One Family, Three Memoirs, Many Competing Truths

Running with Scissors

In the best-selling memoir Running with Scissors, Augusten Burroughs told the story of his bizarre and occasionally brutal upbringing as the son of a mentally ill mother and an alcoholic father. When the book hit the best-seller lists, it not only established Burroughs as a well-known writer, but it also paved the way for the rest of his family to tell their own versions of the story. His older brother, John Elder Robison, wrote about their childhood in his memoir Look Me in the Eye, and now their mother, Margaret Robison, has added to this family saga with her memoir, The Long Journey Home. Taken together, the three books raise interesting questions about truth, memory and the much-maligned genre of the memoir.

Running with Scissors: A Memoir
By Augusten Burroughs
Paperback, 320 pages
Picador
List Price: $14

Read An Excerpt

Memoirs have to be true, says Lee Gutkind, a professor at Arizona State University and a specialist in creative nonfiction. But you can't apply journalistic standards to a memoir — there's a difference between facts and the truth.

"It's your story, that's what a memoir is," Gutkind says.

"It's your own personal truth, and it is not necessarily factually accurate, and it's not necessarily the truth that other people have possessed."

For the Robison family, one truth is that Augusten Burroughs is a stranger to Margaret Robison. The fact is, she knew her son as Chris Robison, and she has fond, warm memories of him. But the book he wrote, under the name Augusten Burroughs, hurt her deeply and the two no longer speak. Burroughs doesn't want to talk about his mother's memoir, either, but he did speak about her several years ago in an interview on Fresh Air:

"My mother was always very exuberant," he told Terry Gross. "She would paint, and if she wasn't painting, she would be writing, and if she wasn't writing, she would spend hours and hours doing a pen and ink illustration. Or she would be talking on the phone — she had lots of friends. [She was] a very, very exuberant, big, big person. She filled her life with a lot of projects and interests."

However, Burroughs went on to say there were many times when the light left her eyes and she would get a look that meant that the exuberant mother was gone, replaced by a woman with a serious mental illness, trapped in a bad marriage.

"She had a very difficult marriage with my father, who was a ... very, very heavy alcoholic," Burroughs says. "And they sought couples counseling with a psychiatrist."

The Long Journey Home
The Long Journey Home: A Memoir
By Margaret Robison
Hardcover, 400 pages
Spiegel and Grau
List Price: $26

Read An Excerpt

Because of his family's dysfunction, Burroughs spent much of his teenage years living with that psychiatrist, Rodolph Turcotte, who he says was like a cult leader. Turcotte's extremely permissive household was filled with his biological and adopted children, as well as several of his patients. During those years, Burroughs had an affair with a much older man, faked an attempt at suicide and dropped out of school. He turned these experiences and more into a dark comedy in his memoir, and he lays much of the blame for what happened on his mother.

Now, her own memoir gives Margaret Robison a chance to explain her side of the story. But Robison is emphatic that her book is not a response to her son's. In fact, she says she began it long before his was published.

Robison says she wanted to write the book so she could have a better understanding of her life. Raised by an overly critical mother in a small Southern town, she had dreams of being an artist. But in those days, women were expected to marry, so she did. Her husband, John G. Robison, was the head of the philosophy department at the University of Massachusetts. Even though the marriage soured, she stayed in it because she felt she had to.

"John said he would kill himself if I left him, and I think I believed that," Robison says. "I was also afraid he might hurt us, because he could be very violent. I cared about him; I didn't want him to kill himself."

Robison says Turcotte — who seems like an irresponsible quack in Burroughs' memoir — was, at least in the beginning, a stabilizing force in her life. "I think he actually saved my family's life," she says. "He saw my husband's anger. He saw the possibility that he could kill himself or some of us. No one had ever seen that before."

Robison's memoir describes her psychotic breakdowns and the time she spent in mental hospitals, as well as her eventual realization that the psychiatrist was doing more harm than good. Although her oldest son, John Elder Robison, left home at age 16 to escape the chaos in his family, he still credits the psychiatrist with initially providing great help.

Be Different
Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian with Practical Advice for Aspergians, Misfits, Families & Teachers
By John Elder Robison
Hardcover, 304 pages
Crown Archetype
List Price: $24

Read An Excerpt

"Dr. Turcotte, before he spiraled into his own nuttiness, was a brilliant guy. My mother says that, I say that, we agree," he says.

Diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome as an adult, John Elder Robison says he used to be ashamed to talk about his childhood. Now he has written his own memoir and a new book on living with Asperger's called Be Different. He says it was his brother's book that changed the way he thought about his own life.

"When my brother published that book and people began to read it and they would say things like, 'Oh, I'm just so impressed that you grew up in those difficult circumstances and yet you're as successful as you are,' I came to realize that our stories could be inspirational and not shameful and humiliating," he says.

John Elder Robison admits that the memories in each of the books about his family vary on certain details, but he argues that the inconsistencies don't detract from the bigger picture. He cites one example of a vivid memory that everyone in the family remembers in a different way: John Elder Robison remembers his father burning his little brother on the forehead. John Elder Robison's wife says it was actually John who got burned — on his chest. And Margaret Robison doesn't remember the incident at all.

"But my mother, as she says in her book, was in a state of pretty severe disconnection from reality much of the time from mental illness," he says. "So does that mean that story is about me? Is it about my brother? Did both of us get burned with cigarettes? ... No matter what, it's an ugly tale."

And the ugly nature of their story is at least one truth that all three memoirists can agree on. From their different perspectives, the three Robisons took the same set of circumstances and told their own versions of the story. While Burroughs changed his name and applied a comic genius to tell a tale that millions want to read, John Elder Robison discovered that he had something to teach young people struggling with Asperger's. And in her forthcoming memoir, Margaret Robison found her salvation in the very act of writing it all down.

"Writing was what helped me regain my sanity and leave the hospital the first time — from then on, writing was my essential way of dealing with life," she says.

Memoirs have been much maligned of late because they are all about memory. But while they may be notoriously unreliable vehicles for facts, they are endlessly fascinating sources of speculation about what really is the truth.

Excerpt: 'Running With Scissors'

Running with Scissors
Running with Scissors: A Memoir
By Augusten Burroughs
Paperback, 320 pages
Picador
List Price: $14

Something Isn't Right

My mother is standing in front of the bathroom mirror smelling polished and ready; like Jean Nate, Dippity Do and the waxy sweetness of lipstick. Her white, handgun-shaped blow-dryer is lying on top of the wicker clothes hamper, ticking as it cools. She stands back and smoothes her hands down the front of her swirling, psychedelic Pucci dress, biting the inside of her cheek.

"Damn it," she says, "something isn't right."

Yesterday she went to the fancy Chopping Block salon in Amherst with its bubble skylights and ficus trees in chrome planters. Sebastian gave her a shag.

"That hateful Jane Fonda," she says, fluffing her dark brown hair at the crown. "She makes it look so easy." She pinches her sideburns into points that accentuate her cheekbones. People have always said she looks like a young Lauren Bacall, especially in the eyes.

I can't stop staring at her feet, which she has slipped into treacherously tall red patent-leather pumps. Because she normally lives in sandals, it's like she's borrowed some other lady's feet. Maybe her friend Lydia's feet. Lydia has teased black hair, boyfriends and an above-ground pool. She wears high heels all the time, even when she's just sitting out back by the pool in her white bikini, smoking menthol cigarettes and talking on her olive-green Princess telephone. My mother only wears fancy shoes when she's going out, so I've come to associate them with a feeling of abandonment and dread.

I don't want her to go. My umbilical cord is still attached and she's pulling at it. I feel panicky.

I'm standing in the bathroom next to her because I need to be with her for as long as I can. Maybe she is going to Hartford, Connecticut. Or Bradley Field International Airport. I love the airport, the smell of jet fuel, flying south to visit my grandparents.

I love to fly.

When I grow up, I want to be the one who opens those cabinets above the seats, who gets to go into the small kitchen where everything fits together like a shiny silver puzzle. Plus, I like uniforms and I would get to wear one, along with a white shirt and a tie, even a tie-tack in the shape of airplane wings. I would get to serve peanuts in small foil packets and offer people small plastic cups of soda. "Would you like the whole can?" I would say. I love flying south to visit my grandparents and I've already memorized almost everything these flight attendants say. "Please make sure that you have extinguished all smoking materials and that your tray table is in its upright and locked position." I wish I had a tray table in my bedroom and I wish I smoked, just so I could extinguish my smoking materials.

"Okay, I see what's the matter," my mother says. She turns to me and smiles. "Augusten, hand me that box, would you?"

Her long, frosted beige nail points to the box of Kotex maxi pads on the floor next to the toilet bowl. I grab the box and hand it to her.

She takes two pads from the box and sets it on the floor at her feet. I notice that the box is reflected in the side of her shoe, like a small TV. Carefully, she peels the paper strip off the back of one of the pads and slides it through the neck of her dress, placing it on top of her left shoulder. She smoothes the silk over the pad and puts another one on the right side. She stands back.

"What do you think of that!" she says. She is delighted with herself. It's as if she has drawn a picture and placed it on her own internal refrigerator door.

"Neat," I say.

"You have a very creative mother," she says. "Instant shoulder pads."

The blow-dryer continues to tick like a clock, counting down the seconds. Hot things do that. Sometimes when my father or mother comes home, I will go down and stand near the hood of the car to listen to it tick, moving my face in close to feel the heat.

"Are you coming upstairs with me?" she says. She takes her cigarette from the clamshell ashtray on the back of the toilet. My mother loves frozen baked stuffed clams, and she saves the shells to use as ashtrays, stashing them around the house.

I am fixated on the dryer. The vent holes on the side have hairs stuck in them, small hairs and white lint. What is lint? How does it find hair dryers and navels? "I'm coming."

"Turn off the light," she says as she walks away, creating a small whoosh that smells sweet and chemical. It makes me sad because it's the smell she makes when she's leaving.

"Okay," I say. The orange light from the dehumidifier that sits next to the wicker laundry hamper is looking at me, and I look back at it. Normally it would terrify me, but because my mother is here, it is okay. Except she is walking fast, has already walked halfway across the family room floor, is almost at the fireplace, will be turning around the corner and heading up the stairs and then I will be alone in the dark bathroom with the dehumidifier eye, so I run. I run after her, certain that something is following me, chasing me, just about to catch me. I run past my mother, running up the stairs, using my legs and my hands, charging ahead on all fours. I make it to the top and look down at her.

She climbs the stairs slowly, deliberately, reminding me of an actress on the way to the stage to accept her Academy Award. Her eyes are trained on me, her smile all mine. "You run up those stairs just like Cream."

Cream is our dog and we both love her. She is not my father's dog or my older brother's. She's most of all not my older brother's since he's sixteen, seven years older than I, and he lives with roommates in Sunderland, a few miles away. He dropped out of high school because he said he was too smart to go and he hates our parents and he says he can't stand to be here and they say they can't control him, that he's "out of control" and so I almost never see him. So Cream doesn't belong to him at all. She is mine and my mother's. She loves us most and we love her. We share her. I am just like Cream, the golden retriever my mother loves.

I smile back at her.

I don't want her to leave.

Cream is sleeping by the door. She knows my mother is leaving and she doesn't want her to go, either. Sometimes, I wrap aluminum foil around Cream's middle, around her legs and her tail and then I walk her through the house on a leash. I like it when she's shiny, like a star, like a guest on the Donnie and Marie Show.

Cream opens her eyes and watches my mother, her ears twitching, then she closes her eyes again and exhales heavily. She's seven, but in dog years that makes her forty-nine. Cream is an old lady dog, so she's tired and just wants to sleep.

In the kitchen my mother takes her keys off the table and throws them into her leather bag. I love her bag. Inside are papers and her wallet and cigarettes and at the bottom, where she never looks, there is loose change, loose mints, specks of tobacco from her cigarettes. Sometimes I bring the bag to my face, open it and inhale as deeply as I can.

"You'll be long asleep by the time I come home," she tells me. "So good night and I'll see you in the morning."

"Where are you going?" I ask her for the zillionth time.

"I'm going to give a reading in Northampton," she tells me. "It's a poetry reading at the Broadside Bookstore."

My mother is a star. She is just like that lady on TV, Maude. She yells like Maude, she wears wildly colored gowns and long crocheted vests like Maude. She is just like Maude except my mother doesn't have all those chins under her chins, all those loose expressions hanging off her face. My mother cackles when Maude is on. "I love Maude," she says. My mother is a star like Maude.

"Will you sign autographs?"

She laughs. "I may sign some books."

My mother is from Cairo, Georgia. This makes everything she says sound like it went through a curling iron. Other people sound flat to my ear; their words just hang in the air. But when my mother says something, the ends curl.

Where is my father?

"Where is your father?" my mother says, checking her watch. It's a Timex, silver with a black leather strap. The face is small and round. There is no date. It ticks so loud that if the house is quiet, you can hear it.

The house is quiet. I can hear the ticking of my mother's watch.

Outside, the trees are dark and tall, they lean in toward the house, I imagine because the house is bright inside and the trees crave the light, like bugs.

We live in the woods, in a glass house surrounded by trees; tall pine trees, birch trees, ironwoods.

The deck extends from the house into the trees. You can stand on it and reach and you might be able to pull a leaf off a tree, or a sprig of pine.

My mother is pacing. She is walking through the living room, behind the sofa to look out the large sliding glass door down to the driveway; she is walking around the dining-room table. She straightens the cubed glass salt and pepper shakers. She is walking through the kitchen and out the other door of the kitchen. Our house is very open. The ceilings are very high. There is plenty of room here. "I need high ceilings," my mother always says. She says this now. "I need high ceilings." She looks up.

There is the sound of gravel crackling beneath tires. Then, lights on the wall, spreading to the ceiling, sliding through the room like a living thing.

"Finally," my mother says.

My father is home.

He will come inside the house, pour himself a drink and then go downstairs and watch TV in the dark.

I will have the upstairs to myself. All the windows and the walls and the entire fireplace which cuts straight through the center of the house, both floors; I will have the ice maker in the freezer, the hexagonal espresso pot my mother uses for guests, the black deck, the stereo speakers; all of this contained in so much tall space. I will have it all.

I will walk around and turn lights on and off, on and off. There is a panel of switches on the wall before the hall opens up into two huge, tall rooms. I will switch the spotlights on in the living room, illuminating the fireplace, the sofa. I will switch the light off and turn on the spotlights in the hallway; over the front of the door. I will run from the wall and stand in the spotlight. I will bathe in the light like a star and I will say, "Thank you for coming tonight to my poetry reading."

I will be wearing the dress my mother didn't wear. It is long, black and 100 percent polyester, my favorite fabric because it flows. I will wear her dress and her shoes and I will be her.

With the spotlights aimed right at me, I will clear my throat and read a poem from her book. I will read it with her distinctive and refined Southern inflection.

I will turn off all the lights in the house and go into my bedroom, close the door. My bedroom is deep blue. Bookshelves are attached to the wall with brackets on either side of my window; the shelves themselves are lined with aluminum foil. I like things shiny.

My shiny bookshelves are lined with treasures. Empty cans, their labels removed, their ribbed steel skins polished with silver polish. I wish they were gold. I have rings there, rings from our trip to Mexico when I was five. Also on the shelves: pictures of jewelry cut from magazines, glued to cardboard and propped upright; one of the good spoons from the sterling silver my grandmother sent my parents when they were married; silver my mother hates ("God-awful tacky") and a small collection of nickels, dimes and quarters, each of which has been boiled and polished with silver polish while watching Donnie and Marie or Tony Orlando and Dawn.

I love shiny things, I love stars. Someday, I want to be a star, like my mother, like Maude.

The sliding doors to my closet are covered with mirror squares I bought with my allowance. The mirrors have veins of gold streaking through them. I stuck them to the doors myself.

I will aim my desk lamp into the center of the room and stand in its light, looking at myself in the mirror. "Hand me that box," I will say to my reflection. "Something isn't right here."

From Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. Copyright 2002 by Augusten Burroughs. All rights reserved. Excerpted by permission of Picador.

Excerpt: 'The Long Journey Home'

The Long Journey Home
The Long Journey Home: A Memoir
By Margaret Robison
Hardcover, 400 pages
Spiegel and Grau
List Price: $26

Mother stood at the top of the ladder, scraping wallpaper off the living room walls with a putty knife. Uncle Frank's wife, my Aunt Mary, came through the unlatched screen door without knocking.

She looked up at Mother.

"Louisa, I just want you to know that you'll never have a house as nice as mine." Mother looked down at Aunt Mary, who stood with her hands on her hips, a white leather handbag looped over one arm. She was dressed in a red-and-lavender polka-dotted dress and white sling- backed shoes. "I tell you this now so you get all such thoughts out of your head from the start," Aunt Mary continued.

Mother — married three months and already six weeks pregnant with me — was wearing a sweat-drenched cotton housedress. Scraps and curls of wallpaper lay around the ladder. All afternoon she'd been soaking down the layers of old, stained paper and scraping them off; rose-colored stripes and rosebuds, formal bouquets and baskets of violets, bits and pieces of Richter family history were now strewn on the floor.

Aunt Mary was much older than Mother, who had married the youngest of the three sons in the Richter family. Daddy and Uncle Frank were partners in a produce business. With their sister Bama — her real name was Alabama Margarete — living miles away in Columbia, North Carolina, Aunt Mary was reigning matriarch, and according to Mother she intended to keep it that way.

Mother climbed down the ladder. "Why, Mary," she said in what must have been that sweet tone of hers — ice water running just beneath the words — "a new house is the farthest thing from my mind. I'm just trying to get this dirty old place clean and decent before the baby comes."

She offered Aunt Mary a glass of mint tea.

Aunt Mary declined. Hers was not a social call.

This was one of the first stories Mother told me, and she retold it again and again. This, and how Aunt Mary somehow manipulated herself into the delivery room to watch Mother's manners and restraint dissolve into one scream after another as I wrestled my way out of her tortured body while lightning lit the sky and thunder rumbled like an angry god. "Your birth was the most terrible thing that had ever happened to me," she repeatedly told me.

Mother was twenty-four years old when I was born.

She never stopped talking about what she referred to as the humiliation of Aunt Mary's shocking invasion of her privacy. She claimed that the sight of my aunt's face over my carriage was enough to send me into a fit of screaming. I don't know if Aunt Mary actually scared me or if I picked up on Mother's controlled but ever-present and powerful emotions. I have no memories at all of Aunt Mary in my infancy. Nevertheless, I grew up with Mother's stories of her a part of me as surely as the genes that gave me green eyes and a prominent nose like my father's.

Growing up I had a pleasant relationship with Aunt Mary until Uncle Frank died in a house fire in 1945 and Daddy and Aunt Mary had a dispute about the division of property and the business. After that Aunt Mary forbade her children to relate to us, though her son Peyton and I continued our friendship in secret and her daughter Roberta remained fond of Mother.

As an adult, on a trip back to my hometown — I believe it was in 1970 — I decided to ignore the tension of the years and visit Aunt Mary. I phoned first, and her daughter-in-law said it would be fine for me to visit. Aunt Mary welcomed me warmly. She was lying in bed, smoking a cigarette. Holes from cigar and cigarette burns dotted her lavender satin comforter. Beside the bed a wicker clothes basket held a pile of paperback murder mysteries.

I bent down to hug her, and she opened her arms eagerly.

"I'm so glad to see you, Margaret. Here, sit on the bed beside me," she said as if the past twenty-five years of silence and distance between us had never existed. And in a sense that's true, for that brief visit seemed to erase the past as easily as my teachers had erased numbers and letters from the blackboards in the elementary school around the corner from her house.

Mother and Aunt Mary had a contentious relationship from the time Mother married Daddy until the evening Aunt Mary called her not long after my visit. Mother told me that the two of them talked for nearly two hours, finally making their peace. According to Mother, my aunt died shortly after hanging up the phone.

There were other stories Mother told me about the four years we lived in The Old Home Place before Granddaddy died and we moved to the new house up the street. She told me Daddy was often away on business trips, leaving her alone with Granddaddy and me, and Bubba, my first brother, the new baby who kept her awake with his earaches. One night, when especially tired, she picked him up from the crib in the dark and — missing the rocking chair altogether — fell down hard on the floor beside it. "I just broke down and cried and cried," she said each time she told the story, and each time my own eyes filled with tears. Mother seemed so fragile that I wanted to protect her.

She also told me about the way Daddy always put Granddaddy before her. "He made me sit in the backseat of the car while that old man sat up front with him. Even when I was pregnant." And she told me that after Granddaddy died Daddy kissed the glass over his photograph every day before leaving for work and the first thing on coming home. There was also the framed eight-by-ten photograph of Uncle Frank that stood on a table in the living room of our new house after Uncle Frank was killed in the fire. I would walk away from the picture, then turn around quickly to see if those eyes were still watching me. They always were. They followed me all around the room. I swallowed my fear and told no one.

I don't remember when or how she managed it without Daddy's resistance, but I was relieved when Mother took Uncle Frank's photograph, along with the large-framed photograph of my Aunt Bama's house in Columbia, and buried them under the bedsheets and blankets in the linen closet.

Mother had married into a more eccentric family than she'd realized. I suspect that Daddy had married into a more conservative family than he'd realized. Both had little tolerance of the other's parents and siblings. Grandmother Ledford's voice at our front door was enough to send my father, her son-in-law, fleeing through the back door to his car, and then to the safety of the produce warehouse.

Mother too had difficulty with Grandmother Ledford. Though in her later years she referred to her mother — at that point long dead — as a wonderful person, the tension between the two of them when I was young, until Grandmother's death when I was fifteen, was thick and constant. Mother felt Grandmother to be cold and domineering, and closer to her other daughters. As the fourth daughter in a family with no sons, Mother felt unwanted. She told me how, when she was a young child, Grandmother would sometimes rock her in a rocker on the front porch in the evening. Packs of wild dogs skirted the town, howling. When Mother fussed and wouldn't settle down to sleep quickly enough, Grandmother would threaten: "Hush! If you don't go to sleep, I'll feed you to those dogs."

Mother was also upset about Uncle Frank's cursing and drinking, and Aunt Bama's intrusion into her life. She did more than complain about the occasional beer that Daddy drank at a drive-in restaurant. My birth finally gave her adequate ammunition to fight this rare indulgence. The three of us were together when Daddy reached for the beer he'd ordered. Mother announced firmly: "If you take one sip of that alcohol, I'll give it to the baby as well. I intend to make the baby drink whatever you drink."

Her voice filled with pride. "That was the end of your father's drinking."

Excerpted from The Long Journey Home by Margaret Robison. Copyright © 2011 by Margaret Robison. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Excerpt: 'Be Different'

Be Different
Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian with Practical Advice for Aspergians, Misfits, Families & Teachers
By John Elder Robison
Hardcover, 304 pages
Crown Archetype
List Price: $24

Asperger's came into my life when I was forty years old. I'm a pretty levelheaded guy, but I was totally shocked by the diagnosis. "Yep," the doc­tors said, "you were born this way." I could not believe I had reached middle age without knowing such a hugely important thing about myself. I was amazed to learn that Asperger's is a kind of autism, because I thought everyone with autism was disabled. I'd always envisioned myself as a loner, a geek, and a misfit, but I would never have described myself as disabled. To me, being dis­abled meant having no legs I believe that. or being unable to talk. Yet autism, and so Asperger's, was a disability — that's what the books said. I'm still not sure I believe that.

The one shred of reassurance I got that first day was the knowledge that Asperger's isn't a terminal illness. "You're not getting sicker," they told me, "and it won't kill you. You're actually not sick at all; you're just different." Great, I thought. Very comforting.

All of a sudden, the concept of "people like me" took on a whole new meaning. Moments before, I'd have de­scribed myself as a middle-aged white male. I was a suc­cessful business owner, a husband, and a father. Now I was a guy with Asperger's. I was autistic. Everything else seemed secondary to that new facet of me. This must be how it feels when you find you have cancer, I thought. I was still the same guy I had been the day before. I didn't feel sick. Yet somehow, in a matter of seconds, my diagnosis had come to dominate my self- image.

In the weeks that followed, I read everything I could about the diagnosis, and I began to relax. When I thought back on my life, Asperger's explained so many things. School had been hard for me, and I'd done some pretty unusual stuff after dropping out. My new knowledge of Asperger's brought those memories into focus, and I saw how the differences in my brain had shaped the course of my life in countless subtle ways. Yet I also realized that the success I enjoyed as an adult was real, and it wasn't going away. In fact, as I moved forward with new knowl­edge and confidence, I started to see my life get better every day.

Later, with the benefit of this new knowledge, I stud­ied my Aspergian son, now twenty-one years old, and thought about how he too used to struggle in school and in social settings. He was diagnosed when he was sixteen, twenty-four years earlier than me. I look at him today, and I see how much he's benefited from understanding how and why his brain is different from other folks'. In many ways, he's the young man I could have been if only I had known what I had. I made it through life the hard way; he has the benefit of knowledge to rely on. That will make his path easier, and it can make yours easier, too.

Observed from the outside, Asperger's is a series of quirks and behavioral aberrations. Aspergians are not physically disabled, though an observant person might pick us out of a crowd by our unusual gait or even by our expressions. Most Aspergians possess all the body parts and basic abilities for the full range of human functions. We're also complete on the inside. When today's brain scientists talk Asperger's, there's no mention of damage — just difference. Neurologists have not identified any­thing that's missing or ruined in the Asperger brain. That's a very important fact. We are not like the unfortunate people who've lost millions of neurons through strokes, drinking, lead poisoning, or accidental injury. Our brains are complete; it's just the interconnections that are dif­ferent.

All people with autism have some kind of communica­tion impairment. "Traditional" autistic people have trouble understanding or speaking language. If you can't talk, or understand others, you are indeed going to be disabled in our society. The degree of impairment can vary greatly, with some autistic people totally devoid of speech and oth­ers affected in less substantial ways.

Autistic people can also have impairment in the ability to read nonverbal signals from others. That's the kind of autism I have; it's what most people with Asperger's are touched with. The stories in this book describe the ways in which I minimized the harm my communication impair­ment caused me, while finding the gifts it conferred.

Autism in its many forms is not a disease. It's a way of being that comes from this nonstandard wiring in the brain. The latest science suggests we're most likely born different, or else we become autistic early in infancy. We don't develop Asperger's as teenagers; life on the autism spectrum is the only life we've ever known. We will al­ways be perplexed when we gaze at people who aren't on the spectrum, and they will always struggle to understand our unconventional way of thinking.

Subtle brain differences often cause people like me to respond differently — strangely even — to common life sit­uations. Most of us have a hard time with social situa­tions; some of us feel downright crippled. We get frustrated because we're so good at some things, while being com­pletely inept at others. There's just no balance. It's a very difficult way to live, because our strengths seem to con­trast so sharply with our weaknesses. "You read so well, and you're so smart! I can't believe you can't do what I told you. You must be faking!" I heard that a lot as a kid.

Some people with autism are noticeably disabled. A person who can't talk, for example, cries out for compas­sion. Those of us with Asperger's are tougher to pick out.

The hardest thing about having Asperger's is that we don't look any different from anyone else on the outside. So why would anyone suspect that we are different on the inside? When I was a kid, no one had any knowledge of how my brain was wired, including me. Consequently, society wrote me off as defective along with millions of other "different" and "difficult" children. My strange behavior was de­scribed as "bad" instead of being seen for what it was — the innocent result of neurological difference.

Today most kids are diagnosed earlier than I was, but still, for many of us, knowledge of Asperger's starts with some kind of failure. Most kids get diagnosed with As­perger's after failing at some aspect of school, and their be­havior has brought them to the attention of the little men in suits who give tests.

I may not have been tested in school, but the differ­ences in me were still obvious. I could not make friends, I acted strange, and I flunked all my courses. Back then, people said I was just a bad kid, but today we see problems like mine as evidence of disability, and, as a society, we supply help, not punishment. At least, that's how it's sup­posed to work.

Today, many geeks, scientists, and other creative ge­niuses are said to have Asperger's. But to some of us, the phrase "have Asperger's" is misleading because it makes Asperger's sound like a disease or an injury. You say, "I have a cold" or "I've got a broken leg." Saying you "have" something implies that it's temporary and undesirable.

Asperger's isn't like that. You've been Aspergian as long as you can remember, and you'll be that way all your life. It's a way of being, not a disease.

That's why I say, "I am a person with Asperger's."

Many of us shorten this by saying we're Aspergians, or Aspies. I think that's more appropriate than saying, "We have Asperger's." There's no right or wrong — you can say whatever you want, or say nothing at all. Whatever you choose, you're in good company. Bill Gates is said to be Aspergian. Musician Glenn Gould is said to have been Aspergian, along with scientist Albert Einstein, actor Dan Aykroyd, writer Isaac Asimov, and movie director Alfred Hitchcock. As adults, none of those people would be de­scribed as disabled, but they were certainly eccentric and different.

If everyone with Asperger's achieved a high level of success, no one would call it a disability. Unfortunately, those people are the exceptions, not the rule. Most Asper­gians struggle with school, relationships, and jobs because their social skills are poor and they can't seem to fit in. It's all too easy to end up alone, alienated, and un­employed. That's what life was like for me before I learned how to work with my dif­ferences, overcome them, and sometimes exploit them. As I have gotten older, I have come to appreciate how my dif­ferences have turned out also to include gifts that have set me apart. One of my main goals in life today is to help young people avoid some of the traps I fell into. We should all be given a chance to succeed.

There's a lot more to this story than simple disability.

From Be Different by John Elder Robison. Copyright 2011 by John Elder Robison. Excerpted by permission of Crown Archetype, a division of Random House Inc.

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