This is a memoir written in a series of essays by the mother (Judith Newman) of an autistic teenage boy (Gus). The overall theme of it is the boy learning to connect with machines such as Siri and trains in a way he’s had trouble connecting with humans and that in turn leading to improved connections with human beings. This is a memoir that has generated a lot of controversy, as many people are disgusted by the way this woman writes about her son and autistic people in general.
Let me start out by admitting a couple of things that may get me crucified in the autism advocacy community: I bought this book and there are aspects of it I appreciated.
I was aware of the #boycotttosiri movement and at first I didn’t want to give money towards the book so I read it when I went to the bookstore but eventually I lost patience and purchased it on my Kindle.
I liked that this book gave a counterpoint to the narrative that technology is destroying society and relationships. I don’t use Siri but I’ve found other aspects of technology such as Facebook to be helpful to me when it comes to forging relationships.
It was interesting to me that Gus was initially diagnosed with Nonverbal Learning Disability. That is my official diagnosis. Although only a sentence is devoted to it, exposure in a high profile work may at least make people aware that it’s a deficit in processing nonverbal information (and not an inability to talk, as is often assumed.)
Thanks to this book I learned about some new autism programs that have been developed or are in the process of being developed in my own home state. There’s a bookstore in New Jersey that only employs people on the autism spectrum and Rutgers is developing an autism living community.
I laughed a few times because the author says some funny things.
That being said, none of the positive aspects of this book are enough to redeem it in my eyes in the face of all the things I find wrong with it. I agree with the criticism leveled at it by the autism advocacy community. I won’t go so far as to say this woman doesn’t love her son, as some have but I will say she writes about him in a disrespectful manner. The overall tone of this book is distasteful and off putting to say the least.
The tone is along the lines of “I’ve suffered this horrible tragedy but I’m not going to let it get me down. Let me tell you how I’ve managed to persevere in the face of this tragedy through dark humor and wit poking fun at the tragedy.” This kind of tone is okay if you’re talking about your cancer diagnosis, your failed marriage or your tornado-ravaged house. It’s not okay when you’re talking about your autistic child.
Let’s start with the passage that has garnered the most outrage: The one where she talks about how she’s going to sterilize Gus because she doesn’t think he’ll be a good parent. She asks “How do I talk about this without sounding like a eugenicist?” You can’t because what you’re talking about is eugenics. You shouldn’t decide that someone will be a bad parent as an adult based on what they’re like at age thirteen. Actually YOU shouldn’t be deciding whether or not someone else reproduces at all. That’s a decision they should make for themselves
She says that when she envisions Gus having sex she envisions a Benny Hill tune playing in the background and that can’t end well. I don’t know who Benny Hill is so I can’t find that joke funny anyway but it’s especially unfunny that she makes a joke like that at the expense of her son.
Really, the whole book is at her son’s expense. She invades his privacy, makes all kind of embarrassing comments about him and reveals all kinds of embarrassing details about him without his consent. She expresses the belief that autistic people can’t feel embarrassment, which would explain why she had no qualms about writing a book like this about her son, when I’m sure she would have been humiliated had her own mother written such a book about her.
This belief that autistic people can’t feel embarrassment is erroneous, dangerous and dehumanizing, as are the beliefs she expresses that autistic people can’t feel empathy and have no theory of mind. And the part where she wonders if Gus thinks? I thought my eyes would roll out of my head.
As if commenting on her desire to sterilize her son and on the soundtrack to his sex life weren’t bad enough, she also says that she can’t imagine any girl finding him interesting and complains throughout the book about how uninteresting she herself finds him. You know what? Given the choice between spending a day with Judith Newman and spending a day with Gus, I would choose Gus, no question. People who have autism or some other disability, who have atypical interests, behaviors, or speech patterns can be good friends and good lovers. Interesting is in the eye of the beholder.
In case you can’t tell, I don’t like Judith Newman very much. She comes across as selfish, entitled and judgmental. She feels entitled to pass judgement on issues she hasn’t got a clue about. When reflecting back on childhood classmates of hers who were bullied and who she assumes were autistic, she criticizes their parents for sending them to a mainstream school where they would be known as a retard. She has no idea what options were available to those parents or why they made the choices they did. Some special needs kids are better off in special schools but they shouldn’t automatically be sent there for fears of bullying in the mainstream. If they do end up being bullied maybe it’s the behavior of the bullies that should be criticized, rather than the behavior of the parents.
When speculating on the reasons behind the rise of the incidence of autism, she suggests that people with autistic traits who in previous times would have been unable to find mates are now reproducing and she adds in “Thanks, Tinder!” That’s disturbing in the same way wanting to sterilize her son is disturbing. At least she didn’t say “Thanks, Obama”?
When discussing autistic students at Cambridge objecting to research being done in to pre-natal genetic testing for autism, on the grounds that it would lead to eugenics, Newman says that it is not the place of the autistic people who attend Cambridge University to speak for the autistic people who are sitting alone in their rooms twirling objects.
First of all, if pre-natal testing for autism ever becomes possible, I seriously doubt it will be possible to tell if an autistic fetus will end up attending Cambridge or sitting alone in their room twirling an object. Second of all, can we please stop acting like autistic people who attend Cambridge and autistic people who sit alone in their room twirling objects are mutually exclusive categories, as if there can never be any overlap between the two? I didn’t attend Cambridge but I did attend university and do you know how much time I’ve spent sitting alone in my room twirling rubber bands? At least as much time as I’ve spent attending university.
She reveals that she and her husband (who she thinks is on the autism spectrum) are happily married but have always lived in separate apartments. That seemed strange to me but I can’t blame her husband for not wanting to live with her. She sounds insufferable.
Her reaction to criticism of her book did nothing to improve my impression of her. In response to accusations that the book is damaging to autistic people she said “I didn’t write it for them.” Sounds like she could use some lessons in empathy and theory of mind.
When she heard that people who didn’t appear to have read the book were leaving one star reviews of it on Amazon, she tried to get them taken down. Suck it up, Buttercup. You put your writing out there and people are free to criticize it. People leave reviews of books they haven’t read or finished all the time and proof of purchase has never been required. She claims that those people who are objecting to quotes from her book don’t understand them because they haven’t read them in context. Well, I have read them in context and it doesn’t make them any better. I’m sure if those people read your book, they would be more horrified, not less.
Within the autism community there’s a big divide between autistic adults who are deemed to be high functioning and parents of autistic children who are deemed to be low functioning, mainly over the issues of wanting a cure for autism and how those parents talk about their children. I feel like I’m more sympathetic to parents of autistic children than most but I still draw the line somewhere and Judith Newman crossed it.
Still, I’m glad I read this book. In addition to the good aspects of it I mentioned before it’s inspired me to start working on a story of my own of a similar nature ( I got the original idea for it from Life, Animated, another memoir written by the parent of an autistic boy that has a similar theme to To Siri with Love.) I’m not rich or famous like Judith Newman is (it’s a shame that it’s usually only the people with power, prestige and connections who get their voices heard) so my story won’t be as widely read or acclaimed as hers is but it also won’t be as widely criticized. I’ll try to write about autism in a more accurate and sensitive manner than she did.