Sunday, September 28, 2003

The Writing Life

By Mark Haddon
Sunday, September 28, 2003

In 1980, I went to Oxford University to study English literature. After three years of big books, earnest late-night discussions, drunken parties and periodic essay crises, I decided, like many of my friends, that I needed to restore some kind of balance by spending time doing something that revolved around the needs of other people for a change.

I signed up with a volunteer's organization and was duly shipped to a small town in Wales to work with Michael, a young man paralyzed by multiple sclerosis. I was to be one of two helpers who did alternating 24-hour shifts, cooking, feeding, washing, taking Michael to the shops, turning him in bed at night, changing his catheter bag, holding his cigarettes so that he could smoke.

What I wasn't told until I was being driven to the house by Michael's social worker was that he had recently become an evangelical Christian of a particularly fervent stripe. He was now a member of a rapidly shrinking church whose members spent perhaps a little too much time deciding who was and wasn't going to be "saved."

In the circumstances, Michael and I got on rather well, though he was adamant that when I died I was going to hell (along with Catholics, lesbians, Muslims and pretty much everyone apart from seven or so members of his own church).

Michael had thrown the last three volunteers out of his house -- one because he had beer stashed under his bed, another because he was gay, the last because he owned a pack of tarot cards. They had been replaced by Neil, a reformed alcoholic who had been told, personally, by God, to go and work with Michael. This, it turned out, was not one of God's better ideas. Neil was the kind of man who couldn't open a packet of biscuits without spraining an ankle and setting fire to something. Despite having almost no education, he was attempting to read the New Testament in Greek using only a battered, second-hand Greek dictionary. He burnt meals, shrank washing and was persuaded to buy a second-hand car even though he couldn't drive. A door fell off the car the following week.

Shortly after my arrival, the local vicar dropped round for tea. The local vicar was very definitely not one of the saved, but he was dogged and cheerful and determined to make the best of a difficult conversation. Matters were not helped when Neil and I heard a loud pop and realized that Michael's catheter bag had burst. We spent the next five minutes trying to mop several pints of urine from the carpet while Michael and the vicar drank tea, ate egg mayonnaise sandwiches and made prickly small talk above our heads.

A few days later I attended a prayer meeting in Michael's living room. At the climax of the evening, when the singing and the preaching and the giving witness had whipped everyone into a state of high excitement, a large truck drove past the house shaking the walls. Immediately Neil leapt out of his seat, shouting, "It's the Second Coming!"

I learnt four valuable lessons during my time in Wales.

One: The great majority of the problems that occupy people with disabilities are the problems that occupy all of us -- money, family, relationships, broken washing machines, neighbors with electric guitars, etc.

Two: Sunny stoical people can become seriously disabled, but becoming seriously disabled does not necessarily make you a sunny stoical person. Consequently people with serious disabilities can be as cantankerous, small-minded and difficult as the rest of us.

Three: You can live with someone who is paralyzed from the neck down and spend more time looking after the third member of the household who is physically fit and in full possession of all his faculties.

Four: The blackest moments in life are often the funniest.

These things were on my mind when I sat down to write The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Though it is deliberately never mentioned in the book, Christopher, the narrator, has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism. I knew, from the beginning, however, that Christopher had to be a rounded, believable human being, not an accurate clinical portrait of someone with the condition. Such a portrait, in any case, would be impossible, because people with Asperger's are as varied and eccentric and diverse a group as Italians or bus drivers or piano players. So I did no research.

After leaving Wales, I did a series of jobs that involved working with people who had physical handicaps and learning difficulties. And ever since that time I have been interested in the subject. If I come across a newspaper article about Tourette's, I'll read it. If I come across a television program about Down Syndrome, I'll watch it. But I made a point of not getting large tomes on autism out of the library. I made no visits to special schools. Indeed, when I started putting Christopher's character together, I borrowed all of his ticks, habits and obsessions from a variety of people I know, none of whom would be labeled as having a disability.

Consequently I was amazed (and very flattered) when, shortly after the book was published, I started receiving letters from parents and grandparents of young people with Asperger's, saying that I had "got it exactly right." I was equally amazed (and very disconcerted) to receive a string of invitations to speak at academic conferences on autism.

It comes down, I think, to this: We live in an age obsessed with facts. If we want to learn about a group of people with whom we have very little contact, we watch a TV documentary, we read a book of popular science, we buy a biography. We forget, too easily, that we can have all the facts and still be no nearer the truth. We forget that imagination is still one of the most powerful tools we possess.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout's father says that to understand another human being you have to spend half an hour in her shoes. This, of course, is not just Atticus Finch talking to his daughter about Tom Robinson, Boo Radley and the other residents of Maycomb. This is also Harper Lee talking to us about the book we are holding in our hands.

I am always suspicious of writers who have what Keats called "a palpable design" on their readers, however honorable that design. But you cannot write a half-decent novel if you do not empathize with your characters, and if you do not try to persuade your readers to feel the same way.

It is for this reason that novels remain one of the best ways we have of understanding people we have never met, one of the shortest routes to a half-hour in another person's shoes.

So, if Curious Incident has any palpable design on readers, it is to persuade them that however different we may be from one another, however alien we may seem in one another's eyes, the things that separate us are dwarfed by the things we have in common. •

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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