Asperger’s Syndrome describes someone of high intelligence and strong focus, whose social skills are learnt rather than intuitive. Although Asperger’s has been standardised as a psychiatric diagnosis since the 1990s, memoirs like Liane Willey’s Pretending To Be Normal (1999) and John Elder Robison’s Look Me in the Eye (2007) brought it into the larger public consciousness only this century. But it may be about to disappear. The current draft of the psychiatrists’ reference book (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition or DSM-5) proposes that Asperger’s be dropped as a diagnosis in favour of an expanded Autism Spectrum Disorder. This has raised concerns that aspects of Asperger’s will be subsumed into a broader category, losing their particularity.
On the evidence of Jo Case’s first book, this would be a pity. Boomer & Me is not a medical memoir but the tale of a life of common occurrence and singular experience – the untidiness of a child’s house, the tectonic drift from friends without children, the arbitrary – sometimes painful – alliances formed between parents waiting at the school gates. Case’s son Leo, the Boomer of the title, has a strong connection to his mum and reads at such an advanced level that Case suspects he’s gifted. But he also ‘ … loses his temper, he strays into out-of-bounds areas. And he pulls down his pants.’
At school, Leo has trouble mixing with others. When a test meant to confirm his gifted status instead suggests that Leo has Asperger’s, Case is thrown by a definition that she initially resists, one that explains some things but not others.
At the literal and emotional centre of the book is a moment when a starfish is retrieved from a bayside beach. Case reaches in:
… confident, less careful; maybe this is why my foot slips on a rock and I fall with a scream. Leo screams, too, just as I start to laugh … [I] climb out … Water streams from my sodden jeans, puddling on the footpath.
‘Oh, it’s my fault!’ wails Leo. ‘I’m so sorry, Mum!’
‘No it’s not, why is it your fault? I’m the one who climbed into the water.’
‘But I told you I wanted a starfish.’
‘It was my decision to go get it,’ I say. ‘Really, I’m the grown-up. It’s my responsibility.
The reckoning of responsibility and its different demands is what binds Boomer & Me. Like the oddly sensate starfish (a non-fish now known as a star of the sea), identity reaches out in five different directions at once. Case is an attentive mum, determined to fashion a family out of life’s awkward materials. She is a writer with a wavering belief in her writing. She’s an introvert who has trained herself to be outgoing. She feels responsible for the Asperger’s, one of Leo’s genetic inheritances. She may be Asperger’s herself.
Like the playful hero mask Leo wears on the cover, this is a book of heightened expression. Case is by turns proud, dismayed, vulnerable, vengeful, kind, dismissive – like us all, but with the boring bits cut out. She properly resists the temptation to crowbar in more reflection into her story than was felt at the time and writes in the easy style of the blog posts from which this book had its genesis. Her chapter endings are often acute little codas of humour or sadness, drawing the reader on. Late in the book, Case writes: ‘I’ve accepted the label of Asperger’s Syndrome so long as I can shape it my way: different, not defective.’
Memoirs are tricky beasts. They sell, but the strong imperative willing them into existence is too often the subject alone, with seemingly little interest in turning out a finished piece of writing. The number of second-hand memoirs that can be found in second-hand bookstores with an ‘OK – I get it’ bookmark marooned at the halfway mark is evidence enough of that.
It is also true that memoirs are excused their less crafted elements by their proximity to veracity. Life is allowed to be lumpy and plain words are seen as closer to the plain truth. The truth about any piece of writing is that it is a journey and the destination, a page marked ‘The End’ should matter as much as the first chapter. Good stories demand good endings, a perceptive and natural shape.
Case deploys a clear, unconscious rhythm. While the reader never doubts her close veracity, she also has a sure sense of craft. Life’s improvisations are at the heart of this book but its storytelling is uncluttered and harmonious.
Boomer & Me is a song from another room. It fills your ears with both the recognition of life’s wear and its singular glories. By telling her story with such limpid grace, Jo Case has pointed to one of life’s great truths: there is no dramatic reveal. We are discomforted, mundane, good and better all at once. We are the result of one moment after another.
(Disclaimer: I have not met Jo Case, but she has edited my work for publication and we talk on Twitter – who meets in real life any more? JT)
Jo Case Boomer & Me: A Memoir of Motherhood, and Asperger’s Hardie Grant Books 2013 PB 208pp $24.95
James Tierney is a freelance writer who blogs at A Long, Slow Goodbye and tweets as @ViragoHaus.
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