Book Review: Look Me in the Eye
I recently finished Look Me in the Eye by John Elder Robison, the brother of Augusten Burroughs, who wrote Running with Scissors. I couldn’t get through Running…: it was well written with lots of clever bits, but seemed like an unending and ultimately pointless freak show. Look Me in the Eye, however, is a book I raced to get through, eager to see how the story played out. It’s Robison’s memoir of his life as someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, and a deeply interesting, engaging and insightful book.
Asperger’s, as you may know, is a high-functioning form of autism that often manifests itself as technical brilliance combined with poor social skills. Robison was a classic case, apparently: brilliant with machines, but for many years unable to make many friends. He spent a few glamorous years designing smoking guitars and other stage effects for the rock band Kiss ; then settled down to a more mundane life as an engineer with companies such as Mattel.
I won’t go into the details of Robinson’s life and story here – interesting as they are – but would like to share a couple of my impressions of the book:
First, it would be a magical book when written by anyone, but it is astonishing that it was written by someone with Asperger’s – or maybe it’s not. One of Robison’s main messages is that although some “Aspies” come across as unemotional and insensitive, they are often deeply emotional and sensitive, and suffer grievously from their isolation. He writes: “Many descriptions of autism and Asperger’s describes people like me as ‘not wanting contact with others’ or ‘preferring to play alone.’ I can’t speak for other kids, but I’d like to be very clear about my own feelings: I did not ever want to be alone…. I played by myself because I was a failure at playing with others. I was alone as a result of my own limitations, and being alone was one of the bitterest disappointments of my young life.” (Italics his) I think, in fact, that it’s the combination of Robison’s deep emotionality and his deep observational and analytical skills, which allow him make exceptional sense of his emotions and experience, that makes Look Me in the Eye so interesting and valuable.
Second – now putting on my “coach” hat – I note that the key to Robison’s eventual success and happiness was finally getting a proper diagnosis for his condition. This happened at around age 35, and it enabled him to turn his life around. We derive from this the absolute importance, when confronting your life’s problems, of getting accurate information and truly expert guidance. So, if you’ve got serious medical (physical/mental), career, relationship or other problems, and have been on the fence about consulting an expert, get off that fence and find someone.
Robison also eloquently describes the corrosive impact of shame; how it can undermine us and damage our very being: “For most of my life, my history as an abused child with what I saw as a personality defect was shameful and embarrassing. Being a failure and a high school dropout was humiliating, no matter how well I subsequently did. I lied about my age, my education, and my upbringing for years because the truth was just too horrible to reveal…” The story of how Robison moves back to Amherst, MA, the town where he grew up, as a diagnosed and self-aware adult is profoundly moving. “Even my lifelong feeling that I was a fraud began to vanish.”
As a coach, I constantly witness shame in the people I work with: people are ashamed of things they did, or didn’t do, or that were done to them. It’s hard to build a life when you are undermined by shame.
Rarely does one read such an honest, simple, powerful book about the human condition, or a book so filled with wisdom and compassion. I urge you to read it.