Book Review: See it Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor (Ralph James Saverese)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
What do Temple Grandin and The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime have in common? Both of them have helped shape the public perception that people on the autism spectrum are unable to relate to the emotions of others? Mark Haddon's book might be dismissed in the same stroke as organizations like Autism Speaks by saying that that these are not the authentic voices of people on the spectrum. But what about Grandin, perhaps the most celebrated example of an autistic person who has succeeded in society today? When she asserts that social and personal relationships mean nothing to her, how can we not believe her? This is the perceptual fortress that Ralph James Savarese attempts to assault in his new book See It Feelingly.
See It Feelingly, subtitled "Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor" is Savarese's account of his efforts to confirm his proposal that readers on the autism spectrum can, in fact, enjoy literature through the reading of classic novels. Savarese certainly has the credentials. Not only has he written widely on autism, received numerous awards, and taught English literature at Grinnel College for years, but his own son, DJ Savarese is the first student on the autism spectrum to graduate from Oberlin College. As one might suspect, Ralph Savarese's initial impulse to challenge the premise that people with autism function in "an obdurate, self-contained literality" originates with his own experiences with son, but numerous online blogs by autistic writers add credibility to that challenge.
The core of the book recounts Savarese work with five autistic adult readers. They range from his people of his acquaintance Tito Mukopadhyay and Jamie Burke, to Eugenie Belkin and Dora Raymaker whom he met only when beginning the project to Temple Grandin herself. In each case Savarese chose a literary work that he believed would mesh with the readers interests and reading habits. Functioning as an ethnographer, he is quick to note that despite the overall confirmation of his position, he made a number of false starts and assumptions himself in the process — hence the book's subtitle.
In stting up the project, several factors played into Savarese's decision to hold the reading sessions through Skype. One was the geographical distance between himself and some of his readers, but of at least equal importance is that it was a conducive medium to readers who, like Tito, do not speak. Having gained experience in working with autistic people over the years, Savarese also knew that working in unfamiliar environments tends to ratchet up anxiety levels and that working in their own home environment allowed them to relax. The use of Skype helped to create those conditions.
Perhaps what is most remarkable about See It Feelingly is the uniqueness of each of the reading experiences that the book describes. Part of this, is the varied nature of the novels that they read: Tito — Moby Dick, Jamie — Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, Dora — Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Eugenie — Carson McCuller's classic The Heart is the Lonely Hunter. Even accounting for the diverse nature of the texts, however, each reader's mentorship unfolded in a unique fashion and, in the processes reveals alterantive ways of approaching and valuing literature. If there is one thing that the readers have in common it is that, like the Duke of Gloucester in King Lear from which the book's title is taken, they "See It Feelingly." Each of the readers of these four novels strongly identified with the experiences of a character in the text on an emotional level.
The reader that Savarese leads off with is Tito Mukopadhyay. Tito, who has receive a fair amount of media attention, may be the person other than Temple Grandin with whom readers are be most familiar. As the author of The Mind Tree and other books describing his experiences as a non-speaking person on the autism spectrum, he is known for his inventive metaphors and non-traditional descriptions. He is also extremely involved in sensory experiences, particularly olfactory ones, which he brings to bear in his reading of Moby Dick. Tito identifies not with Ishmael, Ahab or any of the human characters but with the white whale itself. For Tito, the novel is an allegory of living with autism in a world where he is unique. He sees the land as the terrain of neurotypicals where he is unable to function and the ocean of autism in which he is continually being hunted down. Savarese's account is made more powerful by the inclusion of Tito's own words:
The Moby Dick of disorders swims within you. No see-saw can be as intense as the see-saw of hyper-and hyposensitivity, rocking you from one end to the other, lifting you up, dropping you down, then lifting you up again�throughout the ocean of days, months and years that we call life.
As he describes Tito's interpretation Moby Dick, Savarese also provides contexts for picturing and understanding what is occurring. He describes Tito's past history as well as his personal association with Tito. In the present tense he describes Tito's difficulty in sitting down to Skype for even an hour and his need to run around the room flapping his arms to relieve the anxiety. While Savarese's description of reading with Tito may be the lengthiest of the book, it also provides a sort of template for the way that the remaining chapters of the book work as well. Along the way, he integrates his interpretation of findings from neurology that bear on what he is witnessing.
An interesting contrast to the Tito chapter ("From a World as Fluid as the Sea") is Dora Raymaker's reading of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Unlike the situation just described, Savarese did not know Dora personally before contacting her to take part in the project. Like Tito, Dora is also an author — in her case of a cyberpunk novel — but unlike Tito she functions independently in the community having worked as a computer programmer and, at the time of her mentorship with Savarese, as a community-based researcher. She loved Blade Runner, the movie version of Dick's novel (she'd seen it twenty-five times!), but was reluctant to tackle it as a book. Her reasons were understandable because she had difficulty accessing and sequencing words and, as Savarese writes, she thought "in visual spatial landscapes and need[ed] to consciously translate [her] thinking into language."
As even the most ardent Philip K. Dick fans know, his strength is in his ability to create questions about the nature of reality, and most definitely not in his skill at visual description. Consequently, much of his writing — particularly at the books beginning — was opaque to Dora. Like Tito, though, Dora also became attached to one of the characters — Rachel Rosen, an android. In Dick's novel, rather like the whale in Moby Dick, androids are to be hunted down and killed. Because Rachel is to all outward appearances, human, a test is devised that allows bounty hunters to indentify her as android. It is called the Voigt-Kampff and based on the premise that androids are unable to empathize with others. Sound familiar? Dora became deeply engaged in the novel.
Given her reputation for emotional detachment, Savarese saves the account of his work with Temple Grandin until last, priming readers to accept the book's thesis by establishing that Tito, Dora, Jamie, and Eugenia are able to engage in literary novels. In books such as her influential Thinking in Pictures Grandin compares her mind to a computer's search engine and she has made public statements as "The part of other people that has emotional relationships is not part of me." Savarese knew that confirming his own beliefs about autism and literature would be challenging in these sessions, but was encouraged that Grandin herself was game to take part in his project. Knowing that she had difficulty with being able to remember narrative sequences, Savarese opted to have her read two short fiction pieces rather than attempt a novel. As with the other readers, he chose pieces that he felt might evoke an emotional response based upon background and interests, one dealing with animals and the other with a scientist who works alone.
Savarese's report of his reading with Grandin is a fascinating one in which he faces frustration but also ultimately feels vindication. In the process, he acknowledges the ableism resident in his own neuruotypical thinking and the need to make adjustments.
Toward the beginning of the book, Savarese states:My intention from the beginning of this project has been to eschew the customary focus on autistic deficits and to explore instead how a talent for sensory engagement—and, yes, strong feeling—might contribute productively to the reading process. If my son and other autistic people have taught me anything, it is to look for competence in unexpected forms.
See It Feelingly accomplishes this goal and much, much more. Whether or not one agrees with all that Savarese has to say, this is a powerful book — one that really must be experienced. It is a book that unlocks doors to the many rooms of autism and is likely to surprise the thinking of anyone who steps into them. It carries within it the possibilities of new perspectives on literary work, a greater understanding of autistic neurology, and the chance to meet some remarkable individuals. Read it.
Title: See It Feelingly
For a discussion of Ralph James Savarese's own views in writing See If Feelingly, read the interview with him in this issue of Wordgathering.