Undiagnosed Asperger's Leads To 'Life As An Outsider' For most of his life, music critic Tim Page felt like an outsider. Restless and isolated, he was uneasy around others. Finally, when he was 45, Page was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.
NPR logo

Undiagnosed Asperger's Leads To 'Life As An Outsider'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/113744905/113751496" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Undiagnosed Asperger's Leads To 'Life As An Outsider'

Undiagnosed Asperger's Leads To 'Life As An Outsider'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/113744905/113751496" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Tim Page, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic who found out in middle age that he had the autistic disorder Asperger's Syndrome. That helped explain the lifelong unease he experienced and why his pervasive childhood memory was an excruciating awareness of his own strangeness.

Page has written a new memoir called "Parallel Play: Life as an Outsider." It's about how his condition affected his life and his relationship with music. Page won the Pulitzer in 1997 for his work as chief classical music critic at the Washington Post. That was three years before his diagnosis.

Before joining the Post, he was a music critic at the New York Times and Newsday. He's now a professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern California.

Tim Page, welcome to FRESH AIR. What did they tell you when they gave you the diagnosis of Asperger's? What did they tell you that meant?

Professor TIM PAGE (University of Southern California): Well, I'm now allowed by my middle son to tell the circumstances where I was diagnosed.

We had taken my son Robbie in because he was having some social difficulties, and that's when he was diagnosed, and he has just given me permission to talk about this because he's 19. That was when I was diagnosed. I'd never heard of it. It turns out it's terribly hereditary. It turns out that a good amount of adults are actually diagnosed when their children are diagnosed, and my own guess is that my father had it too.

So you know, the doctor just gave a long and thoughtful explanation of the condition and then diagnosed my son and then said you have it too. And so I went out and I went to see my own doctor, and I read up on it, and I was pretty sure that I had it as well.

GROSS: What year and how old were you when you were diagnosed with Asperger's?

Prof. PAGE: I was 45 years old, and it was in the fall of 2000. So it was either - I believe I was then still 45, but I turned 46 that fall. I'll give you a good description from David Mamet, who wrote in his book "Bambi vs. Godzilla" about Asperger's Syndrome, and he wrote that it's not impossible that it helped make the movies. The symptoms of this developmental disorder include early precocity, a great ability to maintain masses of information, a lack of ability to mix with groups in age-appropriate ways, ignorance of or indifference to social norms, high intelligence, and difficulty with transition, married to a preternatural ability to concentrate on the minutiae of the task at hand.

I had all of that. I continue to have all of that. I can remember all sorts of trivia, but I don't notice what somebody has on. I neglect my, you know, my shirt tails, and you know - I guess it's sort of like your absentminded professor times five, if that makes any sense. And it's somewhere, at least most experts agree, it's somewhere along the autistic spectrum, which means somewhere in the zero to 100 of, you know, zero having no autistic traits and 100 being completely isolated, I'm somewhere in the middle.

GROSS: Usually when you get a diagnosis, the goal is to get some kind of medication or therapy to help fix it. With what you have, which is, you know, Asperger's, is there something you're trying to fix, or is the diagnosis just helping you define certain behavior patterns and help you figure out who you are and how to make the most of who you are?

Prof. PAGE: I would say that the diagnosis helped me realize that there were certain things that were part of my nature and that were pretty much fixed, that were not very changeable, much as I would like them to be changeable, and it helped me avoid things, I would say, for the most part. But I was already on all sorts of palliative things for people with Asperger's.

I mean, I've had my own little prescription for Valium since I was 15, and I've been on antidepressants, and I've been on - you know, I meditate. I do everything I can to sort of get through a day, and most days I get through pretty well, and I know when I need to just escape and get rid of whatever overstimulation I'm feeling and sort of calm myself, and that's the big struggle for me during the day, and you know, before the one at night, which is getting to sleep one way or another.

I'd like to think that there's a utopia someplace where kids who are two and three, it's explained to them gently what they have, and they're given some therapy that helps them to deal with parents, teachers, peers, and maybe the depression and the anxiety will go away. But certainly depression and anxiety were concomitant states that I've had since I came to consciousness.

GROSS: You write: From early childhood, my memory was so acute and my wit so bleak that I was described as a genius. I wrapped myself in this mantle as poetic justification for behavior that might otherwise have been judged unhinged. Like what? What kind of license did your eccentricities give you?

Prof. PAGE: Well, I don't think they really gave me a whole lot of license, but the school kind of had to put up with me, and it was a small town, so they promoted me to the next grade. I was either asleep, looking out windows when the teacher was talking about something that I wasn't interested in, or I was acting out and making faces and, you know, answering with ridiculous questions or just basically showing my contempt for the class all through my childhood.

And I couldn't get this out of my system. I would - you know, I was aggressive, and I'd push people out on the playground. I mean, I wasn't really a bully because I was inept as an athlete, but I got D's and F's and an occasional C. I was thrilled when I got a B. It was really one of those things where I simply couldn't concentrate except on the stuff that I could concentrate on very well, and back then the idea that somebody could be articulate and could actually still have an autistic disorder, they didn't compute - the idea of somebody who was autistic was somebody who rarely spoke and maybe banged his head.

And I was sort of doing my own version of head-banging, although it was not quite in the same way. And so I just - the thing that was really nice was some teachers, recognizing that I was overstimulated, would let me go to the nurse's office, where I'd calm myself down, and the nicest teachers would actually let me stay in at recess, where I'd always get in trouble and get myself punched out or something, and I'd just stay in and I'd read through the World Book Encyclopedia, and I basically memorized it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PAGE: It was a strange brain, you know?

GROSS: Looking back, how do you think Asperger's Syndrome affected your interest in music and how you listened to music when you were coming of age?

Prof. PAGE: I have this theory that Asperger's Syndrome has been hugely important for me with music because it was the first world that made any sense to me.

I didn't really understand what was going on around me. I didn't understand what people really wanted me to do, what kind of expressions. You know, I was a very lost little kid, but my mom had this record player and she was kind enough to let me ruin her record collection by just playing records over and over and over again, and I'd memorize what all the music was, and it allowed me passage into a world where everything made sense and where I felt this profound sense of being at home in the world. And I - it was always very easy for me to talk about music.

I mean, I couldn't identify chords or anything technical, but I could make at least enough sense out of it for me that it showed me that there was kind of another dimension out there and I wanted to be in that dimension as much as I could, because the real world didn't make any sense to me.

GROSS: You write in your book, that when you first heard Philip Glass and his patterned, minimalist music, that you felt - I forget the words you exactly use - but you felt like you were listening to the inside of your very essence, you know

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PAGE: Yeah, yeah, pretty much.

GROSS: Describe what you felt when you first heard minimalist music.

Prof. PAGE: Well, I'd heard a little bit of it, beforehand, because there were a couple of records that came out in the late '60s. Terry Riley and Steve Reich did some fairly early recordings. So I knew a little bit about it, but the - 1976 was a huge year for me because there was the world premiere of Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians," and then later in the year, the U.S. premiere of "Einstein on the Beach" by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson. And especially with "Music for 18 Musicians," it had me so incredibly excited by all that was going on in the music that I went up to my room, and I started writing what I consider my first more-or-less mature criticism.

GROSS: We cued up - because you mentioned it in your book, we cued up Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians." I want to play the first minute of it, and then I want you to talk about it and tell us, if you remember, what you wrote about it, because you say the first real, serious piece of music criticism that you wrote was about this piece after you heard it.

Prof. PAGE: Sure.

GROSS: So let's give it a shot for a minute, and then we'll talk.

(Soundbite of song "Music for 18 Musicians")

GROSS: That's the opening of Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians," and...

Prof. PAGE: So wonderful.

GROSS: Isn't it wonderful? Yeah, I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So Tim Page, what does that music do for you when you hear it?

Prof. PAGE: Well, I thought I'd read you a little bit of what I wrote that night.

GROSS: Oh, terrific, terrific.

Prof. PAGE: In April of 1976, as a 21-year-old having absolutely no idea that anybody would ever publish me. But I spent the whole night trying to describe that music in words, and I said: Imagine concentrating on a challenging modern painting that becomes just a little bit different every time you shift your attention from one detail to another, or try to impose a frame on a running river, making it a finite, enclosed work of art yet leaving its kinetic quality unsullied, leaving it flowing freely on all sides. And then I said: It has been done. Steve Reich has framed the river.

And I still have that same sort of feeling for this music. I guess I would add, now, that it's music that's not so much about going places and arriving somewhere and big crises and climaxes, as it is about the actual journey rather than arrival or leaving from someplace. You're just fascinated by what's going on at the moment, just surrendering yourself to speed and jostling and, you know, gorgeous sensations that overwhelm you. And I love the sort of patterning of it all.

GROSS: And, you know, the patterning is very repetitious, but at the same time, it's constantly shifting in perceptible and almost imperceptible ways. Does that speak to you?

Prof. PAGE: Very, very much, and that really is what I think my insides feel like, but it calls to mind this kind of ecstatic quality, which I have occasionally felt. One of my very few visual, you know, ecstasies is watching clouds change slowly over the course of an afternoon. I love process. I love patterns. I love seeing things just change slightly, but also still catching you up in the whole process. And that's something that I remember from being very, very young, and I love the fact that there are some wonderful musicians who are exploring that now.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tim Page. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic who has written for the Washington Post and the New York Times. He's now a professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern California. His new memoir is called "Parallel Play: Life as an Outsider," and it's about his life and about how Asperger's Syndrome has figured into that. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Tim Page. He's now a professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern California. His new memoir, "Parallel Play," is about learning that he had Asperger's Syndrome and how that knowledge has affected his life and how living with Asperger's Syndrome has affected his childhood and his adulthood.

As a teenager, you tried LSD several times, and you say the trips were nightmarish. And I'm wondering if you think your symptoms were magnified by the LSD and if that contributed to the bad trips?

Prof. PAGE: Anything in the world that makes me more self-conscious is the enemy, and LSD and marijuana, both of which I tried and tried and tried to like in my mid-teens - you know, college campus and a lot of my friends doing them - were really sort of nightmarish for me. I had a great time on marijuana for a while, but it started to induce panic attacks, which continued. And I think they may have had something to do with the LSD that I took.

All of this stuff I did before I ever, you know, drank wine civilly. It was so much easier, in those days, especially on a college campus, to find drugs than it was to, you know, split a six-pack of beer. And so I think, probably, my anxiety level was not going to be helped by these, you know, very much internalizing drugs. And with LSD, in one case, I just took such a huge dose that I just lost myself entirely, and it's - you know, I thought that taking LSD would be like swallowing a movie, and I'd just be watching it on a screen, and I'd see some nice things and some frightening things. But what happens, of course, is that your whole brain is so screwed up, and you're so lost by it, that all that it did for me was just made me want to scream and run and escape from all this terror that was in my system - which I think is there, pretty much, to begin with, but certainly those kind of drugs make it much, much worse. And it's, you know, they've been something that I've avoided, you know, very strongly for, you know, 35 years.

GROSS: I want to bring up something that I don't think you write about in the book, and this had a big impact on you professionally. And I think it's possible it relates to what we were talking about, in terms of inappropriate behavior that you've...

Prof. PAGE: I think I know where you're going.

GROSS: Yeah, you know where I'm driving.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: A couple of years ago, when you were a music critic at the Washington Post, you were - you wrote a very inappropriate email to one of Marion Barry's aides, and you were on their, like, email list for their press releases and stuff, and you wanted to get off of it. And do you mind if I just quote the line that you wrote?

Prof. PAGE: I don't love it, but I don't mind.

GROSS: Okay. You demanded to be taken off their email list and wrote: Must we hear about it every time this crack addict attempts to rehabilitate himself with some new and typically half-witted political grandstanding? I would be grateful if you would take me off your mailing list. I cannot think of anything the useless Marion Barry could do that would interest me in the slightest, up to and including overdose.

So you apologized for that, after the fact, and...

Prof. PAGE: Yeah, I mean, well, I felt terrible that I'd done it, but there was a story behind that. I had asked to be taken off the email list before, and the - his flack had actually called me all sorts of four-letter words and said things about my mother and, you know, just was really impossible about it. And so this happened to come in on a very, very bad day, and I thought well, they don't seem to take my word for it, so I'm going to zing it to them.

I never expected they'd turn it into anything, but - and you know, if I were Marion Barry, I don't think I'd want everybody in the world to remember that I had been a crack addict or a crack user. But they seemed to want to turn it into something, and they seemed to want to blame the Washington Post for it, and they seemed to want to make me out as a racist. And I was very crude there, but I felt that it was, you know, something which I should apologize for, and I did. And the Post agreed with me, and the Post stood by me.

And so, you know, he wanted to publicize it. He got his moment in the sun, and you know, it was very embarrassing for me. I was miserable. I had just been through a split-up with somebody I loved dearly, and I overreacted. I feel badly about it, but I still sometimes overreact to things.

GROSS: You know, I've worn glasses since kindergarten, and you write in your book that you rarely wear your glasses now because they make you aware of too much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PAGE: Yeah, yeah, I know.

GROSS: It's an interesting choice.

Prof. PAGE: Well, it's a quirk, and I should be wearing them, but I don't drive, and I see well enough to read. And I found that when I started trying to adapt to glasses, two things happen. Number one, my ability to read without glasses seems somewhat impacted; but number two, I all of a sudden felt that I was being intimate with everybody on the street.

You know, I'd just look at somebody. I'd look at them looking back at me, and it began to feel very invasive and somewhat anxiety-provoking. And so, since I don't drive, I haven't really had to wear glasses because I can see close up front. But I guess, in general, I like the fact that I kind of put the world together by sensation and sound and, you know, patterns, and I find it strangely invasive to be out there. It's one of the reasons I don't drive, too. I don't want to compete with people, and I think if I could, I'd like to be invisible.

GROSS: Tim Page, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you very much.

Prof. PAGE: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: Tim Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic, who is now a professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern California. His new memoir is called "Parallel Play: Life as an Outsider." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.