Readers of Augusten Burroughs’ “Running with Scissors” might recall the brief appearance of his older brother in that biting memoir of growing up amid dysfunction and chaos. Now, John Elder Robison has his own story to tell, in “Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s.”
Although I’m a fan of Burroughs’ writing and looked forward to learning more about his brother, it was the subtitle of “Look Me in the Eye” that drew me. Two children very dear to me have Asperger’s syndrome, an autistic spectrum disorder; among other traits, those with Asperger’s tend to find social interactions difficult and have very focused interests. Unlike my young friends, Robison wasn’t diagnosed until he was 40 years old. “Look Me in the Eye” primarily details the decades leading up to that pivotal diagnosis, but it also addresses how this revelation altered his perceptions of himself and his life.
Robison always knew he was different. Making friends with other children was hard. He was intelligent but had problems in school. And for those familiar with “Running with Scissors,” the horrors that he endured at home won’t be a surprise: an abusive, alcoholic father, and a mentally ill mother who bounced around institutions and spent years in the thrall of a therapist with questionable treatment methods.
Life at home was a disaster and school a challenge, but Robison thrived in other areas. He found solace in his passions — cars, motorcycles, electronics, music, elaborate practical jokes. He eventually dropped out of high school, but a series of jobs led him to an opportunity many music fans would kill for: designing guitars for the rock band KISS. His creative thinking as he developed instruments that breathed smoke and fire, emitted lights and performed a whole host of special effects fascinated me. Along the way, he had memorable adventures — one involving a skanky Florida hotel room, a loaded gun and a supremely annoyed water moccasin is particularly colorful.
When he decided that the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle was too financially inconsistent, he found employment with toy manufacturer Milton Bradley as an engineer. Sure, he had to wear a tie to work, but he received a regular paycheck. He and his co-workers ended up designing the earliest electronic games. Remember Simon, anyone?
Years passed. Robison married his high-school sweetheart and sired a son. Eventually, life in the corporate world became too much for a man already uncomfortable with the intricacies of social interaction. He returned to an early interest — automobiles — and established a successful business restoring and reselling imported autos. It was through a client-turned-friend that Robison realized why he was the way he was. When his therapist friend gave him a book titled “Asperger’s Syndrome,” he was at first wary. He asked if there was a cure, and his friend said simply, “It doesn’t need curing. It’s just how you are.” Reading the book was a revelation for Robison: “There are other people like me. So many, in fact, that they have a name for us.”
Despite growing up mired in dysfunction and having to learn how to interact appropriately with others, Robison displays an open, deep love for his family. His relationship with his young son is miraculous, when you consider the role model he had. He reconciles with his father, reaching out to the dying man in a touching way that perhaps only a machine-obsessed Aspergian could. He even coaxes his brother, damaged by their upbringing in ways that he never knew until years later, back into the fold. The two become next-door neighbors, which Robison describes with his dead-pan humor: “We built new homes next to each other, on a little cul-de-sac. His is gay and frilly, and mine is Aspergian and functional. I am sure mine is better engineered, but he doesn’t care. His is prettier. Even though the plumbing fell apart and left him ankle deep in water right before Christmas that first year.”
Ultimately, to me, “Look Me in the Eye” is about coming home to oneself. It took Robison 40 years to do it, and he had some interesting detours along the way, but he finally figured out who he really was. And everything suddenly made sense. We should all be so lucky.
Lisa Brown is the administrative assistant at Joplin Public Library.