By Lloyd Graff
Today’s Machining World Archive: May 2010 Vol. 6, Issue 04
One person out of a hundred suffers from a form of autism, a brain dysfunction which robs a person of the ability to have normal social connections with the people around them. There is a wide range of behaviors covered by the term autism. The popular conception of an autistic person is the Raymond character portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the classic film, Rain Man, but the autism spectrum is broad. The less severe but still devastating version is Asperger’s syndrome—a diagnosis which Jodi Picoult masterfully brings into view in her brilliant new book House Rules.
Today’s Machining World rarely reviews fictional books, but I felt that this work was extraordinarily valuable for me to understand people I know who suffer from this perplexing and devastating brain disorder and connect with the pain of the people who are a part of the texture of their lives.
The author takes the reader into the world of 18-year-old Jacob Hunt of Burlington, Vermont, his mother Emma and brother Theo. Jacob has Asperger’s syndrome, is extremely smart, and is consumed by his interest in crime scene analysis. Routine is paramount for Jacob. He absolutely must watch the “Crimebusters” TV show everyday at 4:30 p.m. or he becomes distraught and acts out weirdly.
The plot of the book revolves around Jacob being accused and tried for the murder of his life skills coach, Jess Ogilvy. The narrative is absorbing but the interplay of the family and Picoult’s ability to get in the head of Jacob Hunt is what makes this book so worthwhile for the layman. House Rules is not a medical or psychological tome, though there is a lot of such material artfully sprinkled into the book. It is more a family saga about how a dedicated single mother and a troubled teenage sibling deal with a family member suffering with Asperger’s and accused of murder.
One of the things I learned from this book is that an “Aspy’s kid” may know a million facts but does not understand the emotions of other people. They take everything literally, so subtlety and humor escape them. Their psyches demand routine—eating certain foods on certain days, watching the same show at the same time each week, wearing the same clothes on a given day. They lack affect in their language and tone and nothing about social behavior comes naturally for them. But behaviors can be taught to them by demonstration and practice.
Reading House Rules we realize that Jacob does have feelings. He likes his coach Jess and dislikes her boyfriend Mark. He depends on his mother for ordering his life, though he cannot discern her feelings. Jacob’s relations with his brother Theo are intriguing, but Theo’s rebelliousness about being ignored by his preoccupied mother Emma is the most interesting part of the book for me.
Jodi Picoult is a truly gifted writer. She took a topic, an Asperger’s kid and his relationships, and wove it into a murder mystery that keeps the reader guessing to the last few pages. We like Emma for her devotion to her child, but we wish she would find the energy to help her “normal” son Theo, who must endure one family crisis after another. That is the life of a family dealing with Asperger’s. There is no vacation from the malady, it is exhausting and trying every day. I have seen it from a distance, but reading House Rules allowed me to get a little closer to what it is like to have Aspergers, or deal with somebody who has it, every day of your life.
You should read or listen to this book.