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Jodi Picoult Delves Into Asperger’s Syndrome

March 13, 2010

House Rules by Jodi Picoult
published by Atria March 2, 2010

Jacob Hunt knows more about his current passion, forensic science, than many law enforcement professionals. He keeps copious notebooks on Crime Busters, a police procedural show, and he sometimes surprises the police by “crashing” their crime scenes. His family’s life revolves around unusual routines, like eating only certain colored foods on particular days. He can’t stand long hair hanging loose around someone’s shoulders, and he loathes the color orange.

Jacob is a highly gifted eighteen-year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome. He is a senior in high school. His hardworking single mom, Emma, has dedicated most of her time and energy to him, leaving his fifteen-year-old brother Theo somewhat adrift. She has won important accommodations for him in school, like being allowed to retreat to a sensory break room when he is overwhelmed. She has also had Jacob follow a strict treatment regimen, with elements that will be familiar to anyone who has frequented discussion groups for parents of kids on the autism spectrum, such as a gluten free, casein free diet and various nutritional supplements.

One of the most heart-wrenching things for Emma, as a mom, is believing that Jacob does not experience empathy and will never understand love. At the same time, she adores him and relishes his brilliant mind, his unflinching honesty, and his wonderful, dry sense of humor. And she will do anything to protect him.

When someone close to Jacob tragically dies, and it is discovered that he was at the crime scene, he becomes a suspect. His Aspergian traits, like his apparent lack of emotion and his inability to look someone in the eye, make him appear guilty. Even his own mother doesn’t have faith in his innocence.

This is the kind of novel we’ve come to expect from Jodi Picoult. As Susan at Bloggin’ bout Books put it, she rips a “hot issue” out of the headlines, looks at it from various angles, and sculpts it into a story. It is eloquently written, with the point of view shifting fluidly among various colorful characters who draw us in and let us care about them. The plot is cleverly developed, but relies on coincidences that go beyond suspending disbelief. In other words, it’s well crafted, with characters who suck you in, but contrived.

I was looking critically at how Jodi Picoult depicted life on the autism spectrum because she’s a popular mainstream author and will probably introduce many people to this topic. Picoult clearly did a lot of research on autism and Asperger’s and the experiences of parents with kids on the spectrum. Many autistic traits are distilled in Jacob’s character, and his neurological differences are explained in the narrative. Many passages, including Emma’s memories and ruminations and monologues by expert witnesses in court, were clearly designed to educate readers about Asperger’s and autism. They covered everything from the controversy over whether vaccines cause autism to explaining “mind blindness” — the inability of an autistic person to see things from someone else’s perspective. I found it a bit didactic — the equivalent of that scene in a movie when a clinician explains the diagnosis for the benefit of the audience. On the other hand, it was woven into the narrative fairly seamlessly, exploring this subject in some depth.

There were aspects of Picoult’s portrayal of an Aspergian teen that I liked. She did a good job of bringing him to life and letting readers understand how his mind worked. She captured many of the incredible gifts and heart-wrenching challenges faced by many kids with autism and their families.

On the other hand, I couldn’t help feeling that there were too many textbook traits of Asperger’s distilled into Jacob. And we saw the extremes of Asperger’s — this was a character who was virtually incapable of  empathy and did not experience love as we understand it. This is definitely not the entire picture — many, if not most, Aspergian people develop empathy, although it may be expressed differently than neurotypical people expect. Many Aspergian people have friendships, marry, and lovingly raise children. But although I think the protagonist of House Rules might create a misleading impression of people on the autism spectrum, I don’t blame the author for that. She’s here to tell one Aspergian person’s story, and she acknowledged that many of the things people believe about a kid like Jacob are based on misunderstandings of what goes on in his mind.

Where Jodi really pushes the envelope — and, let’s face it, envelope-pushing is this author’s specialty — is by having Jacob’s lawyer argue that, because of his Asperger’s, he was incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong; hence he is not guilty by reason of insanity. I do not believe autism or Asperger’s is an illness or defect, and I found this disturbing and far-fetched. There were other things about these characters’ responses to this situation that bothered me — a lot — but I can’t get into that without revealing spoilers.

But in all fairness, there are cases where this is happening — Asperger’s being used as the basis for an insanity defense. And this story does raise a thought-provoking question. If a person does not seem to experience empathy, and follows rules in a mechanical way, is he able to meaningfully distinguish right from wrong?

There are also some insightful passages in this book. I liked this one for example:

Once Theo asked me if there was an antidote for Asperger’s, would I take it?
I told him no.
I am not sure how much of me is wrapped up in the part that’s Asperger’s. What if I lost some of my intelligence, for example, or my sarcasm? What if I could be afraid of ghosts on Halloween instead of the color of the pumpkins? The problem is that I do not remember who I was without Asperger’s, so who knows what would remain? I liken it to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that you peel apart. You can’t really get rid of the peanut butter without taking some of the jelly was well, can you? (p. 240)

Overall, this novel didn’t “wow” me, either as literature or as a believable portrayal of life with Asperger’s. But this author has a knack for storytelling and creating interesting characters, and this book has many positive facets.  I think readers who have enjoyed Jodi Picoult’s other books will probably like this one too.

If you’re interested in a straightforward, undramatized first-person account of life on the autism spectrum, I recommend:

Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome: A User Guide to Adolescence by Luke Jackson
Pretending to be Normal: Living With Asperger’s Syndrome by Liane Holliday Willey
Look Me in the Eye: My Life With Asperger’s by John Elder Robison
Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin

Read More Reviews: Crazy for Books; Bloggin’ ’bout Books; Cat in a Dog’s World (Part I) & Cat in a Dog’s World (Part II)

Rating:

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 2, 2010 6:33 am

    In Jacob's chapters, he says that he does, in fact, feel some degree of empathy. He just doesn't understand why he should express it if he can't do anything about it. I have Asperger's and found that I have a lot in common with Jacob.This wasn't as good as Handle With Care, which is my favourite, but I enjoyed everything but the ending.

  2. April 7, 2010 7:59 am

    I brought this book and read it in two days. Her books are usually based off of factual real life situations. she stated herself that most of her knowledge was based off of a relative that had asperger's syndrome and lots of research. she is a wonderful writer that gives you a nonfictional, yet fiction,multi-person story with plots and twist beyond imagination. i would have to say i loved 19 minutes and the pact the most, so far. adrienne larry- facebook

  3. Soraya permalink
    February 18, 2012 5:15 pm

    Hey, who is the author of this review?

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