A Corner of the Universe
Ann M. Martin has written, to my knowledge, three books now involving autistic characters - a stand-alone novel in the 80s, that BSC book, and now this one.I like to be complete, so I thought I'd check this one out and compare it against my memories of the others. This review WILL contain spoilers, I'm sorry, because there are a few issues I have with the book at the end.First, you should note that Adam's characterization clearly reflects increased knowledge of autism. This is as it should be - the other two books are painfully outdated... but it wouldn't be fair to judge her for writing a book in the 80s that uses the knowledge we had in the 80s. Adam is never officially diagnosed, but it's fairly clear from the speculation ("some thought it was autism, some thought it was schizophrenia") and a few specific details of Adam's behavior (he engages in scripted speech, he has the savant skill of calendar counting, he is totally lacking in the social awareness that says do NOT stare at women's chests) that he's intended to be on the spectrum.How accurate is this depiction? I don't know. I have a hard time believing that you COULD memorize many - much less all! - full episodes of I Love Lucy in the days before VCRs, but then, I didn't live in the 60s. The calendar counting did annoy me. Most autistics are not savants (and only about half of all savants are autistic - Kim Peek, the inspiration for Rain Man, was not autistic, for example).I was happy to see that Adam is a real character. He has interests and feelings and a life. You get the feeling that he has some greater purpose than to simply provide character development for his niece. This is in contrast to disabled (particularly autistic) characters in many other books, who really are just there so the people they come in contact with can have a renewed appreciation for life or be kinder or I don't know what. Some commenters has mentioned that his behavior is "inconsistent" - he's "sometimes childish, and sometimes adult". This is accurate, though. Adults with developmental disabilities are still *adults*. They still have adult feelings, even if in some ways their understanding isn't up there.Which brings me to another point, there are some mildly adult situations in this book. Adam stares at his crush's chest, and accidentally walks in on her with her boyfriend. It's not really that bad, but of course every family will have to make its own judgments about appropriateness. And now we get to the end of the book, and the reason I gave it such a low rating. THIS IS WHERE THE REAL SPOILERS COME IN.After seeing that he really doesn't have a chance with the pretty young woman who works at the bank (and after a trying few days where he had it made clear to him, again, that his family doesn't really want him to act the way he is), Adam goes and kills himself. And Hattie (who considers herself to be like her uncle in some way, although the reasons why are never given) thinks it over and calls this brave in her mind. Not the sort of braveness she'd like, but brave all the same.It's not the suicide or the lackluster condemnation of the act that concerns me - actually, it's very clear that suicide has major repercussions for the people you leave behind.It's the context. And this might be unfair, but I think the context is important. We're not living in a world where people love and accept the disabled. We're not living in a world where this is ONE voice about autism and suicide. We are living in a world where prominent autism organizations can make videos where mothers say - in front of their verbal autistic children! - that the only thing that has stopped them from killing those same children and themselves is thinking of their *normal* child. And when called on it, these same organizations can then claim that every parent of an autistic child really wants them dead. (Alison Singer, in the short film Autism Every Day.) We are living in a world where parents who locked their autistic son in a room and set the house on fire aren't convicted of murder. (Christopher DeGroot.) We are living in a world where it is common for people who kill their autistic children, in fact, to be praised for their "courage" and their "love". We're living in a world where there are parents of autistic children who feel no compunction about saying that autism is worse than cancer because at least the children with cancer die. (sentex.net/~nexus23/md_01.html - actually, the autism - cancer comparison is all over the place, along with the autism - AIDS comparison and the autism - kidnapped children comparison. But at least most of these people don't go out and say that those other kids are lucky enough to die faster than the autistic kids!)In short, we're living in a world where the lives of autistic individuals (and disabled individuals in general) are not considered as valuable as those of "normal" people.The suicide in this book could have been handled differently. Our main character could have reasoned that if his family loved him they could have accepted him better instead of hiding him away - remember, she had only found out about him that summer! She could have suggested that if he wasn't so ostracized and patronized, he might never have taken that drastic step. In fact, there is a real suicide risk among autistics, similar to the recently publicized risk among gays. Or, the "oh, it was brave not to want to live in this world he doesn't fit into" bit could have been made in isolation from a culture which says that all the time.But it wasn't. Instead, you read the book and her thoughts, and it's hard not to hear it saying yet another variation of "those people are better off dead". This is a message that society does need to hear again. In particular, it's a message that autistic children do not need to hear again. Yes, I said autistic children. In this day and age, we have to accept that you can't assume the only people reading a book with an autistic character are NTs with no idea about autism. Many of them instead will be on the spectrum somewhere. Or they'll be siblings of autistic children - they don't need that message either.I'm sure the underlying message was not Ann M. Martin's intent. However, unfortunately, intent isn't some magical glitter that removes all wrong. The message is there whether she intended it or not, and it's one that is actively harmful. "Their lives have less worth" is a contributing factor in the murder and suicide of autistics. I really can't advise this book for anybody, unfortunately.