Prior to moving to my current town, I was part of a really good sci-fi/fantasy book club. I recently decided that it would be nice to attend face-to-face book club meetings again, so I looked into my options. My local public library has a book club, and their next meeting is in late August. Unfortunately, they selected To Siri With Love for that meeting.
Ignore the book's title - this is primarily a mom's memoir of raising her autistic son, with occasional mentions of her husband and neurotypical son. Technology does come up, but not as much as the title implies it does.
I've had one other exposure to Judith Newman's writing that I know of, her New York Times article "To Siri, With Love." I liked it because 1) the parts about Siri interested me, 2) it made me recall my fascinating, enjoyable, and occasionally frustrating attempts at conversing with chatbots, and 3) it didn't automatically dismiss technology as bad and detrimental to social interaction.
I had heard of this book but decided not to read it after hearing about autistic adults' boycott of it and reading a few 1-star reviews that included quotes from the book. One bit that particularly repulsed me was the author's stated desire to forcibly sterilize her child when he turns 18 (more on this in a bit). I didn't want or need to read more than that. But then my idea about joining a book club happened.
I don't have much experience with memoirs, but I imagine that, in most of them, the author's views and personality are very clearly a part of the text. If the author's views bother you or if you don't like the author, it may be difficult to like the book. I certainly found that to be the case here.
It started at the very beginning of the book, in the Author's Note. Newman mentioned that she'd be using masculine pronouns to refer to people in general. If she'd left it at that, I might not have thought much of it. Although I tend to prefer they/them in such instances, masculine pronouns used to be the rule and lots of people still use them that way. Newman, however, decided to go off on a little tangent. She mentioned a friend of hers, who'd written a parenting book using they/them pronouns and the term "cisgender" where appropriate. At the end of this paragraph, Newman wrote:
"She did this at the insistence of her teenage daughter. Language needs to evolve, but not into something ugly and imprecise. I read her book simultaneously loving her parenting philosophy and wanting to punch her in the face." (x)
I can't imagine writing this about a person I supposedly considered a friend and that friend's daughter. She likely intended it to be humorous, but it read to me as insulting. She was essentially mocking both her friend's teenage daughter for suggesting she use more inclusive language and her friend, for listening to her own daughter. This part also said something about her biases, since her friend's decision to use "cisgender" had nothing to do with the author's original statement about her pronoun choice. Also, I'd argue that her friend's word choices were actually more precise.
Newman dug her hole deeper in her very next paragraph, where she explained that she did not consult her kids (twins, one neurotypical and one autistic) about whether they were okay with everything she included in her book. From the sounds of things, Henry and Gus, who were 13 or 14 at the time, may have had a general idea of what their mother's book would be like, but that was it. I thought about this part of the Author's Note a lot. There were anecdotes relating to everyone in the family, but Gus was the book's focus, and Newman covered everything from details about his personal hygiene to her discovery of his tastes in porn. She also included several of his text message exchanges with friends.
There were multiple instances where Newman seemed to realize that what she was writing was horrifying but opted to continue on anyway. For example, she mentioned a game she played with herself when she was pregnant, in which she'd ask herself "if something was wrong with my child, what abnormality would I be able to tolerate, and what was beyond the pale? (As you can see, I don't rate an A-plus on the Basic-Human-Decency Report Card.)" (17)
Then there was the bit that originally cemented my decision not to read this book. Newman started off by talking about Gus's height. He was small for his age, and not particularly bothered by this fact, but it bothered her, and she worried that it would not only bother him one day but also that by then it would be too late to do anything about it. Newman's concerns about making Gus's decision about growth hormones for him morphed into a section about sex and reproduction. Specifically, Newman did not feel that her son should have children.
"A vasectomy is so easy. A couple of snips, a couple of days of ice in your pants, and voila. A life free of worry. Or one less worry. For me.
How do you say 'I'm sterilizing my son' without sounding like a eugenicist?'" (116)
Some part of Newman must have realized that the answer is "you can't," because the next page and a half was devoted to information about eugenics and its connection to the history of disability. Instead of concluding that wanting to give her son a vasectomy was wrong and meant she was siding with eugenicists, however, here is where Newman ended up:
"But wherever you stand on this question, when you start considering how the history of disability is inextricably intertwined with the history of euthanizing and enforced sterilization, you come away unsettled. I began to question my certainty that Gus should never have kids. There is a good success rate in vasectomy reversals, and surely there will be even easier, more reversible methods for men soon. And when there are, I'm going to be the first in line to sign him up. Kids at twenty or twenty-five? No. Thirty-five? I can hope." (117-118)
There were multiple times when Newman laid out all the pieces for a particular conclusion but then never took that last step necessary to connect all the dots. The vasectomy section was a good example of this, but so was the part where Newman admitted that Gus exhibited signs of learned helplessness, highlighted by occasional demonstrations of skills she never knew he had because she'd never expected him to develop them. She had spent the entire book talking about all the things Gus couldn't do, that she didn't think he'd ever be able to do. He'd never date anyone, never marry, never have real friends (Gus had people he considered friends, but that Newman dismissed as not being "real" friends), never be able to hold down a job. She wrote about the problems that could result from having low expectations...and then continued to write about all the things she believed Gus would never be able to do. It was maddening.
There were a few instances in the book where she talked to autistic adults, asking them for insight and advice. Which was great, except that I didn't feel like she always listened to what they said, like, for example, that Gus might be more aware and know more than she realizes. This was in response to Newman's question about how to talk to Gus about sex when he seemed so uninterested in asking her about it, but it could have been applied to lots of other things.
Well, I finished this book and am now ready for the book club meeting. Here's hoping I'm not the only one who had issues with it.
(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)