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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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