NAVIGATING THE SPECTRUM
Eli Gottlieb’s ‘Best Boy’
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.”