Eli Got­tlieb’s ‘Best Boy’

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS -

INBest Boy, au­thor Eli Got­tlieb puts him­self in the shoes of Todd Aaron, a fifty-some­thing man with se­vere autism in a ther­a­peu­tic com­mu­nity called Pay­ton Liv­ingCen­ter, dur­ing a mo­ment of tur­moil and change. Todd doesn’t talk much. He moves in and out of con­nec­tion to his sur­round­ings, and he ter­ri­fies easily, among other phys­i­cal and be­hav­ioral is­sues. In the lan­guage now used to dis­cuss peo­ple on the autism spec­trum, Todd is con­sid­ered low­func­tion­ing. His first-per­son nar­ra­tion is at once un­re­li­able and guile­less be­cause his per­cep­tion of the world is fil­tered through his dis­or­der, and his dis­or­der ren­ders him in­ca­pable of ly­ing. In or­der to make the point of view feel au­then­tic, Got­tlieb told Pasatiempo, he tried to im­port Todd’s dis­abil­ity into the novel’s syn­tax. “I tried to make do with­out the usual literary in­stru­ments. You do not see a lot of metaphor or sim­ile in the book; you do not see a lot of pirou­et­ting sen­tences with di­gres­sive clauses in them. The sen­tences are blunt. There are very few com­mas.”

Got­tlieb reads from and signs copies of Best Boy (Liveright Pub­lish­ing Cor­po­ra­tion/W.W. Nor­ton and Com­pany, 2015) at Col­lected Works Book­store on Satur­day, Sept. 5. Like Nate, Todd’s older brother in the novel, Got­tlieb is guardian of his older brother, who has autism and will never be able to live out­side of an in­sti­tu­tion. His first novel, The Boy Who Went

Away (St. Martin’s Press, 1998), was about be­ing raised in his brother’s shadow. “Most peo­ple don’t re­al­ize that when you grow up with a de­vel­op­men­tally dis­abled sib­ling, you grow up in the sub­urbs of your own fam­ily, look­ing on at the down­town, which is the dis­abled child’s re­la­tion­ship with your mother. This is the pri­mary event in the fam­ily. This is the sun around which all the plan­ets ro­tate, and it cre­ates a lot of en­mity, jeal­ousy, and dif­fi­culty for the sib­ling.”

Nate car­ries with him a tremen­dous amount of child­hood bag­gage, as well as the fi­nan­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity of tak­ing care of his wife and two sons while pay­ing for Todd’s care. He doesn’t al­ways treat Todd with com­pas­sion and can come off as de­fen­sive and even cruel, es­pe­cially when Todd’s in­te­rior mono­logue re­veals that when they were chil­dren, Nate of­ten tor­mented him. “I know Nate’s not a wholly sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ter. I don’t re­ally care. Of course I don’t treat my brother the way Nate treats Todd, but I also think it’s more in­ter­est­ing to por­tray the ‘me’ char­ac­ter as more nu­anced than as sim­ply a nice per­son,” Got­tlieb said. Todd is un­com­fort­able around men, per­haps stem­ming from the abuse he suf­fered at the hands of his fa­ther, now long dead, who dis­ci­plined Todd phys­i­cally for be­hav­ior out­side of his con­trol. Be­cause Todd’s mem­o­ries of his child­hood are more vivid to him than his present, any­one who re­minds him of his fa­ther tends to pro­voke anx­i­ety. When a new em­ployee ar­rives and sets off his panic, it’s not clear to those in charge, at first, that there is ac­tu­ally rea­son for con­cern.

Got­tlieb’s sec­ond and third books, Now You See Him (Wil­liam Mor­row, 2008) and The Face Thief (Wil­liam Mor­row, 2012), were literary thrillers, and he has worked shades of that type of ten­sion into Best Boy as Todd en­coun­ters sit­u­a­tions that would test any­one’s emo­tional com­po­sure. Todd of­ten en­dears him­self to the reader, but this isn’t a sen­ti­men­tal story about an autis­tic man on an ad­ven­ture, nor is it a polemic about care for those on the se­vere end of the autism spec­trum. “I’m not try­ing to make a state­ment. I’m a literary writer, and my main in­ter­est was in do­ing literary and dra­matic jus­tice to a sit­u­a­tion I had in my head. But as the book went along, as all books do, it in­structed me in what it needed to be the fullest ver­sion of it­self, and part of that, in this case, was in­clud­ing ma­te­rial that would ex­plain a bit about the na­ture of the con­di­tion and put it in con­text.”

Doc­tors first started ap­ply­ing the term “autism” to a range of emo­tional and so­cial mis­be­hav­iors in the 1940s, but autism wasn’t well un­der­stood as a dis­or­der sep­a­rate from schizophre­nia un­til the 1960s, and as late as the 1970s, treat­ment in­cluded elec­tric shock and be­hav­ioral change tech­niques, some of which re­lied on phys­i­cal pun­ish­ment. Cur­rently, pop­u­lar un­der­stand­ing of autism tends to fo­cus on the high-func­tion­ing end of the spec­trum and clas­si­fi­ca­tions such as Asperger’s syn­drome and per­va­sive de­vel­op­men­tal dis­or­der-not oth­er­wise spec­i­fied (PDD-NOS). “It’s a changed world as re­gards autism than the one I grew up in,” Got­tlieb said. “Most peo­ple now, when they think of autism, think of some­one who has a par­tic­u­lar gift or a mi­nor dys­func­tion.” In his first book, Got­tlieb showed the way his mother was vic­tim­ized by the med­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment of the 1960s and ’70s, as doc­tor af­ter doc­tor promised her a cure for her son’s con­di­tion that never came. “It’s not to say that I don’t have a tremen­dous amount of re­spect for medicine, but I have a cer­tain wari­ness to ac­cept a lot of the [spec­trum] cat­e­gories that are given now. My feel­ings about this are mixed. I ac­tu­ally have an ed­i­to­rial com­ing out in The New York

Times about this dur­ing the first week of Septem­ber.” All char­ac­ters in Best Boy have the op­por­tu­nity to learn and grow, in­side or out­side of a dis­abil­ity. We meet sev­eral sets of par­ents of Pay­ton Liv­ingCen­ter res­i­dents, all of whom cope dif­fer­ently with the stress. It’s clear that though autism and other de­vel­op­men­tal dis­or­ders and brain in­juries don’t cre­ate abu­sive par­ents, the stress of rais­ing a child with a se­vere dis­abil­ity doesn’t au­to­mat­i­cally bring out the best in peo­ple. “I was try­ing to show the truth of what hap­pens in­side fam­i­lies, be­hind the walls, when there is a child who is an em­bar­rass­ment, who puts stress on the fam­ily re­sources, and is just a black hole into which a lot of the fam­ily’s joy dis­ap­pears. It’s not fun. For a hus­band, it of­ten means los­ing your wife to this child. That was my ex­pe­ri­ence of child­hood — that my mother and brother bonded and my fa­ther got left out. He felt an­gry about it, as did I.”

One of the great achieve­ments of Best Boy is how Got­tlieb fleshes out Todd’s emo­tional mo­ti­va­tions, in­clud­ing his stim­ming — the repet­i­tive be­hav­ior such as rock­ing or fin­ger-flick­ing com­mon among peo­ple with de­vel­op­men­tal dis­or­ders — as well as his ro­man­tic de­sires, un­der­stand­ing of friend­ship and be­trayal, and his af­fec­tion for his main care­taker, Raykene. Though there is one very dan­ger­ous man, Mike, em­ployed at Pay­ton, Got­tlieb said this char­ac­ter emerged in the writ­ing of the book, not from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence. “I have spent a lot of time in these fa­cil­i­ties with my brother over the years, and al­most to a one, the day staff has all been fan­tas­tic. They work tremen­dous hours un­der ex­treme stress. My brother is very dif­fi­cult to deal with. And they barely make a liv­ing wage. I needed an an­tag­o­nist to gen­er­ate ten­sion in the book, and this is who welled up.” Whether or not Todd is scared of Mike be­cause he re­minds him of his fa­ther or be­cause he senses a deeper evil is left to the reader to de­cide.

“Todd is an in­no­cent, but he also has in­tu­ition. I did not want to be too pointed about this — I wanted to let the reader have an in­ter­pre­tive field in which to play.”

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