Growing Up With
Doubleday: 198 pp., $26
Are we who we are in spite of our afflictions, or because of them?
This question beats at the heart of Tim Page’s brief, unadorned memoir, “Parallel Play: Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger’s.” An odd, obsessive yet intellectually gifted man, Page was diagnosed in his 40s with Asperger’s syndrome, part of a cluster of disorders that includes autism. Asperger’s is often characterized by extreme awkwardness in social interactions, clumsy motor skills and a compulsive desire to collect encyclopedic details about random subjects.
FOR THE RECORD:
“Parallel Play” book review: A review of Tim Page’s book “Parallel Play” that ran Sept. 6 in Arts & Books incorrectly rendered a quote from the book about Page’s connections to loved ones. The quote in the review read: “Once somebody becomes a part of my life, I will let them out only for the most urgent of reasons. Death doesn’t count. I’m not priding myself on my loyalty here: I’m loyal enough but my brain simply isn’t agile enough to comprehend such seismic changes, and the world with my parents . . . and other people I’ve loved, is no more imaginable to me than the world without clouds, the color green or the city of London.” The line in the book actually reads “the world without my parents,” not “with.” —
The Viennese pediatrician for whom the disorder is named noted that a “dash of autism” is essential for a successful career in the sciences. Perhaps he should have added music critic to the list, if Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning classical music critic, is any example. (Page has authored several books of criticism and biography, notably on the forgotten satirical novelist Dawn Powell).
But this not a “how I trumped the odds” kind of book. Nor is it an account of how to cope with Asperger’s. On its face it appears to be a middle-age man’s reflection on his formative years and what led him to his profession, certainly a classic memoir structure and not exactly pulse-pounding. Yet in its quiet way, “Parallel Play” is simply lovely.
Context is everything in this case: Here we have not a memoir about someone with a disorder, but a memoir by a man who happens to have a disorder. Consider the implications: At its most severe, Asperger’s makes the kind of self-expression required to write a memoir near impossible. While Page does not have a severe case, nevertheless he is attempting a literary form that would seem to put him far outside his comfort zone.
In the book’s prologue, he quotes Oliver Sachs, who wrote that in people with “classical autism there is no ‘window,’ and we can only infer” their interior life; Page’s goal with this book “may be counted as one person’s attempt at a ‘window.’ ” And he does so even as he details potentially embarrassing events, such as his tyrannical behavior as a child filmmaker (he was also the subject of the 1967 short documentary “A Day With Timmy Page”), the caddish way he handled his first sexual encounter, stupid antics on LSD and even his affection for the rock band Procol Harum -- not to mention the post- Brian Wilson Beach Boys (dude, really?).
Three decades in as a music critic (and after a disastrous turn as a senior administrator at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra), Page goes into therapy. After one psychiatrist incorrectly diagnoses him as bipolar and prescribes lithium -- “which did nothing but make me feel weirdly outsized” -- and another prescribes anti-anxiety pills, he finds a psychologist who identifies his condition as Asperger’s. At last, Page finds a way to understand himself: “Here it all was -- the computer-like retention, the physical awkwardness, the difficulties with peers and lovers, the need for routine and repetition, the narrow, specialized interests. . . . I was forty-five years old when I learned I wasn’t alone.”
As would be expected, his relationship to music is central to his story. After hearing Steve Reich’s minimalist composition “Music for 18 Musicians,” he is moved to stay up all night writing his impressions. He was 21. “Today I find myself wondering if I would have responded so profoundly to this starkly reiterative, rigidly patterned music had I not had Asperger’s syndrome,” Page writes. “As the Quakers might say, this music spoke to my condition; it was what my insides sounded like.”
This memoir is essentially an expansion of a much-lauded essay Page wrote for the New Yorker in 2007. Literary agents love to sell a book idea to a publisher based on something that has already been successful, although too often the book is a watered-down version of what was good about the original. In this case, however, details underscore the point: Page’s careful rendering of the date a family friend dies, the verbatim police report from a serious car accident, the addresses of childhood homes -- this exactness is not a description of the author’s character, but an experience of it.
As Page puts it, “Learning to make connections with people -- much as I desperately wanted to -- was a bewildering process, for they kept changing, and I felt like an alien, always about to be exposed. . . . Not only did I not see the forest for the trees; I was so intensely distracted that I missed the trees for the species of lichen on their bark.”
Yet he does connect, and profoundly. His prose becomes the most luminous and wrenching when he writes of dearly beloveds, from his steadfast and protective parents who afforded their difficult son every chance at success, to his lifelong best friend, Annie, his two ex-wives and three sons, and a Cecil B. DeMille-sized cast of others. He explains:
“Once somebody becomes a part of my life, I will let them out only for the most urgent of reasons. Death doesn’t count. I’m not priding myself on my loyalty here: I’m loyal enough but my brain simply isn’t agile enough to comprehend such seismic changes, and the world with my parents . . . and other people I’ve loved, is no more imaginable to me than the world without clouds, the color green or the city of London.”
Page does not glorify or mythologize his condition, nor does he render a portrait of a soul victimized by circumstance. The view from this window is merely one of the human condition, painted in emotions known to us all, yet rarely so finely drawn.
Dunn is the author of two memoirs, “Not by Accident” and “Faith in Carlos Gomez.”