Remember that sweet old lady in the wheelchair? This movie is about what an awful parent she is.
The Ingenious Minds episode on John Elder Robison, the author and engineer with Asperger's syndrome, was pretty good. The whole savant focus of the show bothers me a little-- I don't think that's the most useful lens to look at John Elder through, and I think popular culture already connects autism and savantism to a degree which is not helpful. The most satisfying part for me was the montage covering his early life. The biggest disappointment was that so much time was devoted to TMS and so little to John Elder discussing what autism is. Still, very well-produced and pretty free of misinformation or bigotry.
Now let's talk about that freaky scene with his mom on the bridge, which I think was presented in a very dishonest way. It was meant to make the point that John Elder has significant problems with empathy, even with his own mother. She's in a wheelchair and wants to move on. He wants to talk about about trains.
What's left out of this is that Margaret Robison is a famously difficult woman, and such a terrible parent that they literally made a movie about it. She sent her younger son, writer Augusten Burroughs, to live with her psychiatrist, whose adopted, thirty-something son sexually abused him, and that experience is the subject of his book and the movie Running with Scissors.
Augusten Burroughs is still so angry with his mother that they converse only through email. When I saw that bridge in the TV show, I had to wonder if it is the one that he and his father discuss the logistics of pushing Margaret off of in the book A Wolf at the Table.
And when I saw the train, I remembered that, when his father was dying, John Elder was upset that he could not remember any happy times they had had together. His father then reminded them of the time they had spent with real and model trains. In Look Me in the Eye, the author talks about taking his own son Cubby for father-son bonding trips to train yards.
John Elder Robison associates trains with parental affection. His mother does not understand that.
Which one of them is lacking empathy in that scene?
I look forward to gaining more empathy for Margaret Robison when her own memoir, The Long Journey Home, is published in May.
Using home movies from his neurodiverse family, Tom Murray made the remarkable documentary Dad's in Heaven With Nixon. It's intensely moving to see what I would regard as a typical-but-gifted autistic family: genius great-grandfather; bipolar gandfather and father; autistic son.
Christopher Murray is a charming autistic artist who lives on his own. He has a couple of jobs and is shy about girls. Wounded by his father's inability to connect his him, he has created since the man's death a version of him who is loving, and lives in heaven with Richard Nixon, a figure he hated in life.
Christopher creates huge paintings of buildings, mostly showing his love of New York. One of his fans was Anderson Cooper's mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, who helped find an audience for his work. His art sells well, but he keeps to his routine. Listening to him talk about his work, and how it fits into his life, made me very happy and gave me hope.
I was struck by how much elements in the Murray family reminded my own, perhaps most the tendency of parents to almost despise one child while loving others. Murray's great-grandfather seems to have hated his youngest son, Murray's father. My grandmother did not hate my mother, but she withheld love from her in an essential way, and I've seen that pattern repeated elsewhere in my family.
John Elder Robison's father does seem to have hated his other son, writer Augusten Burroughs, and those who have read Burroughs' harrowing book A Wolf At the Table will find much in Dad's in Heaven with Nixon that will remind you of the relationship that the Robison brothers' had with their father. In both families, fathers withheld affection almost completely from their younger sons.
But most memorable in the film is the intense love Christopher shows for his brother and his mother, and the feeling they show for him. Anyone who doubts the contributions that a person with autism can make should watch this movie.
John Elder Robison appeared today on TRU TV to talk about Asperger's Syndrome. As always, he was an eloquent advocate for people with autism. As someone who has read just about everything by and about his family, I wish he had acknowledged that violence did play a role in his relationship with his father, who very likely also had undiagnosed Aspergers, rather than claiming that neither he nor any aspie he has ever know has ever had a violent urge. But this is quibbling-- for John Elder to appear in the context of Tru TV's demonzing coverage of John Ogdren was brave and important.