7 October 2013

An Anthropologist on Mars

Author: Oliver Sacks
Year published: 1995
Pages: 336
Time It Took To Read: Two days

I bought this book a while ago, on a whim, having read a few of Oliver Sacks' books before. Since I bought it, it has become apparent that my eldest son is not normal, neurologically. He has no diagnosis yet, but he certainly ticks a lot of boxes on the Aspergers checklist. This led a strange resonance to the book, with its stories of the perception of the broken minded.
The story focuses on people who see the world through different eyes, for many different reasons. There is a painter who loses all colour perception after a car accident, and almost kills himself with the gloom, monotony and misery of it. There is a man who, following a serious brain tumour, becomes convinced it's still the 1960s and comes alive when, and only when, he hears music. Another man is a surgeon with profound Tourettes syndrome, who is able to suspend his tics during surgery, and at other times allows them to take over, finding relief in doing so. There is a man who, virtually blind from toddlerhood, has his sight restored and cannot cope with it. Another suffers a brain injury that causes him to paint the most beautiful scenes from his home town, but it's all he thinks about or talks about.
But the two most important stories to me are the autistic boy with the most precocious artistic talent, and the interviews with Dr Temple Grandin, a woman with high functioning autism who has done a vast amount of work in humane slaughter. She empathises with cows, despite the popular perception of autistic people as devoid of empathy. She also developed a hugging machine, so she could enjoy the comforting deep sensation of a hug, without the need of people.
The overwhelming feeling I got from this book was not one of people who were deficient or subhuman, though I daresay their families struggled with their fundamental difference, but people who managed to live despite being considered so abnormal.
If my son does have Aspergers syndrome, he will be seen as different. He will be labelled, and although I am keen for a diagnosis as it's the only way to get him the proper support he needs, that label comes with the risk of superseding Jimmy, so he simply becomes Aspergers.
Society enjoys homogenity. Society is afraid of difference - look at how transgender and transsexual people are treated, with horror, fear and alarm, for failing to fall neatly into one of the two gender boxes. Society is not built to cope easily with those who have different minds. Jimmy's differences become almost painfully apparent to the observer when he is in his peer group, worrying his teachers, alienating his fellow classmates. The onus is on giving him the skills to cope with society perceiving his differences rather than his similarities.
This book is peppered with neurological attempts to make the damaged 'better', when their adaptation to their different world means that being made 'better' means making their lives worse. The man whose sight was restored had the operation to please his fiancee, who passionately believed that his life would be better with sight. However, his sight was so poor, and his ability to learn to see so impaired after such a long time, that he could not take pleasure in his sight. Most telling were the interviews with Temple Grandin, and I advise anyone with loved ones on the autistic spectrum to look into her life, to read interviews with her and the books she has written, to see how a different life is not necessarily a deficient life.
This book shows, overwhelmingly, that there is not one neurological path to a worthwhile and rewarding life.

Book count: 44/50.