Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Parallel Play

Any Good Books, April 2010

Parallel Play: Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger’s
Tim Page (2009, Doubleday)

Tim Page was forty-five years old when he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, information which he met with a thrill of recognition amounting to relief. “I felt as though I had stumbled on my secret biography. Here it all was--the computer-like retention, the physical awkwardness, the difficulties with peers and lovers, the need for routine and repetition, the narrow, specialized interests... .” Parallel Play is his own version of that biography, a memoir of walking through the world as a stranger.
He was lucky, mostly, that he was very bright. Precociously verbal and an early reader, Page absorbed information on his pet subjects thirstily. He obsessed over maps, stories, silent films, and music; in his preteen years, he played the piano, composed music, wrote stories, and produced and directed movies with the neighborhood kids.
But being bright only helped up to a point. He baffled his classmates with learned disquisitions on Enrico Caruso and D. W. Griffith, and drove his teachers mad with his inability to pay attention to their subjects. Biology and Algebra were simply not of his world, and he wound up failing or skipping the better part of high school, to the consternation of his father, a psychology professor at the University of Connecticut.
The bright spots in his story include a few perceptive and sympathetic adults Page had the good fortune to meet: the grade-school teachers who let him stay inside at recess and read the encyclopedia; the school nurse who let him hide out in the dark quiet of her office; the UConn librarian who pointed him to the books about old opera stars; the high school English teacher who challenged him as a writer; and a teacher he met during a summer at Tanglewood, who suggested he might be a natural New Yorker. This idea, and the concomitant notion that Page might make himself at home at the Mannes College of Music, turned out to make a great deal of sense, leading (by way of Columbia University) to a career in music criticism.
Some of what made Page’s life better was of his own doing: at the age of twenty, he decided to leave drugs and cigarettes behind, and not to waste the years he had left; he learned to meditate, which gave him a measure of daily peace. In his second year at Mannes, he pushed himself to make new friends by the simple expedient of introducing himself to one stranger a day in the student lounge.
Such gumption is one of the compelling things about Parallel Play; another is the sharp, clear writing. How’s this for a credo: “...while I admire poetic opacity in certain authors and filmmakers, I cannot tolerate it in my own work. You may or may not like something I’ve written, but I’ll do my damnedest to ensure that you know what I wanted to say.”
Page disclaims any special credit for honesty, holding that “telling the truth about my life seems to me not only the moral imperative of this book but its sole excuse.” The truth-telling may also, in itself, be a facet of Asperger’s, both in Page’s extraordinary recall of his feelings, and in his inability to bend the truth for anyone’s comfort, including his own. Having so long battled with extreme self-consciousness, he’s now possessed of an exceptional self-awareness, as when he talks about his distance from his beloved sons: “Perhaps I had to fight off too much intrusion from my father. Then again, as I sometimes fear, perhaps I am not quite a mammal.”
Ah, but no, doesn’t that fear sound profoundly human? Sad, funny, and brave, like this lovely book. Thanks be to God.

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