Look Me in the Eye: my life with Asperger’s
John Elder Robison (2007, Three Rivers Press)
“Checkered” doesn’t begin to describe the career of John Elder Robison, the author of this distinctive memoir. His life has covered a wide span, from high school dropout to successful businessman. For all its variety, though, what’s really remarkable about the career, and this memoir, is that Robison has Asperger’s syndrome.
Though he wasn’t diagnosed till he was forty, Robison always understood that he was different from other people. The adults around him, insisting on eye contact that he could not manage, convinced him that he was headed for a bad end: “Would I grow up to be a killer? I had read that they were shifty and didn’t look people in the eyes.”
It helped that he was smart. At the age of nine, he had a breakthrough. He taught himself to respond to what other kids said, rather than saying whatever was in his head at the time. Although social conversation would never come easily to him, he began reply in a way that would not confuse and annoy his fellows.
Finding machines better company than people, Robison gravitated to electronics. He fooled around with electric guitars and amplifiers, as well as the audiovisual equipment at school. This led to a series of gigs repairing and upgrading amps for Pink Floyd, and designing the ‘exploding’ guitars used by KISS. The work was a good fit for Robison’s special skills, but it provided a distressingly irregular paycheck, so he moved on to a job designing electronic games for Mattel.
Aspergians are poorly suited to some aspects of corporate life. Insofar as ‘tact’ is a another word for ‘skill at lying’, Robison doesn’t have any. As he was promoted from good engineer to bad manager, his engineering skills actually became a handicap. To hear ‘that’s a bad design, and it won’t work,’ the way an Aspergian engineer would say it, must have been highly disturbing to managers who had not come up through the engineering ranks. After ten years of increasing frustration, Robison hopped off the corporate ladder and went back to another of his true loves, repairing and restoring fine cars. It was one of his clients who tipped him off to the possibility that he had Asperger's.
Parts of this story are so sad they make hard reading. Robison’s early family life was roiled by his father’s drinking and his mother’s mental illness. As a teenager, in family therapy, he named his parents ‘Slave’ and ‘Stupid’, and he called his little brother Chris, who grew up to be the writer Augusten Burroughs, ‘Varmint’.
At other times Robison is funny, just in the act of explaining himself. His dogs have been called things like ‘Dog’ and ‘Poodle’; of his brother naming a dog ‘Cow’, he says, “Sometimes I think he did it just to annoy me.” Probably! It just might be affectionate payback for the ‘Varmint’ years.
Robison has been married twice. He must be kind of odd to live with, but I liked his disquisition on the question “If three men marry into a family of sisters and each thinks he got the best sister, do two of them have to be wrong?” He’s perfectly serious, and the mate in question is not offended by it. As it happens, most people really don’t make their most important personal decisions by reason alone, so it’s quite interesting to meet someone who does.
Robison’s report from the inside of the Aspergian world offers particular enlightenment to those who have family members on the autism spectrum, but they aren’t the only ones who will find in interesting. For all of us, it’s a call to find compassion for those who seem different, without wishing away the difference.
by e-mail, April 1, 2009