23) George and Sam, by Charlotte Moore
This is a brilliant book about living with autism in your family. I found myself experiencing painful shocks of recognition every few pages, from the experience of the more “neurotypical” sibling, to the necessity of keeping important things (such as sugar and toothpaste) locked up, to the unintentional unkindnesses of friends and relatives. Our two girls are very different from Moore’s two boys, and all four are of course very different from each other – neither of ours can talk, while both of hers can; she has had more success with toilet training than we have; her boys apparently get along well with each other, while our four-year-old U is somewhat frightened of her ten-year-old sister B (who normally blithely ignores U, but has occasionally pulled her hair). Also, of course, she has managed to keep both of hers at home so far, whereas we are now expecting B to move out to full-time residential care in the next couple of months. Another extremely important difference is that my wife and I are still together. (Incidentally, I also realized that I know Moore’s father through liberal politics.) There are many good lines in the book, but I’ll just take this one from near the end as a good summary of the common ground I found with her:
These mysterious, impossible, enchanting beings will always be among us, unwitting yardsticks for our own moral behaviour, uncomprehending challengers of our definition of what it means to be human.
You couldn’t take this book as an essential medical text on autism. (For instance, Moore writes about experiments with diet as a way of improving her children’s condition, but her account should be taken as a personal history rather than a recommendation; we’ve tried that and it made no difference apart from making B grumpy because there was no cheese.) Nick Hornby in his introduction makes parallels with Wild Swans and Claire Tomalin’s life of Pepys, but I think that’s a mistake: both of those are deeply factual books which we should take as serious academic contributions to the histories of China and of seventeenth-century England. I think a better parallel is with Rebecca West’s amazing Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which is misleading and possibly even dangerous if taken as a factual history of Yugoslavia, but if read correctly as a human response to the experience of the Balkans is one of the great books of the twentieth century. Anyway, this is a great account of an important part of my world by someone who shares it.