The word Asperger's was unknown to me till 1997, when I read Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius, by a San Francisco psychiatrist, Peter Ostwald. As an old friend of Glenn's, Ostwald knew that many of his relationships were disturbed or even shattered by some mysterious, distance-creating element in his personality. He thought the cause might have been a version of the neurobiological disorder called Asperger's, a less calamitous but still terrifying cousin of autism.
That term was so new to me that I assumed it was French, mispronounced it while discussing the book on CBC radio, and received an e-mail from an amused listener chiding me for conferring French citizenship on Hans Asperger (1906-1980), the Austrian pediatrician who first described the syndrome in 1944.
Seven years later, Asperger's comes up often in conversation, in print, and in the offices of doctors. Of 13 books on Asperger's in the University of Toronto medical library, all but one were published after 1990 and six appeared in the last two years. The original cause of both autism and Asperger's apparently lurks in the genes but remains dormant unless stirred to life by an outside force.
So if autism and Asperger's are increasing, as they seem to be, that means some new force exists among us. Where? In the vaccine component cited in a National Post story last week, in machines that hospitals use, in chemicals used in manufacturing? These are all suspects. As research proceeds, victims and their families slowly come to terms with a condition that distorts their lives.
An account of this struggle appears in Mr. Apology and Other Essays (Houghton Mifflin), a collection by the brilliant journalist Alec Wilkinson. He introduces us to Nicky Gottlieb, the son of Robert Gottlieb, the former editor of The New Yorker.
A formidably intelligent young man, Nicky can't make his way in the world. He has no idea what other people feel and therefore no idea why they shy away when his behaviour is grating.
When the essay was written, Wilkinson's own little boy was exhibiting ominous Asperger-like behaviour, above all a low capacity for routine human relationships. He was showing a talent for drawing, and Wilkinson imagined that one day he would be an artist. But: "I can also imagine his becoming a shut-in with a library of videotapes and books, and pictures torn from magazines and newspapers ..." Time and again, Wilkinson finds "my heart broken on behalf of my child."
A far more powerful account of Asperger's appeared last year in a work of fiction, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Doubleday), a best-selling novel that recently won the Whitbread book-of-the-year prize in Britain for Mark Haddon. A former children's book writer, Haddon expands our understanding of Asperger's by bringing it within the range of the literary imagination. His brilliant idea was to tell a detective story in the words of someone suffering from Asperger's. The result is compelling and astonishingly funny.
The narrator, Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old in Swindon, England, knows he's not like other kids but doesn't understand why. He handles daunting math problems with ease but can't process everyday information. He can't bear new surroundings or crowds, and may panic when confronted with the clutter of a supermarket. Entering a railway station makes him sick with anxiety. He hates to be touched. He's proudly literal and dislikes metaphors because they're not true: People don't have skeletons in their closet, he points out, and they don't "hit the hay." Haddon gives Christopher a voice that's logical, vain, terrified and utterly convincing.
His lesser failings range from trivial (he can't eat anything yellow or brown) to socially disastrous (he can't see why he shouldn't say exactly what he's thinking, can't grasp the concept of rudeness, and can't tell when someone is angry with him). Other peculiarities are more ominous. When upset he stops talking and eating for a long time. A few are dangerous. He screams and smashes things when upset or confused, and sometimes hits people.
The book takes its shape from his discovery that someone has killed a neighbour's poodle with a garden fork. Sherlock Holmes being his literary hero, Christopher sets out to find the killer. He does, and also discovers the dark secrets of his own parents.
While bringing his subject to life, Haddon avoided all medical terminology and now thinks he should have gone further. As he said in a National Post interview last June, he wishes he had removed all references to Asperger's and autism from the cover and the press releases. He was pleased when a friend said, "It's not a book about a kid with Asperger's, it's a book about a young mathematician with some behavioural problems."
Dr. Lois Freisleben-Cook, a North Dakota pediatrician, has written that "a few people with Asperger's syndrome are very successful and until recently were not diagnosed with anything but were seen as brilliant, eccentric, absent-minded, socially inept and a little awkward physically." That sounds a lot like Gould -- though Kevin Bazzana, author of the recent Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould, remains unconvinced.
Glenn and I were close friends in childhood and youth, and today just hearing the word Asperger makes me remember how much trouble he had dealing with ordinary life. There may have been something cruel in the way the world (including me) viewed his eccentricities. We laughed them off, as he pretended to do, but it can hardly have been amusing to live with them.
In the 1997 CBC radio program I shared with David Goldbloom, an eminent psychiatrist with a long-term interest in music, I questioned the word "tragedy" in Peter Ostwald's subtitle. We all lost much in 1982 when Glenn died suddenly, at the age of 50, but I wondered whether we could define as tragic a career that was so richly fulfilled. Glenn left so many great recordings that he's an even larger figure today than when he was alive, a rare achievement for a classical musician.
David Goldbloom corrected me. The tragedy was not in the art but in the life. Humans desperately want and require bonds, connections, emotional exchange with others. Gould couldn't effectively form those bonds, and that side of his life remained unfulfilled. Because, perhaps, of Asperger's.