Look at him now
At peace with Asperger's and his troubled youth, Augusten Burroughs's older brother tells his own story in a straightforward memoir
AMHERST - "Did you see any of yourself in the book?"
It's not a question most memoirists would think to ask an interviewer they'd just met. Yet when John Elder Robison asks it, there's no obvious ego or vanity involved. You've read my story, his tone suggests. You know what I've coped with all my life. What about you?
Robison's memoir, "Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's," is already a conversation starter, generating an early buzz highlighted by a "Today" show feature timed to the book's release today. The buzz is partly attributable to family ties. Robison's younger brother is Augusten Burroughs (nee Christopher Robison), author of the megaselling "Running With Scissors," a story about his childhood that set gold-medal standards for familial dysfunction and depravity when it appeared in 2002. A movie version of "Scissors" came out last year. Burroughs wrote the forward to "Look Me in the Eye" and acknowledges he considered writing his own version of Robison's story.
"He shaped my young life," writes Burroughs, who is eight years Robison's junior and lives next door to him in Amherst.
Then there's the Asperger's angle. Asperger's syndrome is a mild form of autism characterized by social awkwardness, disinclination to make eye contact, nonverbal communication skills, lack of empathic feelings, obsessive interest in narrow subject areas (e.g. astrology, electronics), and a savantlike knowledge of minutiae. The disorder did not receive full diagnostic recognition until the early 1990s but has been the subject of numerous books and articles since.
These elements have helped garner unusual attention for a memoir that (a) contains no X-rated sex scenes, graphic violence, or rehab confessionals; (b) is not the work of a well-known author, celebrity, or public figure; and (c) climaxes with its narrator starting a car-repair business.
There's an endearing quality to Robison and his story that transcends the "Scissors" connection - and even Robison's feel-good message about overcoming a troubled childhood en route to success and self-awareness. For starters, "Look Me in the Eye" is often drolly funny and seldom angry or self-pitying. Even when describing his fear that he'd grow up to be a sociopathic killer, Robison brings a light touch to what could be construed as dark subject matter.
"I was well into my teenage years before I figured out that I wasn't a killer, or worse," he writes. "By then, I knew I wasn't being shifty or evasive when I failed to meet someone's gaze, and I had started to wonder why so many adults equated that behavior with shiftiness and evasiveness. Also, by then I had met shifty and scummy people who did look me in the eye, making me think the people who complained about me were hypocrites."
Robison is also a natural storyteller and engaging conversationalist. Whether discussing his book or showing an interviewer around his luxury-auto repair business in Springfield (where one employee sports a "Free Range Aspergian" cap handed out at Robison's recent 50th birthday party), he makes eye contact and stays on topic better than most rookie authors do. Already comfortable in interviews - with more soon to come - Robison is particularly expressive in hoping "Look Me in the Eye" deepens awareness of what Asperger's is and is not.
"I thought my book would show how different the Aspergian mind is," he says during an interview last week. "To my surprise, readers are telling me how similar I am to them." Unlike other memoirs about abused and damaged childhoods, he goes on, "mine doesn't have any bad guys. It doesn't blame someone else. Even my dad is redeemed in the end, and so is my mom. There's no sense of my being a victim, because I don't think that way." He adds, "I'm not a sex-scenes kind of guy, either. As a result of my Asperger's, I may be a little gentler in my thinking than my brother is."
Portions of Robison's story will be familiar to readers of Burroughs's work. His father, a former minister turned philosophy professor, was a heavy drinker with a violent streak. His mother, a poet and writer to whom Robison remains close, struggled with mental illness throughout much of the marriage. As a young child, writes Robison, he felt "defective" despite scoring highly on intelligence tests. Unable to make friends, he fixated on machinery instead and could build (or rebuild) almost anything. None of the mental-health professionals to whom his parents took him were much help. Dropping out of high school, Robison left home at 16 and supported himself with his talents. Work included building special-effects guitars for KISS and designing games for Milton Bradley.
"Luckily," writes Robison, "the Aperger's isolated me from the worst of the [family] insanity until I was old enough to escape."
"Dr. Finch," the eccentric therapist at the center of "Scissors," appears briefly in Robison's book although in virtually no scenes that rival the most outlandish in "Scissors," episodes that occurred when he was "well out of the doctor's orbit" and living on his own, according to Robison.
Until his brother's memoir appeared, Robison was wary of talking about his past at all. "The story of our crazy childhood was a dirty little secret I would never have admitted to," he says. "I thought people wouldn't speak to me after reading ['Scissors']. The opposite happened, though." Learning about Asperger's when he was 40 and losing his father two years ago were also transformative events, he says. Before his father passed away, the two reached a tearful reconciliation. Robison was able to balance warm childhood scenes his father recalled against the more painful ones he'd been carrying around.
Encouraged by Burroughs, Robison began writing down chapters of his life story more than a year ago. The stories lacked a unifying theme, however, until he reworked them into a narrative "the average mom with an autistic kid could read and understand what that child was going through," as he puts it.
Burroughs played no role in the book's writing or editing, according to Robison. Once the manuscript was finished, Robison personally interviewed publishers before signing with Crown. "There's always concern with a nonfiction book like mine about, whether [the author] can go out and promote it," he says. "But I also wondered, how will they package the book and promote me? I was afraid some would try to make me into something I'm not."
Asked what impact an Asperger's diagnosis might have had when he was much younger, Robison says the biggest difference would have been on his teenage years, when he "felt like a fraud." By the same token, dealing with the disorder "made me tougher and more resilient," he says. "My story shows that people should not be so quick to make judgments in general."
TR Rosenberg, a close friend of his, says Robison's self-confidence has grown greatly since understanding more about Asperger's, positive and negative. "He's achieved a softening and broadening of himself that's not easy to do," Rosenberg says. "When we met, John still felt he was carrying around this burden that something wasn't right with him. All these things happening for him now are so good, because he deserves it."
In an e-mail regarding her son John's book, Margaret Robison, who's writing her own family memoir, contrasts its tone to "the intense anger that shapes Chris's autobiographical writings." Although she takes issue with some facts and characterizations in "Look Me in the Eye," she writes, there's much to praise in its "humor, hope, and inspiration."
In Amherst this week, Burroughs declined a request to talk about "Look Me in the Eye." Robison isn't sure why. "Sometimes," he says with a sigh, "I don't totally understand my brother."
Robison will be at Brookline Booksmith Thursday at 7 p.m. to read from and discuss his memoir.
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.