To Siri with Love has caused indignation in the autistic community, recently (and rightfully so). I first learned about the book through the twitter grapevine. I joined the boycott under the hashtag #BoycotttoSiri, initially accepting the objections that other autistics were bringing to the book in good faith. Following the author’s complaint that a lot of the people trying to boycott the book had not read it, I decided to read a library copy in order to practice a more informed opposition, without necessarily supporting the author. It was a difficult decision. With details emerging about how Judith Newman discussed her plans to sterilize her son, Gus, and apparently mocked him throughout the book, it seemed likely that a mere reading would end up being distressing. In the end, I was curious enough to brave it, so here is my review!
The first chapter and the introduction are, in my opinion, the poorest, as they reveal Newman’s questionable position as a voice on autism. This happens to be one of my biggest objections to the book. Putting the consent issue aside for a moment – i.e. the fact that Judith Newman did not get consent from Gus to write about him using his real name – these chapters are littered with “I have a friend” and “I heard that an autistic person once” stories that illustrate her inadequacy as a speaker on autism. This should be surprising, because as an “autism mom”, Judith Newman would have had the experiences and connections necessary to intimate something more authentic and first-hand about autism.
This is one of the second-hand stories that I found most striking:
“Objectively, they [autistic people] are all a little out there. If Gus had been born in the early to mid-twentieth century, the pressure to institutionalize him would have been enormous […] And it’s not as if the idea of a “final solution” to autism is a historical curiosity. A few years ago, in the Netherlands, where euthanasia is legal not only for incurable physical conditions but also for mental conditions thought incurable and unbearable, an autistic man who had all his life been unable to form friendships asked to be put to death. His wish was granted.” (p. xx-xxi)
It is an example of the bizarre sleights of hand that Newman felt were necessary to grant her permission to speak in the way she did. I cannot be entirely sure, but in this story, the autistic man seems to be vouching for her statement that “we [autistics] are all out there” by asking for his own euthanasia.
Other deferrals to the persons who experience things first-hand, seemingly always caught in the act of granting her permission to speak, are less upsetting. Discussing her choice of terminology, she adds: “As a tiny friend said to me recently: ‘Oh, for God’s sake, just call me a dwarf. It’s the first thing you see, and I know it’s not the only thing about me that’s interesting.’” (p. ix). If it wasn’t for the suggestion that the burden is on the disabled person, and their ability to maintain their self-esteem, this would have been amusing, because I am guessing she does not have a tiny friend. This happened to be on the first page, and I was afraid it would set the tone for the book. Luckily Newman does find her own voice eventually, and succeeds in relating some of the details of her life with her autistic son.
Poor writing also plays a part in the introduction:
“I will also defer to the masculine pronoun when I am talking about people in generalities (sic.), because I learned it was correct to do this sometime back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. I mention this because a friend just wrote an excellent book on parenting using the pronoun “they” instead of “he or she”, and she uses the term “cisgender” to refer to anyone who is well, cisgender, which is one of the at least fifty-eight gender options offered by Facebook, ranging from Agender to TwoSpirit. She did this at the insistence of her teenage daughter. Language needs to evolve, but not into something ugly and imprecise. I read her book simultaneously loving her parenting philosophy and wanting to punch her in the face.” (p. x).
These assertions are troubling. As an author, Newman should have done her research prior to writing her book, regardless of her birth date. Given that there has been increasing awareness about the role of language structures in enforcing cisnormativity for quite some time, and the current level of activism, this passage even comes off as oddly retrograde and out of touch. Since this is not a self-published book, I wonder why this passage was not removed by the editor, considering that she does not actually use the male pronoun throughout.
Despite this, it would be unfair to say that the book is completely terrible. Keeping in mind that I do not read many books on autism, I thought the book deviated from the standard narrative on autism – which tends to be a detailed discussion of traits and symptoms, that read more like a narrativized diagnosis. I liked the cruise to Alaska, the typical night off, with the burned-out mom trying to make Brussel sprout chips, and the background stories on Newman’s family. The part I appreciated the most was the chapter on death – learning about death is both a part of growing up, and a part of being in a family that are seldom discussed in autism stories. I also appreciated the profiles of various autistic people and organizations, including the chapter on Darius McCollum, and the interview with Lindsey Nebeker, from Autism in Love. I even liked the portraits that Newman painted of Alexandra and Timmy (“You ran like a cartoon character, body bent at the waist, legs spinning, kind of like the Road Runner with acne and a perpetual boner”, p. 16).
Does this mean the campaign that was mounted against the book was unfair? When I came across the issues that were flagged by other autistics, I was surprised to find that the context in which they appeared made them seem more benign than I had expected, based on the discussions they stirred on Twitter.
The first accusation was that Newman was a bad mother who threw her son’s toys away, because she did not think he should still be playing with them. Newman did mention that she throws her son’s stuffed animals in the garbage and that he “rescues” them (p. 30). It is unfortunate that this behavior is one of the many socially acceptable microaggressions that parents can commit against their children, autistic or neurotypical, without recourse. Hopefully, this will change.
Newman’s description of Amythest Schaber as “everyone’s favorite manic pixie dream girl” (p. 42) appears in a surprisingly benign context – literally, a glowing review of her work. Coming to it from their cringing twitter exchange (where Newman calls Amythest a brat), to the actual passage in the book, I was a bit underwhelmed. It was one of the sections – and in fact, there were quite a few – where Newman properly deferred to the autistic authority, in this case on stimming, minus the awkward but perhaps well-intended description of Amythest’s appearance.
One charge that I could not verify was that Newman made fun of the porn her son watches. In the section where Newman and her other son, Henry, come across Gus’ porn in his browser history, she writes “we will draw the curtain over what we found, but suffice it to say that it put to rest my question about whether he is gay. Also, it appears that someday he might move to Japan.” (p. 185); I thought this was mostly endearing.
The issues that raised the most criticism, however, was Newman’s discussion of her plans to sterilize Gus:
“How do you say ‘I’m sterilizing my son’ without sounding like a eugenicist? I start thinking about all the people, outliers in some way, who had this fundamental choice in life stolen from them – sometimes cruelly, sometimes by well-meaning people like me.” (p. 115)
As the story advances, innocuous aspects of Gus’ life such as his love of public transit and music, his sleeping habits, and his conversations with Siri give way to an extended focus on Gus’ sexuality. Newman is worried because social awkwardness is no longer “its own form of birth control” (p. 180), special education school and other opportunities to get together lead to sexual relationships, and potential pregnancies. The last chapter has Gus on a date with Parker, a girl from his school.
I thought that the focus on sexuality was a bonus for the book, as it is often left out of the autism story; Autism in Love is one of the few documentaries that broach the topic. Again, the context in which this assertion appeared, was surprisingly benign, as Newman also discusses attending special lectures on sexuality and disability, and interviewing other autistics, seemingly due to a genuine desire to learn how to be supportive of her son.
One thing that comes to mind is that sterilization is an idea that Newman is struggling with, but that she might not have thought through completely, even though it is one of the few recurring ideas. If she does not think Gus can submit to a sleep evaluation, I am not sure how she envisions the vasectomy taking place. I hope it is just a manifestation of the ambivalence she exhibits throughout the book. One passage that I initially found suspect, may be just that: “when I think of Gus in a sexual situation, it generally has a Benny Hill soundtrack. And anything with that music does not end well.” (p. 115). It would have perhaps been disingenuous not to be ambivalent about Gus’ sexuality, as a parent – many neurotypical parents are ambivalent about their neurotypical children’s sexuality. The only concern is that it can be misinterpreted, and it does fit into the reasoning that was historically used to deny reproduction to people who were perceived as unfit, as she admits it herself, and that once released in a book, it can seed the idea into the minds of other autism parents. The book is, in many ways, a stream of consciousness that unleashes many conflicting and contradictory thoughts, but it would have been OK if she kept this one to herself. I am surprised that the publishers left it in, and hope they did not do so purposefully, to create controversy over what would have otherwise been a mediocre book.
The blunder was attributed to a neurotypical mom who fails to understand her son’s condition, however, the impression that I had while I was reading To Siri with Love was that Judith Newman is not a neurotypical person. She details her husband’s traits and their unconventional relationship, she makes him take Baron-Cohen’s autism quotient test, she talks about his son’s from a previous marriage quirks and routines, while she seems to exhibit many traits that suggest she is on the spectrum herself. It is unclear whether she willfully overlooked this in the book, or whether she has yet to reckon with it in her personal life. Even though everything else is discussed so openly and honestly, she only hints at her status: “Because there is something weird about me”, she writes, “to a lesser but still marked degree, I have the same problems” (p. 23).
While this does make Newman more intelligible to me, it does not excuse the shortcomings of the book. A short passage at the end of Introduction pointed to the missed opportunity in To Siri with Love:
“There’s a typical look of the mother [of an autistic person]: skin a little ashier than the average woman her age, hollows under the eyes a little more pronounced, a smile playing about her lips as the eyes dart nervously, wondering what might happen next.” (p. xxiii).
It led me to wonder why Judith Newman did not write a book on autism that centers more on her position. She does have an autistic son, and through him she does come into contact with the autistic universe, the organizations, the activists, the special schools and programs, and so on. So why not centre on her own experiences with them? Why not write a book that sets a standard for consent, language, and collaboration with the autistic person in her life? But if it is correct that Judith Newman’s relationship with the spectrum is more complex than that, then maybe she can give it another try in a follow up To Siri with Love.