I cannot shake the conviction that fiction, whether in literature, movies, or theater is of lesser value than learning “real” information about the world. Thus, my reading tends to consist mostly of non-fiction books such memoirs or works of history, biography, philosophy, and theology. And unless I find a movie to be truly extraordinary, I often leave the theater with the sense that my time could have been better spent doing something else.
At that same time, I see great errors in this way of thinking. Fictional stories also provide information about the world. The works of writers such as Shakespeare, Homer, and Tolkien render greater insight into reality than today’s news, much of which will be forgotten tomorrow.
All of this comes to mind as I just finished reading journalist Ron Suskind’s piece Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney in the New York Times. Suskind begins by sharing his son Owen’s story. He writes
“In our first year in Washington, our son disappeared. Just shy of his 3rd birthday, an engaged, chatty child, full of typical speech — “I love you,” “Where are my Ninja Turtles?” “Let’s get ice cream!” — fell silent. He cried, inconsolably. Didn’t sleep. Wouldn’t make eye contact. His only word was “juice.”
My wife, Cornelia, a former journalist, was home with him — a new story every day, a new horror. He could barely use a sippy cup, though he’d long ago graduated to a big-boy cup. He wove about like someone walking with his eyes shut. “It doesn’t make sense,” I’d say at night. “You don’t grow backward.” Had he been injured somehow when he was out of our sight, banged his head, swallowed something poisonous? It was like searching for clues to a kidnapping.
After visits to several doctors, we first heard the word “autism.” Later, it would be fine-tuned to “regressive autism,” now affecting roughly a third of children with the disorder. Unlike the kids born with it, this group seems typical until somewhere between 18 and 36 months — then they vanish. Some never get their speech back. Families stop watching those early videos, their child waving to the camera. Too painful. That child’s gone.”
Owen became obsessed with Disney movies. When he regained his ability to speak, it was in the form of repeating lines from these films. Then at age 6 1/2, a breakthrough came. Owen’s older brother Walt was celebrating his 9th birthday. Suskind writes that
After roughhousing with buddies in the backyard at the end of his party, Walt gets a little weepy. He’s already a tough, independent kid, often the case with siblings of disabled kids. But he can get a little sad on his birthdays.
As Cornelia and I return to the kitchen, Owen walks in right behind us.
He looks intently at us, one, then the other. “Walter doesn’t want to grow up,” he says evenly, “like Mowgli or Peter Pan.” We nod, dumbly, looking down at him. He nods back and then vanishes into some private reverie.
It’s as if a thunderbolt just passed through the kitchen. A full sentence, and not just an “I want this” or “Give me that.” No, a complex sentence, the likes of which he’d not uttered in four years. Actually, ever.
We don’t say anything at first and then don’t stop talking for the next four hours, peeling apart, layer by layer, what just happened. Beyond the language, it’s interpretive thinking that he’s not supposed to be able to do: that someone crying on his birthday may not want to grow up. Not only would such an insight be improbable for a typical 6-year-old; it was an elegant connection that Cornelia and I overlooked.
It’s as if Owen had let us in, just for an instant, to glimpse a mysterious grid growing inside him, a matrix on which he affixed items he saw each day that we might not even notice. And then he carefully aligned it to another one, standing parallel: The world of Disney.
After dinner is over and the boys retreat upstairs to their attic lair, Cornelia starts to think about what to do now. It’s like he peeked out from some vast underground and then vanished. He’s done this before, but never quite like this. “How on earth,” she says almost to herself, “do you get back in there?”
I feel she’s asking me. She has been the one lifting the burden each day, driving him to therapists and schools, rocking him to sleep as he thrashes at 3 a.m. I’m the one who tells stories, does voices, wears a propeller hat. Her look says, “Find a way.”
Soon I’m tiptoeing up the carpeted stairs. Owen’s sitting on his bed, flipping through a Disney book; he can’t read, of course, but he likes to look at the pictures. The mission is to reach around the banister into his closet and grab his puppet of Iago, the parrot from “Aladdin” and one of his favorite characters. He has been doing lots of Iago echolalia, easy to identify because the character is voiced by Gilbert Gottfried, who talks like a busted Cuisinart. Once Iago’s in hand, I gently pull the bedspread from the foot of Owen’s bed onto the floor. He doesn’t look up. It takes four minutes for Iago and me to make it safely under the bedspread.
Now crawl, snail-slow, along the side of the bed to its midpoint. Fine.
I freeze here for a minute, trying to figure out my opening line; four or five sentences dance about, auditioning. Then, a thought: Be Iago. What would Iago say? I push the puppet up from the covers. “So, Owen, how ya doin’?” I say, doing my best Gilbert Gottfried. “I mean, how does it feel to be you?!” I can see him turn toward Iago. It’s as if he is bumping into an old friend. “I’m not happy. I don’t have friends. I can’t understand what people say.” I have not heard this voice, natural and easy, with the traditional rhythm of common speech, since he was 2. I’m talking to my son for the first time in five years. Or Iago is. Stay in character. “So, Owen, when did yoooou and I become such good friends?”
“When I started watching ‘Aladdin’ all the time. You made me laugh so much. You’re so funny.”
My mind is racing — find a snatch of dialogue, anything. One scene I’ve seen him watch and rewind is when Iago tells the villainous vizier Jafar how he should become sultan.
Back as Iago: “Funny? O.K., Owen, like when I say . . . um. . . . So, so, you marry the princess and you become the chump husband.” Owen makes a gravelly sound, like someone trying to clear his throat or find a lower tone: “I loooove the way your fowl little mind works.” It’s a Jafar line, in Jafar’s voice — a bit higher-pitched, of course, but all there, the faintly British accent, the sinister tone.
I’m an evil parrot talking to a Disney villain, and he’s talking back. Then, I hear a laugh, a joyful little laugh that I have not heard in many years.”
Through the medium of Disney movies, Suskind was finally able to communicate with his son. The boy he lost came back to life. How had these children’s stories penetrated Owen’s small, closed world?
More generally, why do stories teach and change us in ways that didactic teaching cannot? Why did Jesus teach and form his disciples through parables?