48. Wanna Be My Cipher?

“Wanna Be My Cipher?”

G and I have a routine of hitting up the public library on the weekends, and we let ourselves borrow a melange of high and lowbrow fiction. There’s nothing like a light read to get people to say, “Oh, I love reading, you know,” and ride that shallow wave to being seen as book aficionados. She can thank me when she reaches adulthood, heh.

And surely reading widely and often is what turns us into meta-readers. We start spotting tropes, we can see how we are being coaxed into a certain point of view, and we become adept at appreciating what makes a good narrative. She and I also have Netflix sessions where we do the same thing. We pause frequently to point out parallels, and it’s become a vicious competition to see who can most effectively deconstruct the show. We are multimedia analysts!

I will confess that I naturally gravitate to female authors for contemporary fiction, and have to consciously push myself out of my comfort zone to engage with male authors. To stereotype grossly, there are invariably too many mean people, pornographic sex scenes, gratuitously violent moments, and undertones of alienation that depress me beyond tolerance. I know, I know. But it’s just my personal preference. Reading While Female and Pollyanna is something I’ve always done, and even in college, I never cottoned on to the modernists until we gave the dudes a rest and picked up Virginia Woolf. There was a decade-long exception in the form of Salman Rushdie, but that’s a story for another time.

The main thing is that who we are shapes our reading style. The opposite charge could also be made about how female authors write about men, but a lot of guy novels I’ve read basically set up the trope that if you want to portray someone who’s not a nice guy, write him as someone who reduces women to degraded sex muses, which of course the female characters either enjoy or shrug off; is unkind to animals; and is bullying and exploitative towards those with special needs or mental illness. Actor Sonny Chatrath shared something on Facebook about how so many guys write female characters which sums it up perfectly. It’s by social media user scottbaiowulf:

“Cassandra woke up to the rays of the sun streaming through the slats on her blinds, cascading over her naked chest. She stretched, her breasts lifting with her arms as she greeted the sun. She rolled out of bed and put on a shirt, her nipples prominently showing through the thin fabric. She breasted boobily to the stairs, and titted downwards.”

Pretty much. And that’s the complimentary stuff. But I digress. Back to how it connects to special needs. 😉

In my effort to try again with this kind of narrative style, I gave Kris D’Agostino’s “The Antiques” a try this past week. I have to say, it was a great story. The patriarch of the family is on the verge of death, and on the day of a major hurricane, the novel chronicles what each of his dysfunctional adult children is doing at the moment of his passing. The rest of the story traces what happens during and right after the funeral. On the whole it’s a hopeful tale, meant to show that even in imperfect families, there can be growth and healing.

As a special needs mom, though, I couldn’t help freezing up every time the special needs issue came up. The patriarch’s daughter, Charlie (Charlotte Westfall) has a son, Abbott, who seems to have autism, though no actual diagnosis is mentioned. I will say that there is no ‘correct’ way to write about autism. Every family has its experiences, and not all of them are positive or uplifting. But with the perspective I have as an autism mom, I would want the portrayal to be that of a nuanced, real person, not a cipher onto whom other characters project their issues. It’s also tempting to turn special needs characters into symbols of what’s wrong with society–like Rushdie did in “Shame,” in the form of poor, terrifying Sufiya Zenobia.

To be fair, when D’Agostino writes about Abbott from Charlie’s point of view, it comes out beautiful and honest. That’s his talent. He really knows how to shift the special needs talk depending on whose voice is at the forefront. Charlie moves around in her emotions, from denial, to acceptance, to shielding Abbott like a tigress when she doesn’t know what else to do. When a family does not yet have a handle on special needs parenting, the fog of chaos, the reacting, the resigned coping, the marital strain–they are all written unflinchingly by D’Agostino. In Charlie’s mind, Abbott is “her cracked, beautiful dumpling,” careening from one disaster to another. He is expelled from school because he purposefully injures other children. Charlie and her husband descend into strife, including suspicions of his marital infidelity, and the prose is so stark here:

“Her entire existence felt transformed into a tapestry, and someone had located a crucial thread, the one holding it all together, and they were pulling it out, slowly and with savage efficiency.”

Where I sighed was when Charlie and her husband are so immersed in their argument that they miss the phone call informing her of her father’s death. Abbott poops everywhere, and she is cleaning up the mess when she finally takes the call. It’s just my opinion that here is where the novel begins to set up the use of Abbott as a cipher. When he is not okay, neither is the family, and when he begins to be the mouthpiece for calm and innocence, it’s when everyone has found their way to a place of greater harmony. There is a grand tradition of writing special needs characters this way, so D’Agostino isn’t out of line. It’s mostly that my parenting journey has changed my expectations of fiction.

We meet Josef, Charlie’s brother, the sort-of villain of the book, sex fiend, grand objectifier of women–even picturing his therapist in graphic ways that left me feeling soiled–divorced dad trying hard to worm back into his daughters’ lives and his ex-wife’s pants, and money grubber, who is hunting down the next hookup opportunity at the moment of his dad’s death. The imagery used to describe Josef is excellent, so I won’t spoil it for you. My interest here is in how Josef treats and talks about Abbott, and how that is used to show his seamy personality. He tries to use Abbott’s otherworldly lack of awareness to get him to break into a store, tosses around words like “spazz,” smugly compares his own kids to Abbott, and finally, at the end, learns to treat him like a real person.

Poop as motif gets used again. I won’t tell you how, but it’s Abbott’s. I tried not to get annoyed, knowing that everyone in the novel is written somewhat dark, and also, let’s not pretend that autism behaviors don’t involve a ton of poop. I won’t say I completely succeeded.

In the end, it’s clear that Charlie’s marriage hasn’t been a safe haven for Abbott, and I sighed again when his high levels of tension start to subside, and he begins to engage more and intuit more of what’s going on around him. I wish it were so simple in real life. But Abbott as Cipher wraps it all up. Peace is restored.

The best analogy I can come up with is that of writing minority characters into movies. Once you move past the idea that it’s just so cool that we are represented at all, it’s time to consider HOW we are being represented. Same with special needs characters. There is great power in nuanced narrative, and that nuance should ideally encompass everyone’s view of the world. People aren’t perfect, and they don’t have to be written perfectly. What’s perfect is when we feel the honest gut punch of an author who acknowledges the mess that is life, pulls us out of ourselves, and whose use of language is subtle enough that we forget the dross around us just for a while.



D’Agostino, Kris. The Antiques. New York: Scribner, 2017.

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