The Curious Incident of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” – A Literary Review

Spoilers ahead.

The book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is an award winning book by Mark Haddon, famed for its depiction of an allegedly autistic protagonist.

It has been hailed by some as textbook on Aspergers, and some people even claim that it helped teach them how to interact with people on the autism spectrum. This is terrifying. Part of the problem is that some of the problematic aspects of the book are subtle, and in being so are possibly more damaging than something blatantly offensive because the reader doesn’t realize what they may be internalizing by reading the novel until it’s too late, or perhaps even never.

The main character is Christopher Boone, a teenage boy with an unspecified mental/social disability. His character reads as if someone googled ‘What are Asperger’s syndrome’s symptoms?’, took the first list they found off Autism Speaks’ website, and made a character based on that. It reads like a neurotypical person trying to understand the thoughts of a neurodiverse person rather than the actual thoughts of an autistic. This is in fact similar to the reverse of the personal experience I had in my own writing – most neurotypical people reading my work could tell something was off, that maybe I was not really one of them but rather was pretending. With Haddon’s work, most neurodiverse people can tell something is off, that he is pretending (as I noticed in reading reviews by other autistics). Instead of creating a real character, Haddon instead created another “Rain Man” – aka a stereotypical portrayal of a white male autistic savant mathematician.

maths-equation-one-million-dollars-390x285
Image is of a blurred out white male behind a glass plane, writing mathematical equations on it.

Not all aspects of Christopher’s character are negative or inaccurate – a fact which helps cover up the insidiousness of other aspects of the book. He has a fixation with the color of cars indicating what his luck for the day would be, stimming, and a few other realistic things along those lines help to build realism and potential understanding of such behaviors in neurotypical readers. However, his main flaw is his lack of humanity. Many people don’t understand that autistics do indeed have the capacity for empathy – in fact, quite a few have too much empathy to the point of being overwhelmed and not able to handle it, as I’ve written before in my review of Netflix’s Atypical. Sometimes autistics do not identify situations that require empathy, or do not understand them – but that is completely different from not being capable of empathy at all.

Christopher does not care about anyone or anything other than himself. The catalyst for the beginning of the book is Christopher discovering a dead dog and deciding to try to solve the mystery of who killed it, but even that is not done out of a sense of empathy for the murdered animal. It is entirely out of his fandom for Sherlock Holmes and his desire to solve the mystery itself. He does not care for his mentor, his neighbors, or his father, and his only reason to care about his mother comes across as a sense of selfishness – which the book ties into some of the problematic issues with their relationship, and is in and of itself problematic.

Christopher is also a consistently violent character, and not just in a triggered out of control meltdown way (it should be noted that the description of his meltdowns in the book are pretty accurate, though obviously not universal). He thinks about wanting to stab someone in response to anxiety induced by an important math test, which is not at all a realistic response to anxiety over a test. Some autistics can be violent in response to overwhelming sensory input, or even in a self-defense sort of way to overwhelming social contact, but most are not naturally violent. The natural thought to being in an uncomfortable situation is want to avoid or escape the situation or to think about a place that makes them feel safe that they would prefer to be in – the natural reaction is not to wish to brutally murder someone. Christopher even has that ‘flight’ response towards another uncomfortable situation, when he learns that his father killed the dog from the beginning and had lied about his mother being dead.  Christopher’s response is to escape. Yet for the test, he casually wants to murder someone. One of his favorite fantasies is that everyone in the world has died, leaving him alone. He could have easily thought of simply being someplace alone, but wishing death on everyone on the planet seems to be overkill.

636799336
Image is of a man standing alone on a rocky beach.

In presenting him like this, the book plays off of the stereotype that all Aspies are just a hair away from deciding to go on a shooting spree. It is a harmful stereotype because of the way it leads to neurotypical people sometimes treating ASD people. Their initial response in learning that someone is an Aspie can become one of fear and suspicion fueled by the paranoia this stereotype produces. It does not matter whether or not they know anything about the individual in front of them: automatically they assume that anyone with Asperger’s is dangerous, leading to more social problems for those who already have enough.

Another example of something a little more subtly horrifying in this book is the way that the people around Christopher interact with him and treat him. His father is abusive, his mother abandoned him, and the other people he encounters look down on him. The two that stand out the most are of course his mother and father. His father drinks and hits him hard enough to bruise him – and no one seems to care. It is almost as if, because he is autistic, it is alright. Christopher has a mentor/psychologist who even asks him about the bruises, but he does not feel like talking about it so she never investigates into the possibility of abuse even though that is her job. His father also threatens him and lies to him, telling him that his mother died a year and a half previously even though she was alive and writing to him. Christopher hardly reacts to the abuse, except for when he learns about his mom still being alive. It’s almost like background noise whenever someone insults him. By portraying an autistic character as not truly harmed by abuse, it makes it seem almost alright to abuse real autistic people. Because if someone doesn’t care or feel harmed by something, then why stop? Even now, violent electric shocks are being legally used in the USA as a way to punish autistics in institutions for doing harmless things like stimming. Because if autistics aren’t bothered by abuse, then where’s the harm? (Please note, that was sarcasm.)

images (1).jpg
Image is of a teenage boy in a hoody sitting in a semi-fetal position.

The mother is barely any better. She blames Christopher for ruining her marriage despite the fact that she is the one who had an affair – sounding like an Autism Speaks promotional video using autism as a tool to scare couples. This is another trope/harmful stereotype about autism, that having a child who is on the spectrum means that a couple’s marriage is doomed. As if the trials that come with having a special needs child are the child’s fault if the marriage was unstable to begin with. And no one, not even Christopher himself, cares about any of this. The only things Christopher really cares about is that his father lied about his mother’s death, and that his father killed the dog in the beginning. But even these things – things that are very important – no one else in the book cares about. The fact that the father got drunk and literally murdered an animal in cold blood is never prosecuted or seen as indicative of violent tendencies. Perhaps the worst part is that the book itself doesn’t care. It pretends that because the father apologized at the end and bought Christopher a dog (because a man who gets drunk and murders dogs and hits his son should totally be allowed to buy a dog and keep custody of his son) that it’s all okay. Somehow, that’s supposed to be a satisfying conclusion to the whole novel. Overall it’s a terrible example of humanity.

tumblr_mav95sJmYi1rg9ssco1_250.jpg
Image is of the cover of the book “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” by Mark Haddon

Some interesting facts I uncovered while researching the author’s understanding of the condition he was writing about came to light in the form of direct quotes from Haddon himself. While he originally described Christopher as an Aspie, even putting “Asperger’s” on the cover of his book as a description of his character and story, he has since retracted this and has had this to say about the subject of autism:

“I have to say honestly that I did more research about the London Underground and the inside of Swindon Railway Station, where some of the novel takes place, than I did about Asperger’s syndrome.”

“I know very little about the subject. I did no research for Curious Incident (other than photographing the interiors of Swindon and Paddington stations). I’d read Oliver Sack’s essay about Temple Grandin and a handful of newspaper and magazine articles about, or by, people with Asperger’s and Autism. I deliberately didn’t add to this list. Imagination always trumps research.”

Except that imagination does not trump research when an author is addressing something so based in the real world, that affects so many real people. Certainly imagination is key if creating a fantasy world where rivers float through the sky and mountains are inhabited by dwarves, but not when describing a condition many people actually have. Such a work by its nature requires extensive research or personal experience, or it risks creating harmful work full of information that will harm people and society in real life with its influence. If I were to ‘imagine’ that all gay people were obnoxious, promiscuous, sex-obsessed, riddled with STDs, and incapable of romantic love in the way heterosexual people are, then that would be inaccurate and extremely offensive and harmful to a lot of people. That’s essentially what Haddon has done.

paddington.jpg
Image is of  the interior of Paddington station, referred to by Haddon

Part of the harm taken from this book is that, despite Mark Haddon’s admission that he knows very little on the subject, this book is being used as a teaching tool. One doctor, Dr. Alex McClimens, read Curious Incident and went so far as to say, “The magnificent essay in communication is compulsory reading for anyone with the slightest interest in autistic spectrum disorders.” Except that it should not be, for all the reasons listed above. Without accuracy and research, paper becomes poison.

Intentions matter when you write. Haddon did not intend to write an award winning, widely read book to be turned into a musical and used as a textbook on a subject he did little research on, yet he did. His intention seemed to be to write a semi-thriller/mystery using mental illness as a prop to draw in readers (as unfortunately many writers do). If he had considered the impact his work could have on various communities, perhaps he would have sharpened his intentions and decided that imagination is not better than research. Perhaps he would have written a novel whose character could help the autistic community in visibility and their treatment rather than creating an un-sympathetic, un-empathetic mathematically inclined stereotype.

 

If you like what you’ve read, like, share, comment, and/or follow to show support! You can also find me on facebook as Some Girl with a Braid, or on Twitter @AmalenaCaldwell.

images.jpg
Image is a promotional picture for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” musical
Advertisements

Looking for Beta Readers!

Hello lovely readers!

I don’t have a proper post about being autistic for you today, but I do have a post about autistics in literature – specifically, the book I just finished a first edited rough draft for! I’m so excited I keep feeling the need to jump up and down!

The Unwanted: Castle of Blue Stone is the first book in a young adult fantasy series I hope to write, and is currently 78,000 words long. Here’s a short description:

 

The last thing autistic fourteen-year-old Crimson Yates expected when inspecting a strange box was to be transported to a parallel world and shot in the chest with an arrow. But since it did happen, all she can do is try to remember how to breathe – something difficult to do with said arrow in her chest.

The refurbished fort where Crimson lands serves as a haven for half-humans escaping persecution from a human-dominated, Native American/Nordic society. While adults research ways to send her home, Crimson’s transition to their society is eased with the help of a gender-bending nunnehi (shapeshifter) and a half-jotunn (antlered giant) boy cursed with deadly magic. Alongside them, she learns about magic runes, how to ride mammoths, and how to wield a longsword. But the relative peace of the castle is shattered when decimated refugees from a neighboring kingdom arrive with news of a reptilian army marching their way. Crimson must manage her anxieties to help save the place and people she’s come to care for, or risk losing everything.

 

If this sounds interesting to you, I am on the search for beta readers! This does not mean editors: I am looking specifically for people of all demographics who enjoy reading and would be willing to read my book, answer questions about it, and provide general feedback.

I’d be especially interested in hearing feedback from POC, since the characters with the most ‘screen time’ are African American, Native American, and Asian, as well as any young adults/teenagers out there since that’s the target demographic.

Please contact me if you would be interested in helping. Thank you!

Netflix’s Atypical – Things it gets Right and Things it gets Wrong

This is the first in a series of posts about Autistic portrayals in fiction and media, and the first of a two part series specifically on the show Atypical.

Netflix recently released its new original series Atypical about an autistic teenage boy named Sam. It gets a few things right, and a few things wrong… so I’ll start with the good.

Atypical depicts a disabled character as non-asexual. While some people on the spectrum and with various disabilities can be asexual, it is often assumed by the public and portrayed by media to be a universal feature. So definite positive points to the show for going that route.

Also for doing a decent job of portraying things like stimming, sensory management (Sam, the protagonist, often is seen wearing noise canceling headphones, which are a truly beautiful invention), and other difficulties.

Perhaps the best thing that the show gets right is when it shows that Sam understands when he’s being made fun of. There are other portrayals in media and fiction that show autistic characters as completely oblivious to the cruelty of their peers. It’s good to show how it can harm and affect an autistic person, even if they don’t 100% get all the details. Making that empathetic connection to the audience can be a step towards stopping bullying. It’s difficult to stand up to a bully – if you’re under the impression the bully’s target doesn’t care about or understand what’s going on, then you might be less inclined to help. But when you know they are hurt just the same as anyone else, you’re more likely to step up.

Now… the things it gets wrong.

The most obvious is that it plays into the stereotype of the straight or asexual, white, autistic male. This is by far the most common depiction of autistics in fiction/media – at least, the most popular ones. I’m including in this characters who are implied to be or read by the audience to be on the spectrum, despite not necessarily being labeled as such. This includes Rain Man, Sheldon Cooper, Christopher Boone, Sherlock Holmes (technically a high-functioning sociopath, but for some reason audiences conflate the two conditions… I don’t quite get why considering how different they are), Dr. House, and Spock, to name a few. We need more diversity because we are diverse. Sometimes when I hear ‘You don’t look autistic’ I wonder if they actually mean ‘You don’t look like a straight, male stereotype.’ This has real world consequences. There are psychologists out there who refuse to diagnose girls. The color blue was chosen to represent autism by certain groups because they felt it was a boy’s club and blue means male. Aside from gender, race is also a factor. I’ve heard people say ‘black people don’t get autism’ which is just plain false and harmful to any child out there who gets overlooked as a result. Media is a reflection of how we see our world, and it can shape our world when it changes. If we include more diverse autistic characters, people will recognize more diverse autistics as valid. There have been a handful of these more diverse representations in recent years, but they’ll half to wait their turn for their own post, of course.

Next point: Humor. Humor is almost always at someone’s expense; that is a universal truth. In this show, which is meant to be a comedy, the expense is usually Sam’s. We are not meant to laugh with him, we are laughing at him. At how awkward he is when he sits on a bus and bursts out laughing for no reason, at how awkward it is when he doesn’t get something and everyone else does, at how awkward it is when he has a freak out in class and throws his jacket in the trash. We are meant to laugh from a neurotypical perspective. Once in a while it can be excused, but not whenever he’s on screen. I would pay money to see a scene where a neurotypical and an autistic are talking and the humor is played at the NT’s expense, and from the autistic’s perspective. For example, the following:

NT: Oh, you’re autistic? My father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate has a kid who’s autistic! I know all about it!

AT: … Goody for you then?

Or maybe:

NT: You’re autistic? But you don’t look like you’re autistic.

AT: Yeah, well, I peel off my scales every morning and tuck in my tail so I’m not too obvious in public.

But, in my opinion, the worst plot sin is in the episode where Sam is shown breaking into his therapist’s house at night because he has a crush on her. This is not okay. It is illegal, predatory behavior, not just an awkward autistic symptom. It’s stalking. Apparently contrary to popular belief, autistic people do understand the difference between right and wrong. We have empathy and can often understand that if we wouldn’t want to be abused or violated in some way (privacy, mentally, physically) then we shouldn’t do it to others because that will upset them just as it will upset us. Abusive behavior is not to be excused by a person’s neurology. I was in a class with someone once who told me that someone they’d had a sexual encounter with had gotten abusive, but that they weren’t going to press charges because the boy in question was autistic. This is bad for so many reasons. If someone who’s autistic is doing something illegal or abusive, they likely know too and are making a conscious choice to continue based on factors completely unrelated to their neurology. There may be one or two exceptions where someone genuinely has been socialized to believe abuse is normal and an acceptable way to behave (perhaps from a bad home, or with bad friends who normalize it), but that is not right. The media we consume (and that many people will use to educate themselves about autism) should not normalize this behavior as something quirky that just goes along with an autism diagnosis. It hurts both neurotypicals and autistics because people will expect and excuse abuse. Neurotypicals might be more tolerant of abuse, which hurts them, and autistics might be avoided/stigmatized despite not naturally being abusive, which hurts them. No one wins. Fiction needs to not portray autistics as abusive, or at least, not portray the abuse as a symptom of autism. That scene should have been completely omitted.

Not the last thing I have to say about Atypical, but one of the more important points that needs to be made is about research. For one, Sam is shown to have little empathy (in the last episode he claims he has more, but it’s almost the first point in the show where he seriously considers it. For example, he doesn’t consider whether or not his therapist might like him at all and how she feels, only focuses on how to steal her from her boyfriend and how he himself feels), which is an incorrect assumption NTs have about autistics. This shows that the writers of this show researched based off of other NT’s writing/work/experiences rather than talking to autistic adults. I did some reading up on their process for this show, and while they have good intentions, the only interactions they seem to have had with actual autistics is talking to autistic children. An autistic child’s perspective is not the same as a teen or an adult’s. They are making a show about relationships and sex: they needed to interview an autistic adult to understand that perspective. But they didn’t… I’m not sure why.

Here’s a note to all writers. If you are writing about a group of people you are not a part of, you need to be meticulous with your research. If you have a main character who is a race, gender, sexuality, religion, or other that you are not or has a disability that you do not have, don’t shove in stereotypes and call it a story. Don’t talk to people who know someone who’s a part of that community. Talk directly to people in that community, read articles by people in the community, learn about experiences they have that you don’t directly from them. Ask them for input, ask them to review your work, make the changes they suggest. Accuracy is key. We need visibility and diversity in fiction for all types of people, because absence is harmful. But possibly more harmful is inaccuracy. We in the community you portray will zero in on every inaccurate detail, while those not in our community will use those details against us.

This has been part one of my Atypical review. I’ll continue with part two hopefully soon, so stay tuned for more analysis!