Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Reason I Jump

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. I bought this book myself because I love anything to which David Mitchell contributes his beautiful, beautiful words.)

The Reason I Jump, Naoki Higashida
Read: 22 to 28 October 2013  

4 / 5 stars

For a book that comprises less than 200 pages and can be read in a single sitting, The Reason I Jump is deceptive in its brevity. Using a computer and an alphabet grid to form and "anchor" words "that would otherwise flutter away," it is the first real chance that then-13-year-old Naoki Higashida had to share his rich but silent inner world and explain the impulses that drive his seemingly erratic behaviors, as autism had prevented him from responding to the volley of questions and years of unwanted stares his condition has prompted from others.

The book itself is nearly a decade old but was only recently published in English, as British writer David Mitchell and his wife KA Yoshida translated Naoki's painstakingly chosen words from their original Japanese. While Naoki's own jovial warmth and tactful sincerity deserve much of the credit for the charm within these pages, the couple adds a palpable sensitivity to the task of bringing this big-hearted book to a new audience with their unique combination of struggles, as their son has autism and Mitchell himself is a stammerer; while a stammer may not be as debilitating and imprisoning as autism, it does lend the afflicted a keen understanding of what it's like to be rendered speechless and to have one's intelligence doubted by a wanting verbal fluency, never mind the capacity for eloquence that waits in frustrated silence.

Both Mitchell in his introduction and Naoki in the Q&A portion that comprises the bulk of The Reason I Jump emphasize that autism is by no means a disorder of universal constants, though it does feature a handful of commonalities--enough commonalities, in fact, that Mitchell said this book allowed him to "round a corner" in his relationship with his son. While Naoki tends to speak in the first-person plural when he talks about autism, he does so usually with a preface that he's basing his explanations on his own experiences and most often as a plea for understanding. Early in the book, he answers the question "Do you prefer to be on your own?" first as a person and then tinged with the communicative defeat faced by a person with autism: "I can't believe that anyone born as a human being wants to be left on their own ... The truth is, we'd love to be with people. But because things never, ever go right, we end up getting used to being alone."

Naoki fields a battery of questions with a combination of maturity, grace, honesty and willingness to admit when he just doesn't know how to answer a question that is remarkable for a teenage boy. He effectively dismantles the longstanding presumptions society has assumed about people with autism, such as a lack of empathy or that there can be blanket catch-all descriptions for the way autism manifests itself in each individual, the latter being a point that Mitchell, too, makes by pointing out that "[e]very autistic person exhibits his or her own variation of the condition--autism is more like a retina pattern than measles."

Of all the autism myths that are effectively, beautifully obliterated in The Reason I Jump, it is that supposed dearth of empathy that is most enthusiastically debunked. Naoki acutely feels the stress he places on his caretakers and the frustration they feel over his powerlessness to resist the impulses that keep him jumping, spinning, running, repeating, organizing and wandering. He gently reminds his audience that while the caretaker's exasperation is fleeting, he is the one who will always feel like a captive in a body he can't control. But Naoki also says that he no longer would trade being autistic for being "normal," as his autism has helped him see the beauty in little things while offering him comfort in realizing that he's a part of something much bigger that connects us all.

Tucked in amidst Naoki's thoughtful explanations are short stories that read like more ethereal Aesop's fables, demonstrative of Naoki's active imagination, knack for parable, and desire to emphasize a thought or feeling he finds worthy of extra mention. He revisits the Tortoise and Hare theme to illustrate the necessity of kindness; another metaphorical tale shows that even those we envy are always searching for happiness and self-fulfillment. The final section of the book is a longer, emotionally ripe allegory for what it's like to live with autism, which would read as an apology for the stress he has caused his parents if it weren't so girded with hope: "If this story connects with your heart in some way," Naoki's foreword to the short tale says, "then I believe you'll be able to connect back to the hearts of people with autism too."

One of the most remarkable features of this book is not even that is was laboriously created with an alphabet grid or that Naoki displays nearly tireless optimism but rather the slow dawning of empathy it quietly draws from its reader. He explains what it's like to live inside autism using "normal" examples that betray an outsider's wistful observation, such as likening his inability to move forward in certain actions without a verbal prompt to a pedestrian waiting for the "Walk" signal, as well as explaining his interests in terms of exaggerated reactions to routine stimuli, like his love of nature offering comfort in its sense of belonging to something so big it reduces a person to the tiny speck in the universe that so many of us try to forget that we really are.

Naoki's inventive approach to writing a memoir offers an enlightening look at a still-misunderstood disorder while embracing the beauty in imperfection and proving that one person's normal is another's mystery. It doesn't provide all the answers, which isn't a reasonable request from any one person anyway, but it begins an invaluable dialogue by approaching all the right questions.

1 comment:

  1. I've heard some really great things about this book....I'll have to check it out.