Saturday, May 15, 2010
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say Jodi Picoult writes horror stories.
But instead of using zombies to scare us she chooses instead the emotionally charged subject of ‘the sick child’ - the child with brittle bone disease, the child with leukaemia – describing in tortured detail the day to day realities of family life with this sick child. And as if that wasn’t chilling enough, she goes one step further to describe for us, the very worse-case scenarios this sick child might be exposed to...
In House Rules, Jacob Hunt suffers from Asperger’s Disorder, a mild type of autism which was possibly caused by his childhood vaccinations. (Cue panic among the masses of mums about to take their kids for an MMR.) Jacob is academically bright but has negligible social skills; he can’t make eye contact, he speaks in a monotone, he’s interested only in crime scenes, and he panics and goes into melt down when his careful routines are disrupted. Oh, and he’s got a freakish thing about the colour orange...
Jacob’s mother, Emma, cannot accept his medical condition; she insists her son has no ‘mental disease’; she says her son has ‘quirks’.
She says, “We’ve always said Asperger’s isn’t a disability... just a different ability.”
But then, Emma is a paragon. She is almost too good to be true. She remains devoted to Jacob, though her husband has left her, and she doesn’t have family or friends to turn to for support. I might have liked her better if just once in 500 pages she’d raged about the unfairness of it all. Instead she sublimates her frustrations by writing an advice column in the local newspaper while rather priggishly informing us:
“Jacob... is not a cross to bear. He’s my son.”
Emma is convinced her son can comfortably live in the real world – this man of eighteen who will eat only yellow food on Wednesday and brown food on Thursday and blue food on Friday – so Jacob attends a regular High School where he’s ostracised and bullied by his peer group. Emma arranges for a tutor to help Jacob with his social skills – Jess is lovely and kind, and Jacob seems to really like her... Until Jess disappears and her dead body is discovered wrapped in Jacob’s quilt of many colours.
So far, so sad, but this is the scary part – Emma, the loving mother of Jacob, who has spent eighteen years of her life making excuses for his behaviour, accommodating his ‘quirks’ and fighting his corner immediately offers him up to the police. Because she thinks he’s guilty. Because she thinks he’s a murderer.
And even more scary for Jacob – the police are not trained to recognise Asperger’s – in their world an inability to make eye contact during questioning is virtually an admission of guilt... Jacob is arrested and detained, pending a hearing. His careful routines go to pot and he suffers a serious melt down...
Jodi Picoult has first-hand experience of autism – her aunt adopted a boy who was severely autistic. Jodi has vivid memories of her teenage cousin, tall, heavy and strong, throwing violent frustrated tantrums. And of her aunt having to sit on him to get him under control. And of one time in a supermarket, when a concerned shopper called the police, thinking she was a witness to child abuse.
VERDICT: Read House Rules only if you have Schadenfreude tendencies... I found it voyeuristic and disturbing...