June 2004

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

Not Even Wrong by Paul Collins

Paul Collins writes a particular sort of book, one that uniquely combines memoir and general history. His most recent publication, Not Even Wrong is his most intensely personal melding of these two styles. While the subject matter suggests a great deal of dramatic overtones, Collins does none of this, and instead has written a deeply moving and intelligent exploration into the world of autism. The fact that his son’s diagnosis prompted much of his research only serves to make the book more immediate.

Initially there is only the question of why Collins’s toddler son Morgan exhibits some amazing flashes of brilliance while struggling with the most basic forms of human contact. There is clearly something wrong. While Collins and his wife seek professional assistance with their son, he finds himself making an unexpected foray into the history of autism. These are the sections that will fascinate any history buff, as Collins is particularly adept at finding the most obscure bits of information from relatively unheard of resources. Since he so clearly enjoys conducting research it is a pleasure to read about his trips across the U.S. and Europe as he hunts for the history of his son’s affliction. As he has already proven in his earlier books (Sixpence House and Banvard’s Folly), Collins is the sort of person who wants to learn as much about everything as possible. Quite obviously this subject is more important than any other, so the research trail is especially fascinating.

Peter, the “wild boy” of Hamelin, was discovered in 1725 emerging from the Black Forest and appearing more a wild animal than anything else. Collins first became interested in Peter years before his son’s problems manifested but there was so little to know about Peter that he was left with little to follow up on. With his interest piqued however he chases after the boy learning that he during his lifetime he was a notorious unexplained phenomena and was even invited to meet the King of England. Ultimately, as he learns about Peter’s parentage and how he became wild, it is the nature of his humanity that intrigues Collins the most. “What does it mean,” he writes, “to be a person? To be human?” More importantly, who was the civilized person in 1723, Peter who roamed in the woods or his parents who cast him out when he would not speak? These are questions Collins wants answered, and so he follows the trail started by Peter through the world of autism.

There is a trip to the site of a Vienna clinic where during WWII a young doctor named Hans Asperger met a patient who “acted as if he had just fallen from the sky." Asperger and a fellow doctor in Baltimore would both publish findings on such children in 1943 and both, without ever having met, coin the term autism to describe their condition. Collins travels to England where Dr. J. Langdon Down directed the Earlswood Asylum, home to many savants over the years. He meets with programmers at Seattle’s Microsoft who prefer to read his lecture over the computer rather than listen to him directly, even though he is standing right in front of them. Finally he talks to inmates at Sanger Correctional Facility in Wisconsin, who are training dogs to guide autistic children. In just over 200 pages he travels from a time where autism was a feral affliction to the modern day, where there is a California high school exclusively for autistic children, many of whom depend on trained dogs to serve as their interpreters with the outside world.

Throughout his historical journey, Collins keeps pace with Morgan’s diagnosis and the slow process of providing him with an education. At one point Collins does give in to his despair over Morgan’s possible bleak future, but he rallies quickly. It is only honest that he should have this most human of moments, as he knows better than anyone that although his research is fascinating, it can tell him only so much. It can not tell him what will happen to Morgan, or why he is autistic, or how he can best help his little boy. His frustration is acute, which makes the accomplishment in writing this book all that much more impressive.

I found Not Even Wrong to be a perfect example of history’s significance in our modern lives. Strangers in a grocery store do not understand Morgan, nor does the little girl in the playground or the people on the bus. But the books and magazines that Collins pores over recognize his son immediately; they remember others who were just like him.

This is an author who both knows and respects history and even better, knows how to make his readers eager to learn right along with him. What a great talent, what a great book.

Not Even Wrong by Paul Collins
Bloomsbury
ISBN 1582343675
245 pages