Author Archives: rozemar

About rozemar

Associate Professor of English Grand Valley State University

Week 13 Review

intothelightThese reviews are getting shorter (and later) as the end draws near.  But if you missed class on Monday evening, you missed a good discussion of With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child by Keiko Tobe, the first volume of an eight-volume work.  We spent the first part of class examining different kinds of manga–shonen (for adolescent boys), shojo (for girls), josei (for women) and historical (e.g. Barefoot Gen: A Cartoon History of Hiroshima by Keijo Nakazawa).  We noted quite a few features of each genre, which included:

  • Strong, contrasting ink in many shonen manga, a contrast to the soft mid-tones of the josei With the Light.
  • Thick lines and sharp angles in shonen manga, a contrast to the thin, curving lines of WTL
  • A more regular, symmetrical pattern of panels in shonen, a contrast to the open (and hence timeless) panels of WTL.  
  • The predominance of action and action-to-action transitions in shonen, a contrast to the focus on relationships (and occasional aspect-to-aspect transitions) in WTL.
  • A “breaking of the fourth wall” of fiction in josei, as it appeals directly to mothers of autistic children through informational pages and resources.
  • See the Manga overview handout for more.

As we noticed these differences, one argument that emerged had to do with genre and audience: each of the manga genres speaks directly to a particular demographic.  It also reinforces sometimes traditional expectations about each demographic–that boys are supposed to like violence and conflict; that women are supposed to stay at home to raise children.  In this regard, WTL might be considered ahead of its time: not only does it portray a career woman (Sachiko) and her progressive husband (Masato), it also takes on the socially taboo topic of mental disorder/illness, a highly stigmatized issue in Japanese culture.

After the break, we talked more specifically about WTL, examining individual pages from the tome (these were hard to find without page numbers!).  A few consensus points emerged in our discussion:

  • WTL was one of the most emotionally powerful work of the semester.  Why was this the case?  Does a visual medium speak more immediately to us than a verbal one?
  • WTL seemed more direct and honest in its portrayal of autism than any other work this semester.
  • On occasion, WTL gives us insights into Hiraku’s world, and it is especially effective in showing the sensory overload he experienced.  Comics as a whole have the ability to show the sense of sight, smell, sound, and touch in a visual way, and this is an advantage over a strictly verbal form.
  • WTL also exemplifies how manga can appeal to autistic readers in a range of ways–by showing strong emotions, by giving readers face after face after face, by including highly detailed backgrounds and patterns, and more (see my article on this issue in particular).

Onward to Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither.  We’ll also spend time prepping for the final take-home essay.


Week 12 Review

Last night, we met for the majority of class in our literature circles.  Collectively, our groups read Delightfully Different by D.S. Walker, Eye Contact by Cammie McGovern, The Half-Life of Planets by Emily Franklin and Brendan Haplin, Gone by Michael Grant, Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine, and Colin Fischer by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stenz.  I asked each group member to answer two questions: 1) what did your group discuss (and what was the best insight) and 2) what did you contribute to the discussion?

I read through your responses to the “best insight” portion of the first question and wanted to post some of them here:

On Colin Fischer: “We felt like we were reading the same book [as Curious Incident] with a slightly different plot and different character names.  I think the insight is that some new roles for those with ASD are needed.”  –Tanner

On Gone: “The best insight that I gained from this book is restored faith that an ASD character can be written without his condition simply being a gimmick.  Pete is a character that is well fleshed out and operates very realistically for a four-year-old autistic boy.” –Dan

On The Half-Life of Planets: ” This novel revealed something about people with ASD; they can still be sexual beings, like many other protagonists in other young adult novels.”–Haley

On Eye Contact: “The excessive amount of neurodivergent characters makes the story seem like a fan fiction written by a social justice warrior.  Where everyone is deviant form the norm and no one is typical.”–Diana

On Delightfully Different: “While this novel would be a great resource for those with friends and relatives on the autism spectrum, it is less appealing to the members of the general public.”

On Mockingbird: “It is hard for us, and those with ASD, to take on other perspectives, but when effort is put forth to do so form both sides, communication brings great understanding.”

After the break, we watched and discussed the documentary Manga World in anticipation of reading With the LIght by Keiko Tobe.  If you missed class, the film is available through the Films on Demands streaming database, which GVSU subscribes to.  See you soon.


Week 11 Review

Last night, we tackled the “Rainman” of autism-themed fiction: Mark Haddon’s 2004 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  This wildly popular work has sold over 2 million copies, and it is largely credited with being the first novel to feature a first-person autistic narrator. As we alluded to last night, the book has also generated a spate of imitators, particularly in the young adult genre, but also evident in adult fiction.  Whatever the issues of the novel, it is undeniable that it presented autism to countless readers for the very first time.

To get into the novel, we took Simon Baron-Cohen’s online Eyes Test, which Baron-Cohen used as a measure of empathy.  We talked about the difficulty of the test, which asks participants to identify the emotion expressed by images of human eyes, and noted that while none of us obtained a perfect score, we are all quite accomplished at reading emotional expression.  Christopher, the autistic narrator, cannot read facial expressions very well, and this places some restraints on him as a narrator–we expect neurotypical narrators to observe the subtle changing expressions of their subjects.  Christopher is also incapable of lying or of detecting lies, and this led many of us to find him to be a more reliable narrator than, say, the Chief from Cuckoo’s Nest.

An interesting subtheme arose during our discussion of Christopher as narrator: the moral failures of the parents and nearly all of the adults in the novel.  We wondered if Christopher was the moral compass of the novel, or whether he could fulfill this role, given that even his altruistic actions (e.g. saving Toby) seem to be automated.  We wondered if the parents should  blamed for their adultery and divorce, or whether they were coping with the high pressure of raising an autistic child to the best of their abilities.

After the break, we talked about how literature circles should work, and then we got into our circles for approximately 45 minutes.  I asked each group to come up with one big idea that we needed to discuss.  My memory fails me a little, but here are the ones we addressed:

  • The ending, and more specifically, the gift of the puppy to Christopher.  Was this a kind gesture by the father or an attempt to buy Christopher’s affections?  Was it cloying or genuinely moving?  How can we tell the difference?
  • The overall impact of the book: even if the portrayal of autism may not be perfect, does the book perform a social good by raising awareness of autism?
  • More on Chrisopher and his narrative style: do the flatness of his observations (and the equal emphasis on the important and unimportant) accurately represent an autistic perspective?  Is there any way for a non-autistic author such as Haddon to represent an autistic mindset?  Does a narrator need to possess the capacity for self-relfection? Is third person the solution?
  • What would Christopher and Jack from “Telephone Man” have to say to each other?
  • More on Christopher: is he the real mystery to be solved, and if so, is this a problem?  Is he an issue (autism) in search of a story?  Is there enough emotional depth to Christopher, or do we have to redefine what we consider emotional depth?

Good questions, all.  We ended by looking at a YouTube video about the possible autism of Barron Trump, critiquing its negative portrayal of autism  I’m off to the NCTE conference, where I’ll be presenting on my recent autism research, but I’ll see you next week.  Remember to bring your literature circle book.  Until then.

Week 10 Review

Time is flying.  Week 10 is in the books.  Time is also a major concern of Philip K. Dick’s 1964 novel Martian Time-Slip, the earliest work of fiction to include an explicitly autistic character.  So, we started a strange but related place: with science, not science fiction.  Working in small groups, we read a 2009 study (published in JADD) on the way autistic individuals perceive time.  The study concluded that adults with ASD have a slightly more difficult time reproducing lengths of time accurately.  I thought this was a pretty interesting connection to the characters of Manfred Steiner, the autistic boy, and Jack Bohlen, the schizophrenic repairman.  Here are a few connections we saw:

  • We noted that while the neurocognitive research on temporal perception and ASD has happened in the last ten years, Dick created an autistic character with time-bending abilities way back in 1964.
  • This led us to speculate whether Philip K. Dick himself was schizophrenic, given his use of a schizophrenic perspective (Jack Bohlen).  To understate things, his was certainly an unstable and short life, though he managed to write absolutely prolifically nonetheless.
  • We also noted how the narrative reflects a distortion of temporal perspective, as Jack and Manfred loop four times through the “evening at Arnie’s” sequence.
  •  We wondered if this post-modern, non-linear approach to narrative was more reflective of a neurodiverse mindset than the linear approach in Cuckoo’s Nest.  It forces the NT reader into a ND space, as Skye put it.

After the break, we watched a short clip from Blade Runner, the most famous of the films based on Dick’s novels and short stories.   Many of Dick’s novels are concerned with simulacra
(machines that replicate humans), so this was a good place to start.  Some even think that the replicants in the film represent autistic individuals (see this Wrong Planet discussion).  We talked at length about the teaching machines in the public school, noting that they likely stand for the factory model of education, where students are trained to conform rather than to think individually.  This is what Jack believes, and we can see Dick again as fairly prophetic here, given the way teachers are increasingly automated in our day and age.  There is also something fundamentally creepy about simulacra–they invoke in us a kind of existential horror.

We expanded our discussion of autism/schizophrenia, observing that many of the characters repeat psychoanalytical theories that were popular during Dick’s time.  So, are these characters mouthpieces for what Dick himself believes about autism?  Probably not:  none of the characters in the book really understand what autism is–it transcends their understanding, as Dan put it.  The possible exception is the Bleekmen, who seem to have a mystical connection to Manfred and a similar ability to see through time.  Is this a stereotypical treatment of an aboriginal culture?  Maybe–but as Skye pointed out, at least the Bleekmen (especially Helio) treat Manfred with respect.

We talked briefly about the mental institution, Camp B-G, again recognizing the thin line between those who belong in society and those who do not.  This led us to consider the history of Israel and the Zionist themes in the novel: is Camp B-G a kind of Jewish ghetto?  John asked. Interesting speculation, especially given that the residents in the camp are destined for extermination.

This the power that science fiction–a lowly “genre” fiction–has to raise ideas.  In depicting the intertwining lives of several neurodiverse characters, it has a freedom that more “realistic’ fiction does not have.  See you next time.



Week 9 Review

Last night, we finished our discussion of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962).   We started with a short clip on what seemed like a related topic: Major League Baseball’s Daniel Norris, the counterculture pitcher who lives out of his 1978 Volkswagon van, despite making millions on the mound.  We watched this video about Norris, and in Writing Response 7,
we tried to connect his live to the novel.  This was mostly for kicks, but I do like the responses.  Here is the complete set:


My point was mostly that MLB is a hyper-capitalistic enterprise, in which the right commodity (like Norris) can be worth millions and millions of dollars.  Norris appears “crazy” for resisting the materialism that accompanies giant salaries, so like in “Bartleby,” we can see a connection between a socioeconomic system (capitalism) and neurotypicality.  I think Norris is a bit like Chief Bromden, who represents both the anti-capitalistic counterculture of the 1960s (the land his tribe lives on is purchased by the government or a corporation) and a kind of counter-cultural viewpoint (schizophrenia).

From here, we watched four clips from the 1975 film version of the novel–one that Ken Kesey apparently disliked.  The clips were as follows: the World Series vote; the fishing trip; the party, and the finale.  Before viewing these, we talked through some common cinematic elements (handout).  We had two main goals in viewing these clips–we wanted to find:

  •  A significant cinematic element in each clip
  • A significant difference from the novel
  • If the two of these connect, even better

After viewing the clips, we had an in-depth, far-ranging discussion (teachers take note: film v. novel comparisons almost always work!).  We noted a few things about Milos Forman’s cinematic techniques:

  • extreme closeups for psychological insights
  • natural lighting throughout
  • ambient sound
  • camera angles to emphasize Nurse Ratched’s power (and her weakness in the strangling scene)
  • soft lighting on Nurse Ratched

We also discussed significant differences between the film and the book.  First, the film decenters Chief Bromden, removing him from narrative duties in favor of a narrative perspective that often seems close to McMurphy himself.  We were not sure how a schizophrenic viewpoint would work, but removing all of the “fog” from the narrative perspective made the movie much less about what was real v. what was imagined by the Chief.  Another point in our conversation focused on the comedic effect of the “gang of crazies,” who are sometimes engaged in slapstick comedy (on the boat; during the party).

But by far the most significant question of the night was that of misogyny: I asserted that novel was misogynistic while the film was not.  This led to insights about the nature of being a woman in the 1960s and in the here and now.  My argument was based on the lack of “good” female characters in the book, (Ratched, Harding’s wife, Billy’s mother, the prostitutes), and especially on the invulnerable depiction of Nurse Ratched.  Many of you came to her defense, however, citing the difficulty of being a female nurse in a ward that housed rapists (including McMurphy) and outlining the stereotypical roles that women in power have to occupy (vixen, nurturer).  That Kesey never lets us see any vulnerabity, any sense that Ratched falls apart when she gets home, might make the case for a misogyny all the stronger.

Great class.  The summary doesn’t do it justice.




Week 8 Review

Last night, we dove into the most challenging text of the course so far: Ken Kesey’s counter-culture classic, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  We began by generating discussion questions on the text, which are included in their entirety below:


With many of the questions focusing on the narrator Chief Bromden, we spent quite a bit of time examining his role in the book.  We considered why Kesey might use a neurodivergent narrator (Bromden is often diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic).  Some of our answers included the idea that a ND perspective helps the reader blur the line between the insane and the sane, which is one of the major objectives of the text.  After all, if we like and believe Bromden, we are intellectually and emotionally cozying up to a schizophrenic mind–one that sees hallucinations and has grand conspiracy theories about the Combine, an imagined mechanical system that Bromden believes controls all of the residents of the hospital through surveillance and other means.  If we are close to this type of narrator, we might also believe that other residents in the hospital are more sane than insane, including the closeted homosexual Harding and the sexually repressed Billy.

By his own admission, Bromden is more interested in the truth than in facts, and this is another reason for him being an ideal narrator: there may not be a literal fog that roles in, but the mind of Bromden conjures the perfect metaphor for the kind of haze that many of the residents must experience–the fogginess created by prescription drugs, the mental fog that accompanies many mental disorders (especially  dementia), or even the fog of lies that Nurse Ratched and her aides perpetuate.  Bromden’s paranoid delusions about the Combine also point to a larger truth–that the neurodivergents in the hospital are completely under the control of the staff–and more broadly, that society itself is systematically purging its ranks of the mentally unsound. We can see that Bromden has internalized this system by adopting the classification system of “Acutes” and “Chronics,” and labeling himself a “Chronic,” or someone thrown away by society.

After the break, we continued our discussion of the novel, using three quotations by Michel Foucault, Bruno Bettleheim, and Freud (via Lois Tyson) to deepen our analysis of the text.  Roughly a contemporary of Kesey, Foucault argues in Madness and Civilization that asylums begin to have a therapeutic function starting in the late nineteenth century.  Instead of merely confining the mentally unstable to prison-like environment, the new asylums begin a moralizing and socializing rehabilitation.  The problem, for Foucault, is that the moralizing impulse of the institution results in the mentally unsound being considered morally degenerate–sinners who need to be righted through therapy and treatment.  We can see this kind of moralizing in Cuckoo’s Nest in the figure of Nurse Ratched, who uses surveillance and judgment (two important ideas to Foucault) to confess the men of their own guilt.

The second quotation came from Bettleheim, and in it, he advances the idea that institutions are places where autistic individuals can unlearn their “autistic response” to their emotionally distant mothers.  Bettleheim suggests that children need to be broken down, unlearn their previous behaviors, and then relearn more appropriate responses within the safe environment of the school/clinic.  In discussion, we discovered some key connections to Cuckoo’s Nest: the men are stripped down, literally and figuratively, as they enter the hospital.  Their training is social in nature: they are supposed to learn ways of acting in social settings.  Of course, under the sadistic Ratched, they mostly learn how to destroy each other.  One key question that was raised: do we lose “autistic culture” by trying to erase typically autistic behaviors, such as stimming, in a home or in an institutional environment?

Finally, it was on to Freud, and a brief summary of his tripartite model of the mind: superego, id, and ego.  Group members here suggested Freudian symbolic reading of the text, with McMurphy representing the id (fucking and fighting) and Nurse Ratched representing the superego (the embodiment of social conventions).  Could our narrator serve as the intermediary ego, negotiating the demands of the hospital with those of his newfound friend McMurphy?  Perhaps.  We ended by considering whether this symbolic a reading really fits what we know about Kesey: if he was skeptical of much of what he saw in the mental hospital where he worked, would he advance such an allegorically Freudian cast of characters?  Still, Kesey does seem influenced by Freudian thought: his male characters talk about their castration anxiety in no uncertain terms (Nurse Ratched is a “ball-cutter”), and their are hints that other characters may be understood from a Freudian perspective: Billy, for example, seems to have some kind of Oedipal complex occurring with his dominant mother.

Overall, a good, free-flowing discussion of an interesting, provocative book.  See you next time.

Week 7 Review–Better Late Than Never

I just realized that I forgot to post my weekly review for last week, October 16.  So here is an abbreviated version, with my apologies.

We began by discussing how the midterm exam went.  There was a consensus, I think, that the text “Telephone Man” was rich and complicated enough to merit serious discussion.  This was evident by some conflicting interpretations of the story: some thought it to be a highly problematic depiction of ASD, while others believed it challenged a number of stereotypes, especially the “angelic” disabled individual who helps others improve themselves.  I appreciated the insights and asked us all to consider the neurodivergent narrator.  Jack from “TM” was our first of the semester, if we allow Watson to be neurotypical, despite his possible PTSD.  We generated a number of observations and questions about ND narrators, including:

  • How close can NT readers get to a ND narrator?  Is the narrative ever truly transparent, or are always aware of the ND status of the narrator?
  • How reliable is a ND narrator?  Madness as a narrative device has precedent (see Edgar Allen Poe and many others), but in most cases, we are expected to distrust the mad narrator, not rely upon him or her for information.  Then again, isn’t every narrator a subjective reporter of events?
  • How gimmicky is the autistic narrator?   How can we distinguish between an authentic autistic narrator and a contrived one?  What are the telling points?
  • If narration is a way of ordering the world through language, to what degree can a “non-ordered” mind accomplish this task?  Does a narrator such as Benji from The Sound and the Fury stretch the bounds of probability too far?

Following this discussion, we watched the documentary Refrigerator Mothers, which told the stories of five or six mothers of autistic children.  Raising these children in the late 1950s and 1960s, when Bettelheim’s psychoanalytical theory of autism reigned, the mothers were told that they had caused their child to be autistic by being too emotionally distant.  Following the film, we had a brief discussion about its implications and its potential connections to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, our reading for next (this) week.  I was interested in the power embedded in mental hospital (highly patriarchal, reflective of post-war America), the desperate status of the mothers themselves (who would do anything to help cure” their children), and in the mythical figure of the refrigerator mother.

That’s all for now.  See you soon.  And don’t forget–you can revise your midterm if you are unsatisfied with your current grade.