A Different Perspective - A Shared Story - the 2013 National Biography Award lecture
|Above: RAISING CUBBY on sale at the Dymocks Literary Lunch, Sydney, Australia, 7 August 2013|
This August, I had the great honor of delivering Australia's National Biography Award Lecture at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney. Most of my talks are about autism, but this one was about memoir - why we write it; and what it means. Writing the lecture was a unique assignment.
The Biography Lecture is one of a series of events that happens in conjunction with the delivery of the Award, which this year went to Peter Fitzpatrick for The Two Frank Things.
Read more about the award here
For those who are curious, I've posted the script for the talk below:
John Elder Robison - National Biography Award Lecture
Library of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
8 August, 2013
Some authors write for money, grinding out words to earn a day’s pay. Some spend a career at a newspaper or magazine; others write for publishers or manufacturers. Then there are the people who write to entertain. Some people write for the beauty of creation. They are our masters of literature, and we admire their works. Some people become fascinated by a particular person or place, and they become biographers, historians, or narrative storytellers.
A few people become so important or so famous that they write their life stories in the belief that we should want to know where they grew up, and what they did before they became governor or president or field marshal or whatever they did to become famous. That’s autobiography.
Then there are the people like me who have a message. We write because we want to spread the word, whatever the word may be for us. Many of us in the course of spreading that word write memoirs. Few of us are famous; indeed most of us would be unknown if not for our books.
That highlights an important difference between memoir and autobiography. Autobiography is the telling of the noteworthy life story. Memoir is about certain defining events in a life, what they meant to the author, and by inference, what they may mean to the reader.
One can be a successful biographer without exposing much of one’s inner self to the reading public. Memoirists, by nature, are precisely the opposite. The power of memoir comes from self-exposition, and how readers relate to our thoughts.
Some of the most powerful works of memoir have a strong moral or spiritual component; the writer was challenged in some elemental way and prevailed (or not.) While some memoirists write primarily to entertain, many write of adversity, and how it’s faced and overcome. The adversity comes in many forms discrimination: addiction, incarceration, abuse or adventure. I believe it is this battle against adversity that makes those works so compelling.
As a memoirist myself, I might also add that memoir is by its nature more passionate than autobiography. For that reason, a work of memoir has more opportunity to stimulate and inspire, hopefully in a good way. As great as many of the histories of World War Two were, the most powerful and transformative stories were the memoirs, like the Diary of Anne Frank or Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s been over sixty years since those books were written and they are still taught in schools.
In my case, the adversity came in the form of a neurological difference - a form of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome. When I wrote my first book, the condition was relatively unknown to the general public, due to its relatively recent recognition by the medical and psychiatric communities.
Today, awareness of autism and Asperger’s is everywhere and to a large extent that is a result of memoirists. I’m proud to be one of them but there are thousands more – both writers who placed books in print and the newest breed of memoirists – those who write online in blogs and e-books.
If you doubt for a moment the power of that writing, just look back at history and look at us now. Fifty years ago autistic people – including those of us with Asperger’s – were hidden in basements and attics. Today we stand proud, and our children will surpass us thanks to the services we now receive in school and elsewhere. And all of that came about thanks to awareness, which in turn came from those who wrote and spoke out.
Truly, this is an example of memoirists changing the world.
I was born with what many would call a significant disability, though the nature of my disability rendered it invisible to casual observers. I was unable to read or understand the nonverbal cues of other people. My inability to discern the feelings of others meant that I was very slow to develop what psychologists call theory of mind - the realization that the individuals around me have their own thoughts and feelings, independent of my own.
Hearing that, you might wonder how I could possibly grow up to write a memoir, and why I’d care to do so. Those are good questions.
Growing up different in the sixties, and making my way as an outsider, I was forever saying and doing the wrong thing, and I was always in trouble with other kids, grownups, and my teachers. In the absence of any better explanation, I believed what people said at the time – I was defective.
Today, an alert parent, teacher, or doctor might see the signs of autism in a kid like me. But my story began in the 1950s, and no one recognized the kind of autism I had. The only form of autism recognized at that time was characterized by an inability to talk and other obvious signs of disability. The result – a series of strait F’s in school, and a lot of trouble.
I couldn’t finish school, and I needed a job. I loved music and electronics, so I taught myself to be an audio engineer, and joined a band. I was just 16 at the time – too young to work in a bar - but I said I was 21 and my knowledge carried the day. At that point having just dropped out of school most of the adults in my life saw me as a failure. But things were about to change.
My mother had introduced me to the engineering professors at our local university, where the grad students embraced me like a long-lost friend. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d found my first community of like-minded people.
The knowledge I gained in their lab, and on my own – reading and experimenting – was what allowed me to venture into the world and earn a living. As a high school dropout I could not do that in the conventional way, but I did ok just the same.
The band I’d joined put me in charge of repairing and setting up their instruments and electronics. I augmented that work by fixing and modifying gear for other musicians. In a matter of months I had more work than I could handle and my years as a failure in school began fading from my mind.
One band led to another, and my autism turned from disability to gift as it allowed me to stay focused very deeply on music and electronics. I became the engineer for Britannia Row - Pink Floyd’s American sound company, and from there I became the engineer who designed all KISS’s fire breathing, light blasting, and rocket launching musical instruments in their glory years of the 70s.
Unfortunately, despite the gifts it brought, autism also had a disabling hold on me, and I was totally unaware of its presence. My inability to read other people led me to conclude I was a failure, even though people actually believed the opposite. I assumed I had no friends while unbeknownst to me - others felt I wanted nothing to do with them.
It was a bad situation, one I was completely oblivious to at the time. It led to the unraveling of my first career. But I wasn’t a quitter. I saw a recruitment ad for a digital engineer at a toy and game company, but I was an analog guy. But how hard can it be to change, I told myself. I spent a week at the university library, sold myself as a digital sound engineer, and never turned back. I joined the company just as electronic sound effects, speech synthesis and speech recognition were about to revolutionize consumer products. The games I worked on were some of the biggest hits in the industry but my autism prevented me from grasping my own achievements. I still believed I was a failure and quit that job too.
Yet, I couldn’t give up. I’d found a girlfriend, and we’d gotten married. I had to be responsible! So I took a big step, and started a business of my own. I began fixing cars in the driveway of my house. There was no boss; I worked alone. I was answerable to my customers, of course, but they were more concerned with results than with my bedside manner.
Indeed, that is how it is for many who work in the trades. You don’t give much thought to the intellectual capacity of your plumber when the toilet clogs up. You just want the thing to flush.
Just as my business got going, I got a son. Wonderful as that was, as I carried him home from the Kid Store, I was filled with fear for my ability to keep our little family going. Would I fail once again?
I didn’t. My business grew and prospered. I hired one mechanic to help me, then two, then three. I didn’t have the same insecurity about what people thought about me because I was the owner. Even if they didn’t like me, they didn’t have the power to throw me out.
Gradually, with my success, and the experience of being a parent I began to relax more around people. That was when my life was turned on end. I’d gotten to know the customers who patronized my company, and one turned out to be a therapist. One day he brought me Australian psychologist Tony Attwood’s book Asperger Syndrome. This is a new condition psychologists are talking about, he said, and you could be the poster child for it!
I was shocked at first but as I turned the pages, I saw he was right. For the first time in my life, I had an explanation for my social failures.
The knowledge of Asperger’s transformed my life, in more ways than I can count. The realization that I was not defective just different totally changed how I saw the world. The idea that people wanted to be my friend was just magical.
As my understanding of my difference grew, my ability to engage people blossomed. For the first time, I developed a social life. My business became more successful. I was on a good path.
That was when I realized I needed to do something to help other people. Until that moment I was the one who needed help. Now, thanks to the power of knowledge, I knew why I had failed as a kid and young adult. I was sure other people were on the same track today, and I felt driven to help them avoid my own mistakes of ignorance.
For indeed that’s what they were. I began looking for people to talk to about my newfound insights.
I had no idea at the time, but that was the first step to my becoming a memoirist.
I started volunteering at shelters and homes for youth with autism and other challenges. I spoke to the kids from my heart, telling them of my own loneliness and fear, how knowledge of my difference had melted the disability and brought me success. My words touched the kids, but to my surprise they also touched the adult leaders, sometimes even more so, as they affirmed when speaking to me after my talks.
I talked about my life, and I answered their questions. Many times, I brought a fine car from my company, and let the kids come outside and see and touch it. I felt good about what I was doing, but I wanted more. I wanted to reach a wider audience, so I headed to jail. There, I spoke about my experience as a child who grew up in an abusive home, dropped out of school, and still went on to make a decent and legal living. I also talked about difference, and how it felt to be bullied and called names. To my shock and amazement, hard men with arms full of tattoos stood up and cried, saying they hated themselves for what they’d done, and what others had done to them. My words seemed to touch something deep inside, and I wondered how broad the audience for my stories might be.
If I’d found a common emotional thread connecting teachers, doctors, wayward teens, country lawyers, outlaw bikers and all sorts of seemingly ordinary people . . . might the thread reach to everyone?
That’s when I decided to write a book.
There was precedent for that in my family already. My brother had written a few books, beginning with Sellevision, a comedy about a fictitious television shopping network. I sold that book in the waiting room of my car company. People would ask why we had the books on the counter, and the receptionist would say, “thats Johns younger brother,” and they bought one copy after another.
I assumed they were being polite. I had no idea if they liked his books, but I sold them as a loyal brother. Then he wrote Running With Scissors - a shocking tale of our depraved and dysfunctional childhood. I’d never talked about growing up with my car company customers, though I had shared some details with guys in jail and the kids in the homes.
I put those books out for sale too, and people continued to buy them. Every time we rang up a sale I wondered if that person would ever speak to me again, after reading about our horrible upbringing. I was 45 years old, and still ashamed of my childhood.
But that didn’t happen. Instead people came back and told me how my brother’s story and by extension my own had inspired them.
It was really that experience that gave me the courage to tell my own story. If my brother had not paved the way I doubt I would have ever overcome the shame of my childhood to share what really happened as I grew up. As much as I wanted to help others, that shame would have held me back.
The response to my brothers writing showed me for the first time how my perception of what people thought was totally off base. You’ve heard me tell you how I misunderstood how people felt about me before, and how that hurt my success in life. This was the first time that happened, when I recognized it at the time. All the prior times I had changed the course of my life while remaining ignorant of my wrong interpretations. My experiences following the release of Running With Scissors marked the beginning of my awareness of just how wrong my understanding of other peoples’ thoughts really was.
That was a transformative moment for me, and it also filled me with sense that I needed to share that insight with the world. I continued speaking every chance I got and I joined online communities to talk about growing out of disability.
I had become a storyteller but I was not yet an author.
Then my father got sick. The moment I arrived at the hospital, I realized this was not like all the other times. He wasn’t going to get better.
I didn’t know what to do. So every night, when I came home from the hospital, I wrote. By the time he died my anguished musings had taken up 10,000 words, and I shared them with my brother and the rest of my family. My brother put it on his website, and national public radio picked it up.
People read that story, and as sad as it was, they claimed it made them feel better. Or so they said. I still couldn’t tell, but I knew enough to believe what they said when they said it often enough.
When’s the book coming out, they asked? Of course, there was no book. Not yet.
I had no training in writing; I was a ninth grade dropout. Yet I was certainly an educated person. My command of spoken language was impeccable and my reading skills had been honed for forty-some years – ever since I decided to read the Britannica in third grade. I may have been a dropout from school but my parents were both professors and I had the great fortune to live in a college town where any learning resource I wanted was there for the taking.
So I was unschooled – or unsuccessfully schooled – but I was certainly educated.
Still, I lacked confidence. How will I tell readers about Aspergers? I’m no doctor or psychiatrist! I’m nothing. How will I do it?
I asked my brother what to do. He’s eight years younger than me, and at that time he was already on his fourth book.
“Just write down the crazy stories you used to tell me as a kid, and everyone will see what’s wrong with you.” That’s what my brother told me, and that’s what I did. I wrote a collection of short stories about being on the road with different bands, growing up, and working at Milton Bradley. In about three months my book was finished. I sent it to my brother’s agent.
His rejection letter was not long in coming.
“This is a fine collection of short stories’, he wrote, “but it’s not a memoir. A memoir has a narrative arc, and builds to some conclusion and resolution. These stories don’t do that. They are just stories.”
I was devastated. It took me three more months to return to the manuscript, and when I did, I understood what he had been saying. It was just disjointed stories. It had no logical progression; no beginning and no end except the physical opens and closing pages themselves. Most importantly, my book was missing the vital message in my mind: illumination of the arc from disabled child to crazy but successful rock and roller to respectable adult and family man. Finally, it was missing the challenge.
Writing about that was the hardest part. Remembering the other kids laughing at me and calling me names. Remembering my drunken father burning my little brother’s forehead with a cigarette. Remembering how it felt to live in the woods, like an animal, because there was no safe home to return to. That was what I hadn’t written, but it was the necessary counterpoint to my later success. Indeed, it explained why I was and remain so driven.
So I set out to rewrite the manuscript. For that’s what it really was at the time. A manuscript only becomes a book when it’s published.
First I arranged the stories in order. Having done that, I filled any holes I saw. Just as I could concentrate and focus on music and electronic, and later cars, I turned my focus to recalling, recounting, and most importantly - interpreting the details of my life.
Finally I got to the end. I’d left my hometown as a loser, and returned as a winner. I closed the book with the story of my father because it was the thing that really got me moving.
When I sent the book back to my brother’s agent, he was stunned. He never thought he would hear from me again. He sent the manuscript to editors, and every big house wanted to publish that book.
Look Me in the Eye was released September 25, 2007 and was an instant success. It was a hit in Canada, America, and also in Europe, Asia, and South America. Here in Australia it sat on the Random House bestseller list for six solid months.
I was shocked. I pondered the reasons for my success, and wondered what to do next. Having told “my story,” was that the end? I realized there were many stories yet to tell, as well as stories yet to be lived and experienced. A lifetime is more than 95,000 words.
I pondered what to write next. As it happened, my next book was not a memoir, but it used the memoirist skills I’d developed. I had hoped Look Me in the Eye would give hope to others growing up with autism, but I never imagined it would become the defining account of the condition that it rapidly became. As such, it was full of holes, and readers with Asperger’s and their families were quick to point them out.
How did you get a job? How did you get a girlfriend? How do you wear scratchy wool sweaters? There were a thousand things people wanted to know, most all relating to autism or Asperger’s.
Be Different – the yellow book with the trains on the cover - addressed those questions through the same storytelling style, but it was more a prescriptive book than a memoir. It too was successful.
Unfortunately, the success of that book was overshadowed by another event in my life: My son had become a teenager, and like me, he has Asperger’s with all its attendant eccentricities. Where I’d developed a special interest in electronics, his interest was in chemistry and explosives. Unfortunately, he drew the wrong kind of attention to himself in this post 9-11 era by posting video of his experiments online. He was raided by the police, and prosecuted for imaginary crimes he never committed. The struggle to save him from a lengthy prison term took over my life.
My latest book, Raising Cubby, tells that story, but it’s far more than the simple account of a trial. I am also telling my, and my son's stories – a fun and unique tale of parenting where both dad and kid are kind of different. It’s a cautionary, but inspirational tale of how we both grew up together, had adventures, had fun, and finally, how he discovered chemistry and got in trouble ….
To learn what happened next, you’ll have to read the book.
In autobiography people may try to present the best version of themselves to others. I can’t always do that, because I can’t really tell what people think of me, even now. People have described my writing with words like “brutally honest” but perhaps it’s simply that I’m autistic and know no other way to be or speak.
I hope that a willingness to share my failures and imperfections encourages others that they too can overcome adversity.
I knew writing my story had been good for me. It helped heal the pain of my father’s death, and it gave me many new insights into others and myself. The process of asking, why did I do that? was very revealing. I realized I’d never examined the “why” behind many of my thoughts or actions before.
Once my manuscript was sold to a publisher (Random House in America, Australia and New Zealand; other houses elsewhere in the world,) the process of editing it for publication began. That turned out to be a massive collaboration, with my editor and I going over every single word on each and every page. It felt as if the book was rewritten beginning to end, though a comparison shows 93.9% of the final content was present in the original submission, in one form or another.
The process of book editing gave me many additional insights into myself and more important - Aspergian thinking. When we edited the book, Rachel Klayman, my editor – who is not Aspergian - read every word and sent me careful notes about every little detail. When she saw things differently from what I’d intended her reactions revealed how other peoples perceptions (in the person of her) differed from my own.
Rachel’s notes covered a wide range of things:
“I don’t think a person would actually say that” she would write. . . and yet, I did and do say it that way. The fact that she picked it up, though, gave me pause to think . . . what do other people make of me when I say things like that in the course of conversation?
“Why do you say this” . . . To me, the answer was obvious. Once again, I realized that she had pointed out a conversational “error of omission” that I make all the time, without even noticing. And she pointed out MANY such examples.
In many cases, she changed the order of whole paragraphs, and I saw that the revised order seemed more correct, and yet, the original order seemed right when I wrote it. Do I think in a different order from her? Maybe so. Her detailed comments showed me how different my mind is in some ways, and how very much alike it is in others.
She’d circle lines with little notes . . . “this is really funny” . . . “this is poignant” . . . “I like this a lot.” I would look at those little comments and think, Hmm . . . it is?
You see, I never knew exactly what was funny or sad or entertaining in my stories. I’ve always known people like to hear me tell stories, but I never got a word-by-word explanation of why. When I read my words, they are flat to me. I don’t read something in my book and say, that’s funny! But now that I know what she sees as funny – and she’s a professional with years of evaluating such things for the public eye – I can analyze her comments and make my new writing funnier, sad, or whatever I want.
Prior to writing and then editing Look Me in the Eye, all my interaction with people was through conversation or letters. Like everyone, I made many mistakes when choosing and forming my words. Listeners and readers thought I was rude, a jerk, inconsiderate, and a whole host of other nasty things. And I never really knew why. Once I knew about Asperger’s, I knew WHY in a general sense, but I still made mistakes. The process of book editing has been like a concentrated course in how to talk and write so that won’t happen.
Rachel’s back and forth notes and word-by-word highlighting of my writing has given me a unique window into my thought process, one that's written and I can now refer back to.
Today, I recognize the power of self -reflection but I do not know how to teach it to young people. Is there a process like book editing that a young Aspergian could be exposed to for purpose of self- discovery? I don't know . . . perhaps the idea leads to a new concept in special Ed teaching. I am just in the process of opening a school for teens with Asperger’s and other challenges back at my car company campus in America, so maybe I’ll have a chance to find out . . .
As I suggested at the beginning of my talk, reasoned presentations can inform and educate, but passionate argument is what has the power to inflame others, and by doing so, change the world.
Religious leaders know this. Politicians know this. And in the world of writing, it is memoir that does that best.
That, to me, is the value of life story writing. To inspire others to be the best they can, by building on the insights memoirists share.
My father was a minister when I was born, and I come from a long line of Anglican clergy. That said, I’ve never been a religious fellow myself, but my storytelling has allowed me to touch people in that same way, and perhaps become the equal of those who came before me.
Thank you so much for inviting me to Australia to deliver this talk. It’s a great honor and one I will always remember.
John Elder Robison
(Questions from audience)