Authors: John Elder Robison
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Autism, #Nonfiction, #Retail, #Personal Memoir
Look Me in the Eye
Copyright © 2013 by John Elder Robison
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
CROWN and the Crown colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Robison, John Elder.
Raising Cubby : a father and son’s adventures with Asperger’s, trains, tractors, and high explosives / John Elder Robison. — First edition. Summary: “The comic memoir of an Aspergian father raising his Aspergian son, by the bestselling author of Look Me in the Eye”—Provided by publisher.
1. Asperger’s syndrome—Patients—Family relationships. 2. Asperger’s syndrome in children—Patients—Life skills guides. 3. Asperger’s syndrome in children—Patients—United States—Biography. 4. Parenting. 5. Robison, John Elder. I. Title.
Jacket design by Oliver Munday
Jacket photograph: Comstock Images
For Little Bear, Cubby’s mom
I may be the one who wrote this book, but Cubby’s mom deserves credit for much of the hard work of kid raising, especially when he was small.
I worked to support our fledgling family, took Cubby on many fun adventures, and taught him useful skills. Meanwhile, Little Bear nursed him, changed his diapers, carried him to the doctor, and escorted him to school. She was the one who was there for all those firsts in his life: walking, talking, and peeing on a parent. Later, when he floundered in school, it was Little Bear who grabbed hold of the school system, shook hard, and made them accommodate our kid.
Lest you think I was the only one who did fun things, she also took him to Mexico, won awards with him at science fiction conventions, introduced him to fireworks and rockets, and served as a leader for his Cub Scout troop.
Even though we have not been married to each other for many years, her achievement in raising our son is not to be minimized. To the extent that he is a prizewinning specimen, she is in large part responsible.
Anyone who willfully, intentionally and without right, by the explosion of gunpowder or of any other explosive, unlawfully damages property or injures a person, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than twenty years.” [Massachusetts General Laws; Felonies 266.101]
That’s the state’s definition of “malicious explosion,” the destruction of property with an explosive device. It’s a serious felony, on a par with armed robbery or deadly assault. My teenage son was charged with three counts. If convicted, he would face up to sixty years in state prison. The charges made him sound like a pretty scary guy.
Just in case that wasn’t enough, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had also charged him with one count of “possessing explosives with the intent to harm people or property.” I guess that was their backstop—if they couldn’t prove he harmed people or destroyed property, they wanted to prove he meant to. That was worth a few years in prison if the first charges weren’t enough to send him away forever.
Until that point, people charged with malicious explosion in
Massachusetts had mostly been outlaw bikers, Mafia hit men, drug dealers, or vicious thugs. Their explosions were obvious and unmistakable: pipe bombs in clubhouses, firebombs in churches, car bombs under Cadillacs, maybe a hand grenade tossed through a window. Most of the time, someone was killed, or at least seriously injured. The idea that my son would be lumped together with people like that was just crazy. He wasn’t a violent criminal; he was a bright, geeky teenager who’d dropped out of high school so he could study chemistry in college at age sixteen. Now he was fighting for his life over one question: Was he a budding scientist or a mad bomber?
All this had happened because Jack, whom I call Cubby, had gotten interested in the physics and chemistry of explosives at a time when most kids are still learning multiplication and division. He had made experimental explosive compounds from common and legal chemicals and set them off on the ground in the woods where we live. No one was hurt. No property was damaged. No one even complained. He just wanted to see if his concoctions would really explode, and they did. Sometimes. He’d filmed his experiments and put them on YouTube for others to see and discuss.
To me, he was just a smart kid with a love of science. When Cubby’s interest in chemistry turned serious at age twelve, it was no surprise he had explored homemade explosives. I could not expect him to be interested in industrial chemistry at his age, and he knew about fireworks from the time he had spent in Mexico, where his mom was studying for her doctorate. I was proud of his knowledge, though I wasn’t too happy about where it had led us.
My son’s explosions hadn’t looked very scary to me—not much more than firecrackers tossed on the ground. Ten-second videos showed capfuls of explosive blowing half-cups of dirt into the air. A few of the blasts were larger, but they were still in the big-rock-tossed-in-a-pond category. Unfortunately, they were enough to set the DA on the warpath.
“It’s the scary times we live in,” people told me. I remembered my own childhood on a farm in Georgia, where I’d go to the local hardware store, buy dynamite, and use it to blow up stumps and rocks in our fields. I’d done that when I was Cubby’s age, and no one had cared at all. Farm kids everywhere did the same back then. I did not fully understand how much things had changed—how fearful and jumpy people had become in the wake of 9/11.
And of course we didn’t live on a farm anymore. My parents had moved from rural Georgia to western Massachusetts when I was a little boy. When I grew up, I stayed in the area and Cubby had spent his life in the suburbs around Amherst.
A different teenage boy might have hidden his newfound hobby, but Cubby was proud of what he achieved, and it never occurred to him that anyone would question his intent. You see, Cubby’s brilliant, but he has Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, which makes it hard for him to see how others might perceive his interests. I’ve got Asperger’s too, so I know firsthand what it means. Everyone who knows my son would tell you how gentle he is, but because of the Asperger’s, he’s often oblivious to what’s going on around him. Unfortunately, that obliviousness made him an easy target for a narrow-minded, publicity-seeking prosecutor. When she heard about his home chemistry lab and his experiments, she went after him with everything she had, quickly securing a grand jury indictment. My son could not believe anyone would prosecute him for his interest in chemistry. He had no idea what to do, or why he was under siege. You can imagine how I felt, with my only child being attacked by a public official who had never even spoken to either one of us.
Now we were in the superior courtroom of the Hampshire County Courthouse, in Northampton, Massachusetts. In Massachusetts, superior court is reserved for the biggest cases; everyone else is processed in district court or the magistrate’s office. The year before, of the thousands of cases in our county’s court system,
only fifteen made it all the way to superior court trials, and most of those ended in conviction. The room was air-conditioned, but sweat beaded on my forehead as I pondered my son’s odds. I rocked back and forth on the hard courtroom bench, thinking and worrying. All the witnesses had come and gone. Closing arguments were over, and the judge had finished reading the instructions to the jury. A few minutes before, I had watched them file slowly out of the room, to begin their deliberations. It was all up to the jury. They were eleven women and one man, strangers to one another and to me. What would they decide?