and a little bit disappointing.

I go back to my original point, though, of how amazing it is when a person opens the vault of their personal lives for the world to see, prod, pick apart and internalize in their own way.  Telling the truth of your life (especially the truths that hurt to tell) takes courage, and that's what Suskind showed in writing the story of his son, Owen who is a true hero.

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