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Inside the Mind of Autism

or, THE FICTIONAL CHARACTER I WASN’T EVEN SURE I SHOULD ATTEMPT

Recently an interviewer asked me if I ever wrote characters of the opposite sex, and, if so, how hard it was to understand their thinking. I admit the question made me laugh. While it’s absolutely true that men and women think differently, I found it interesting that he was more concerned about how I put myself into the mind of a man rather than how it was to find myself, as an author, in the mind of a psychopath. Or an assassin. Or, God forbid, the parent of a kidnapped child.

In the Eden Thrillers, my co-author, B.K. Sherer, and I write each chapter in third person limited. That means each chapter finds us inside the head of a specific character. The reader sees things only through the eyes of that person, and knows no more than he or she does. For that chapter, you view life (and the other characters) as that person does.

I do believe that, to be successful, actors and some writers need an extraordinary ability to put themselves into the shoes of others. In my recent post on extreme empathy, I talked about the emotional cost of doing just that. Each of the Eden Thrillers has posed a challenge as far as understanding at least one world view that was very different than mine.

In PLAGUES OF EDEN, we wanted to try something very different again. We wanted to present a character who not only thought about things differently–but thought differently. Period.

I, personally, wanted to honor two young men of my acquaintance who were on the severe end of the autism spectrum, and I wanted to honor all the families I know who have a child anywhere on the spectrum. As a linear and verbal thinker, I was both curious and frightened to wonder how far I could go into understanding a mind that wasn’t constricted by these parameters.

the reason with photo reasaonijumpLike everyone else, I’d read books about autism, and I’d seen the tv movie about Temple Grandin. I’d hung with people all along the spectrum. But I didn’t have a way in to talking to them until I came upon THE REASON I JUMP by Naoki Higashida, a 13-year-old Japanese boy on the severe end of the spectrum who could not only communicate with his mother and teachers by merit of a chart with Japanese characters on it, but could put into words the reasons behind his actions and his thinking. It blew the lid off any preconceptions I had or anything I thought I understood.

The introduction to the English version is by David Mitchell, author of CLOUD ATLAS, who has a child on the spectrum. 

“Imagine a daily life in which your faculty of speech is taken away,” Mitchell begins. “After you lose your ability to communicate, the editor-in-residence who orders your thoughts walks out…a dam-burst of ideas, memories, impulses and thoughts is cascading over you, unstoppably. Your editor controlled this flow, diverting the vast majority away, and recommending just a tiny number for your conscious consideration…now your mind is a room where twenty radios, all tuned to different stations, are blaring out voices. The radios have no off switches or volume controls.”

He goes on to explain that you don’t have balance, and you’re not certain how your body fits together. You never have full control of it. Worse, all language is now a foreign language, and meltdowns and panic attacks are viewed as tantrums.

But this was nothing compared to the world that Naoki himself introduced. In his world, time does not exist as a linear concept. Thoughts are also not related, and don’t stick together in any recognizable order. A minute and a day can be of equal length. Many behaviors–head banging and hand fluttering, for example–are ways of out-playing more painful internal radios.

Words and concepts can float as dots that can be accessed in random order. Here’s an example he gives of the usefulness of words: Us kids with autism, we never use enough words, and it’s those missing words that can cause all the trouble. For example, three friends are talking about a classmate with autism:

“Hey, she just said ‘all of us.'”

“So, that must mean she want to join with us, yeah?”

“Dunno. Maybe she wants to know if we’re all doing it.”

In fact, the autistic girl’s ‘all of us’ came from something the teacher had said earlier in the day: “Tomorrow, all of us are going to the park.” What the girl wanted to find out was when they were going. She tried to do this by repeating the only words she could use: “all of us.” 

Naoki fills in much more about the way one would think without linear parameters, but two major points that brutally the reason kaiandsunnycaughtbythenest8-620x350stuck with me were that, for him, the worst thing about having autism is realizing the stress and pain he causes others, but not being able to do anything about it…and the fact that, from the point of view of floating in this vast ether, filled with dots rather than lines, he can clearly see the strictures and straight jackets that bind the minds of those of us who are “normal.”

Holy cow! Could I possibly unmoor myself, even for a little while, to dwell in the mind of a character who thought spatially rather than in a linear fashion?

Here were the reasons not to, and the things that would make doing so a particular challenge:

+ First, everyone who has a child on the spectrum has a very specific child, and none of them would be like the character we’d create. He’d be specific, also. But I fully understand how parents and families have ownership of the knowledge and love of their specific child. He would not be them. He might even be at cross purposes to what they understood autism to be. I would want to honor rather than upset readers.

+ In thrillers, characters are larger than life. It’s not a normal situation happening to normal people. Everything is heightened. This character would need to be heightened in some ways, also.

+ In thrillers, also, characters and plots have to interlock. Leal himself, as well as his challenges, would need to do this.

+ Even if I, as a writer, could exist in a corner of Leal’s (the character would be named Leal. He is French.) headspace, it would be a difficult dance, in his chapters, to use words to help the reader understand someone who is a nonverbal thinker.

The children I’d hung out with had interesting abilities to do things like sing or recite even though putting sentences together was difficult. Many of them had a specific DVD or television program they watched (what seemed to their families) ad nauseam. They could often quote–and seemingly understand–whole swatches of these shows. (As a matter of fact, while I was working with this, Ron Suskind’s book about reaching his son through Disney movies came out.) They also had things they were unusually good at, sometimes called “splinter skills.” 

The more I found out, and the more people I met, the more I really wanted to try to create a character who thought this way. It would never be perfect. It would never be completely realistic. I might upset people by my near miss. But I finally realized, even if I wasn’t able to pull it off the way I wanted to, I truly, truly wanted to start the conversation. I wanted people who’d never thought about spatial thinkers to realize there was a “real person” inside the person on the spectrum.

the dotsSo I jumped in. For a whole week, I spent much of my time in an alternate reality. It was big and black, and as huge as space. It was overwhelming and freeing and horrifying and frightening, and emotionally devastating and occasionally exhilarating to be in the mind of this character, this little boy. 

On Wednesday, I joined a group of my friends at a local pub, as I usually do, and as I sat down, I found myself still shaking. I had to explain to them “where” I’d been, and why it was such a vulnerable place.

So, this brings me to PLAGUES OF EDEN. Yes, it has a character on the autism spectrum. His father is on the extreme Plagues 7 Hailend of the non-compassionate spectrum. Things happen in the book that are indeed heightened reality. 

Does it work?

Will it open a conversation?

When you read the book, I’d love to hear what you think.

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5 Sexiest Male Characters in Modern Fiction (A Thinking Woman’s Guide)

Okay, I realize that what constitutes sexiness is a very personal thing. Could be you’re a curvy size 0 with a name like Tapathis Nau with no fear of disease or desire for commitment and Bond, James Bond, is right up your alley. God bless, you’ll get no tussle from this quarter. All yours.

For some of us, what makes a character attractive is a more robust mix of attributes. I’ll admit my top, in real life, is nobility of spirit. Courage, commitment and caring are right up there. Talent seasons everything. But something’s different on the page. In literary life, I like my heroes unattainable. Someone who is so heroic, he has too much on his mind to fool around with this silly little thing called love.

EXCEPT when he falls, for one singular woman, he falls HARD.  And we all know, were we ourselves fictional and he’d only met us first, it could have been…one for the ages.

So.  Here’s my short list.  These are presented with the hope you will share your list with me.

 

Ari Ben CanaanAri Ben Canaan.  This is where it all began for me. Politics aside, in Leon Uris’ book Exodus, there was a character so selfless, so courageous and so heroic, I was instantly in love. Ari exuded nobility of spirit, and I knew immediately that was not only the kind of fellow I wanted to marry, it was the kind of fellow I wanted to become. Even Paul Newman, bless his heart, did not capture the full essence of the Ari who was on the page.

 

Merlin CC coverAmbrosius. Yes, the Crystal Cave is about Arthur, and Merlin and (very notably) Uther Pendragon. But Mary Stewart presents Ambrosius is the prince that rises above all of them to repel invaders at the wall, live in a just way, temper his hotblooded brother Uther, and basically sew the seeds of the beginning of Great Britain and what would become the Round Table. He was also celibate…well, except for this one princess with whom he was still (secretly) in love, and the child they’d had together…

Gregory Pech as Atticus FinchAtticus Finch.  Need I say more?  To Kill A Mockingbird is narratred  by his young daughter, so the sexy isn’t front and center. But Atticus had a wife, obviously loved her, and could sure use help with some world-changing. If you ask me. Moral integrity and quiet courage are in as short supply today as they ever were. 

 

Jamie Fraser. Oh, Diana Gabaldon. In Outlander, she created that most illusive of characters, the courageous, OUT-102_20131106_EM-1710.jpgheroic, sexy man who finds his soulmate and stays true to her while continuing to have really really sexy conjugal relations. Yes, it involves time travel and the Scottish highlands. And yes, it is finally being made into a series by Starz. Whether Jamie will remain the well-spanked, well-built Scotsman who swaggered onto the pages of Outlander remains to be seen.

Mrs. MikeSergeant Mike Flannigan. Of the Canadian Mounted Police.  When 16-year-old Bostonian meets her Canadian sergeant with “eyes so blue you could swim in them” in 1907, a love story with a man and a wilderness was born. Mrs. Mike is not only a love story, but a story of a marriage and how love deepens and grows through hardship and wonder.

 

Yani. So it should come as no surprise to readers of the Eden Thrillers that our heroine Jaime Richards has a thing for men who have nobility of spirit. As she says in the upcoming Plagues of Eden, “For many years of her life, Jaime had assumed she would never get married. Not that she had anything against marriage, but she tended to fall for knight-errant types who were too busy slaying dragons to consider applying for a mortgage.” In other words, Jaime is me (and B.K.) in this regard. Bar set pretty darn high.Yani

So in Chasing Eden, she meets this mysterious man who kidnaps her in the ruins of Ur, enlists her help to recover a lost sword, and runs her through the ruins of Babylon, where she’s kidnapped once again. But before the story is over, he has also cared for and saved a terrified young boy who is bleeding to death, and an elderly man who is being pursued by the baddest of the bad. Now that I think about it, Yani is kind of Ari meets Jamie meets Atticus and Ambrosius. Mostly the first two. But did we succeed in creating a sexy thinking woman’s hero?

Let us know. And let me know who YOUR nominees are for sexiest hero!

Uris_Exodus-lowresMockingbird coverThe Crystal CaveOutlanderChasingEden_audio-cover

 

 

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Real life. Technically, the blog about the literary heroes is over and you’re free to go. But this all got me started about the fact that, sure enough, in real life, I really have always been a sucker for nobility of spirit. In fact, I remember reading the book A Man Called Peter as a girl, and bursting into tears at the end. Not because the courageous Scottish preacher died, but, as I cried to my father, “What if I can’t find a man like Peter Marshall or you to marry? Statistically, there just aren’t enough to go around!”

So, the fact is that I also appreciate real life heroes and nobility of spirit. It’s why I spent two years talking to Holocaust survivors and family and friends of Raoul Wallenberg, the young Swedish architect who saved over 100,000 Jews from Hungary at the end of World War II.

man called peter

 

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It’s probably why I’m married to Bob Scott, who is currently planning CREATING COMMON GOOD. A Practical Conference on Economic Equality, a conference with the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Cornell West, Barbara Ehrenreich, Rachel Held Evans and others, next January.  And why I’m so proud to visit my dad, on whom Peter Marshall had nothing, and who goes to dinner at his retirement community as “God’s secret agent,” sitting with different folks each night, just seeing where he can listen and bring healing. It’s probably why my co-authors are Chaplain (COL) B.K. Sherer, who cares about each and every soldier and cadet under her care.  Oh, and Axel Avian who truly believes that every kid (and grown up) can change the world.  How that has happened, I really can’t tell you, except that I am blessed indeed.

 

 

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