The Curious Incident of Stereotypes in Literature

I’m going to be comparing the first review, the one from The NY Times (NYT), written by Michiko Kakutani and disabilityinkidlit (DKL)’s review, written by Elizabeth Bartmess.

The NYT review seemed to be an eerily accurate reflection of my feelings towards The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I came across this book in high school and immediately loved it. I, of course, knew that this was not an accurate depiction of all autistic people. With all books, stereotypes are often enforced- teenagers are always moody in literature – does that mean they always mope around listening to Blink-182 while ignoring their parents and ranting on social media? No, I mean, probably- but nonetheless, it’s a broad stereotype. So, yes, Haddon’s book does enforce stereotypes, but he never claims that his work is a truthful description. Kakutani writes,

At the same time, Mr.Haddon writes with such sympathy, such understanding of Christopher’s interior life, that he makes all his obsessions and needs into a mirror of our own cravings for safety and order, while turning Christopher’s ”detective story” into a bildungsroman that’s not about finding solutions and proofs but about coming to terms with the disorder and betrayals of grown-up life.

The book is about so much more than autism. It’s story of a young boy who tries to navigate through the difficult maze of life while experiencing extreme difficulties because of his disorder. In a way, Chris is all of us. We all have struggles, some larger than others, and Haddon chose to write about a boy that he felt reflected the struggles of an autistic. I don’t think Haddon meant any harm by his descriptions, nor did he think that anyone would try and use his book as an autistic bible. He told a story; he couldn’t expect it would blow up as much as it did, and he didn’t expect people to classify autism based on his descriptions.

Now, Bartmess wrote her DKL review from a much more critical viewpoint. She doesn’t seem to see the same mirroring that Kakutani points out. Instead she seems to think that the book is outwardly disgracing autism. After I read her review and the comments that followed, I felt guilty ever saying I enjoyed such an autisim-phobic novel. But I disagree with her; I do, of course, apologize for anyone the book has offended, but as I mentioned before, Haddon didn’t mean it that way. It’s all in the way you describe something. Bartmess is describing and dissecting the details of the book in a way that is almost ethnocentric (and by that I don’t mean relative to an ethnicity, but rather relative to her field of study). Yes, it may be unfortunately offensive, but she is missing a large aspect of the novel: its function as a coming of age bildungsroman. In addition, she also speaks of the abuse Chris suffers. She seems to blame this solely on the autism but never on the individuals. His father murders a dog, lies to his son, and his mother abuses him. This is not a reflection of autism, rather a story of abuse- why isn’t Bartmess offended by the way it treats violence and abuse in regards to people in general? But rather insists this is all because of Chris’ condition.

I think this has been a bit of a rant, but it really bothered me how negative Bartmess was towards the novel. I do agree it is not an accurate depiction of autism and can offend people, but like Kakutani I feel like there are other and broader topics in the book to address.

Is Piggybacking in Writing a Boar?

Mark Gaipa’s 8 strategies pretty effectively sum up every essay ever written. Essays are formulaic in structure and his strategies map out these formulas. I found the third strategy, piggybacking, rather applicable to Murray’s work on Autism (Murray’s essay was not a bore [or a boar], but there are only so many related puns I can think of). Gaipa defines piggybacking as: “agree[ing] with a scholar… but then complete[ing] or extend[ing] the scholar’s work.” Although Murray is already a scholar, as a researcher he is removed from autism itself. He uses other scholars to back his points with real life examples and writings. Murray cites many neuroscientists and writers who deal with autism as a field of study; yet, his most effective citations are those of the ones who experience autism first hand. By using “famous” autistics in his work, such as Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadyay and Amanda Baggs, who are scholars in autism because they experience it first hand, he successfully draws a picture of the struggles, wisdoms, and daily challenges as told by autistics (But they are people, so, he is in fact people-backing

Often Murray will provide a block quote from Mukhopadyay and then explain and analyze his words. For example, after a paragraph written by Mukhopadyay Murray writes: “Tito’s sense of his own completeness, then, which might constitute ad form of overcoming, is nevertheless couched within a desire for a tolerant, diverse acceptance of the variety of the human spectrum…” (150). He uses the words of Mukhopadyay to lead into his academic evaluation of autism and its effects. This is effective because it presents the reader with the invitation to consider autism from two different perspectives: one of a personal anecdote and one of scholarship.

Murray also analyzes YouTube sensation Amanda Baggs’ strategy for being autism rights advocate, when she writes, “If what I do seems to fit an autism stereotype, then so be it. If what I wasn’t to do seems to fit a stereotype of not being autistic so be it too” (44). Murray responds to Baggs with his thought on her statement: “Baggs’ articulacy here allows for an understanding that, for all of her role as an autism rights advocate, her sense of her own autism is not one that involves any straightforward acceptance of terms” (44). The two quotes successfully “piggyback” off one another. Sentiments from Baggs or Mukhopadyay evoke support and empathy from the reader. In addition, they provide descriptions that are legitimate and accurate because no one understands the intense emotions they experience better than they do. Murray, and the other scholars he cites, adds an air of academia to the writing. It verifies their statements. Of course, the statements do not need to be verified- they can speak for themselves, but using scholarship allows science and academic thought to support their assertions.

Monkey See, Monkey Probably Won’t Do Because the Characters in the Text are Kinda Static

Kaitlyn Greenidge’s work was rather surprising to me. When I first opened it up and began reading I was taken aback. I don’t know why but I had some weird preconceived notion that Charlie Freeman was an autistic boy. Lo and behold, instead he was suddenly a chimpanzee. After that first initial shock I had a hard time getting over the seeming randomness of the text: a black family teaches a chimpanzee sign language. That’s a weird premise. Someone asked me what the book I was reading was about and I responded: pick a race, an animal, and a language and see if you can guess (unfortunately, he was wrong and picked Sudanese, alligator, and jive [which I think it technically a dialect, but it’s cool]). Nonetheless, as I moved through the text, I found it compelling. The work raised a lot of deep and important issues that flowed with its unique storyline. But then that was it. It never really explained what was going on or why it chose to follow the path it did. I have no idea why I found the book compelling- I guess I thought I’d develop a connection with a character. I thought that by the time the book ended I’d be saying “I love you, Charlie Freeman” (as cheesy as that sounds), but I mean, no, as much as I truly adore chimpanzees, I don’t feel like the book gave me a reason to love him. I don’t feel like the book gave a lot of reason in general.

As I was reading I couldn’t help but compare the book to Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper”. Both texts depicted an individual who was trapped (in many ways). Gilman’s work showcased a young woman who was trapped by patriarchy, and by mental illness, while Greenidge’s text covers issues of being entrapped by race, gender, appearance, and stigmas. Gilman used her text to try and breakthrough these problems; her text concludes with, “I’ve got out at last”, the protagonist is finally freed (or working her way to freedom). She has been somewhat successful. But what did this text really accomplish? The family continued to break and didn’t progress- the father left, the siblings grew apart (never to fully reconcile only to meet briefly annually), the race issues were still stigmatized, and Callie still felt insecure about her appearance, unable to handle responsibility, and was treated as a little girl (the mother was unhappy with her decision to live abroad). They were all still trapped. Even visiting Charlie at the end seemed to me a telling sign that they are not ready to move on. Their actions are static. Charlotte discovering her own identity was the only defining factor that seemed to suggest she was breaking past her stigmatized and stereotyped relationship with Aida.

So ultimately, it didn’t seem that the family, other than Charlotte, really grew or un-trapped themselves. They didn’t escape the labyrinth that Gilman’s character worked so hard to create a path for. They didn’t seem to really grow throughout the novel, but rather continued to get stuck in their problems, growing with them, and only marginally moving out of them.