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Unit 1- Thoughts on practical nomenclature and the inner workings of an Aspergian mind

veritatemdilexi's picture

      Memoirs serve a multitude of purposes.  Some are exploitive in nature, others are nostalgic of a time that has

past, and still others recite the events of extraordinary lives.  John Elder Robison is not a memoirist or a famous rock

star, although he did work for Pink Floyd and KISS, he does however construct an insightful and educational memoir

about his remarkable life with Asperger's syndrome.  Not only is Look Me in the Eye: My life with Asperger's

stimulating and informative to the general population, it can also be used as an instructional tool for professionals

who are working to better understand Asperger's syndrome. 

     It is almost impossible to comprehend Look Me in Eye without examining the book of Robison's younger brother, Running with Scissors. Augusten Burroughs documents the demise of his family, the drinking of his father, and the eventual mental collapse of his mother while he is living with his mother's psychiatrist Dr. Finch.  Augusten Burroughs Running with Scissors was simply titled a book. 

"After his family and psychiatrist sued for defamation, claiming that much of his depiction of them in his memoir Running with Scissors was invented or exaggerated, Augusten Burroughs agreed not to refer to the book as a memoir in his author's note.  It would simply be a "book," identified as neither fiction nor nonfiction.  Burrough's older brother, John Elder Robison, wrote a memoir, Look Me in the Eye, in which their father is portrayed as a very different kind of person." (Shields 54).

It was in fact this relationship of memoirs from brothers that prompted me to read Look Me in the Eye.  However, if I was looking for an enraged older sibling's response to his younger brother's account of events I was sorely disappointed.  Look Me in the Eye is not a response to Burrough's Running with Scissors.  Robison never repudiates the claims that his younger brother makes in his "book" nor does Robison ever comment on whether or not he sued his younger brother for defamation.  Augusten Burroughs opens the foreword of his older brother's book, "My big Brother and I were essentially raised by two different sets of parents." (Robison xi); throughout the entirety of Look Me in the Eye Robison never presents any memories that are contrary to Burroughs opening statement. 

     The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, a member of the National Institutes of Health, defines Asperger's syndrome as follows:

"Asperger's syndrome (AS) is a developmental disorder.  It is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), one of a distinct  group of neurological conditions characterized by a greater or lesser degree of impairment in language and      communication skills, as well as repetitive or restrictive patterns of thought and behavior."

     As Robison describes in his book, the diagnoses of autism is relatively new. "In 1984, it (asperger's syndrome) was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders used by mental health professionals." (Robison 3).  Despite the above quotes regarding Asperger's syndrome from professional diagnostic sources, very little material is written from the perspective of the individual with Asperger's.  While Robison is not a neurological scientist, or a psychiatrist, he is able to write the events of his life while describing his thought patterns that are dramatically different.  This personal account of how an individual with Asperger's process information and personal emotions is invaluable when trying to understand Asperger's syndrome. 

     According to Robison "People with Asperger's or autism lack the feelings of empathy that naturally guide most people in their interactions with others." (Robison 11).  While Robison does not demonstrate "natural" behaviors in his understanding or interaction with other individuals he is still able to process his emotions towards others.  The most interesting sections of the memoir involves his naming of individuals according to their behaviors.  The naming of his brother has particular significance:

     "I looked down at him. "Can you say anything?"

     He snorted.

     "Is that it?"  I poked him in the nose the way I'd seen my parents do. He

     yelled. Quickly, I picked him up and rocked him back and forth.  He

     quieted down, and snorted some more.

     "I'll call you Snort," I said.  Now he had a name" (Robison 22-23).

This naming of individuals with a logical mnemonic is not solely based on their behaviors, but in some instances Robison's emotions towards these individuals.  When prompted by Dr. Finch to give his parents new names Robison chooses two unique names that are packed with emotions toward his parents: "I have decided to name you Slave," I said, looking at my mother.  "And your name is Stupid," I told my father" (Robison 57).  While this appears harsh towards his parents, how many people without Asperger's syndrome have thought of another individual and associated them with stupidity?  The most fascinating aspect of Robison's naming practice is the fact that his names for individuals evolve over his life.  His younger brother goes from "Snort" (Robison 23), to "Varmint" (Robison 26), and eventually to "my brother (Robison 261).  His mother and father changed from Slave and Stupid (Robison 57) to "my mother" (Robison 221) and "my father" (Robison 274), respectively. 

     If nothing else Look Me in the Eye teaches both layman and professionals that individuals with Asperger's syndrome are capable of demonstrating feelings and interacting with other individuals.  The true strength of Robison's story is the fact that he lived forty years of his life without a diagnosis and was still able to construct a life complete with a successful career and family; a true testament to the abilities of the human mind and spirit.  While Robison was able to construct a fulfilling life, his relief at being diagnosed is palpable."Just reading those pages was a tremendous relief.  All my life, I had felt like I didn't fit in.  I had always felt like a fraud or, even worse, a sociopath waiting to be found out.  But the book told a very different story.  I was not a heartless killer waiting to harvest my first victim.  I was normal, for what I am." (Robison 238).The fact that Robison's reaction to being diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome was the feeling of normalcy is incredible.  By being diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome Robison was able to better process his life and ultimately identify with a normalcy for his true self. 


Works Cited

1. "NINDS Asperger Syndrome Information Page." National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health, 14 May 2010. Web. 16 Sep 2010. <>.

2. Robison, John Elder. Look Me in the Eye. 1st ed. New York, NY: Random House, 2007. Print.

3. Shields, David. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. 1st ed. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., 2010. 54. Print.



Anne Dalke's picture

Normalcy--or neurodiversity?

I keep forgetting to ask you to decode your user name for me! (...and speaking of decoding, let me see if I can help you both with your title and with the formatting troubles you seem to be having w/ the first portion of your text...)

But: on to the more interesting stuff! You title this essay "thoughts on...." and it is filled, indeed, w/ a series of interesting thoughts. Perhaps most striking to me, as to you, is Robison's reaction to being diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome -- that he finally felt normal: "normal, for what I am." There's something quite telling in that phrase, I think: that to feel normal, we don't need to be recognized as being "like others," but rather for who we are on the inside.

What's still missing for me here is a claim emerging from your description of the book: is it, as you say in your opening paragraph, that memoirs can have use value as instructional tools for professionals? (If that's it, you really need to focus on that idea, highlighting it as the paper develops.) Or is it, as you say in your conclusion, really about the relief of having a diagnosis, being made to feel normal by being labeled as abnormal? (Might you counter that desire for 'normalcy' w/ an acknowledgment of neurodiversity? See below...) Finally, given that the complex? unbounded? genre of nonfiction is our topic in this course, a third possible thesis might be built up around the story you tell of Burroughs' agreeing to refer to his book simply as "book," identified as neither fiction nor nonfiction. Where could you take that idea?

It's not the case, actually, that "very little material has been written from the perspective of the individual with Asperger's." If you would like to learn more about this topic, you could spend the rest of your time, this semester, learning about it "from the inside." Here are some leads:

Temple Grandin's Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism

Resources on Serendip about neurodiversity

Serendip Review of "Look me in the Eye,"
(including a response by John Elder Robison)

Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical:
(I just love this page!... Neurotypical syndrome is a neurobiological disorder characterized by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity. Neurotypical individuals often assume that their experience of the world is either the only one, or the only correct one. NTs find it difficult to be alone. NTs are often intolerant of seemingly minor differences in others. When in groups NTs are socially and behaviorally rigid, and frequently insist upon the performance of dysfunctional, destructive, and even impossible rituals as a way of maintaining group identity. NTs find it difficult to communicate directly, and have a much higher incidence of lying as compared to persons on the autistic spectrum.

and finally, a NYTimes piece on "Neurodiversity Forever"