As a child, John Elder was aware that he wasn’t like other kids. For some reason, he had a terrible time conversing, making friends, and acting in ways that most people considered “normal”. Even looking his teachers in the eye when they were talking to him was nearly impossible. To further complicate things, his father was an alcoholic and his mother mentally ill, which made home life very tense. It wasn’t until he was 40 years old that a friend suggested that he might have Asperger’s. Once diagnosed, things finally made sense.
Even before he found out why he was different, John Elder worked hard in life and eventually became very successful. He made customized guitars with special effects for the band KISS, helped develop electronic games for Milton Bradley, opened his own shop to restore/repair high-end European cars, became a national speaker and advocate for persons with Asperger’s, and became a best-selling author.
In some ways I found this book similar to “The Glass Castle” – the poverty, the dysfunctional family, trying to cover the shame of their childhoods, and then their success despite all odds. Both books were disheartening at the beginning, but slowly morphed into stories of triumph. It just goes to show that no matter what disadvantages we may start off with, it’s really up to us to make our lives a success or a failure.
Some excerpts that I found thought-provoking:
from chapter 1:
Machines were never mean to me. They challenged me when I tried to figure them out. They never tricked me, and they never hurt my feelings. I was in charge of the machines. I liked that. I felt safe around them…
from chapter 17:
When people were drinking and doing coke around me, I often felt confused. I didn’t like feeling out of control, and I had seen people do outrageous things while they were drunk and have no memory of it the next day. The mere thought that I might do things like that was enough to make me cringe. So I didn’t know what to do. “Relax, Ampie! Here, have a line! Here, have a drink!” An observer would have said temptation was all around me, but to me it wasn’t tempting at all. I did a few lines and I drank a few drinks – just enough to feel like I was being polite. I never felt the desire to pack in all the beer I could drink or all the coke I could snort. I just did not like how it made me feel. The few times I was drunk or on drugs, I would close my eyes and the world would spin, and I would say to myself, When is this going to end? Why did I do this? It didn’t take me very long to outgrow it, if outgrow is the right word. I stopped doing drugs and liquor, and I didn’t resume.
from chapter 18:
Heroin was scary. I’d read how you could become addicted with a few pricks of the needle, and I saw how the addicts lived. In dumpsters, and passed out in doorways. No way am I going to do that, I thought. That was even worse than my father’s drinking. I watched it all with the same detachment I had learned to feel when I was excluded from playing with kid packs when I was five. No one made fun of me, but I still could not integrate myself into the groups around me. I wanted to make friends, but I didn’t want to engage in the activities I saw them doing. So I just watched. And I worked. And I stayed, convinced that it was better to be destitute in Amherst than in New York City.
from the postscript to the paperback edition:
Today when I speak to kids, I see myself in their struggles, and I want so much for them to have a better life than me. I resolved to clean up my language because that would help me reach more young people. To that end, I’ve made a few changes in this edition. I’ve cleaned up the language in some thirty passages to make the book appropriate for tweens and teenagers. All the pranks and tricks and wild times are still there, including passages that may be rough for a kid to read. But real life is like that, and some unfortunate kids experience things worse than I describe in my book every day. This book depicts my life as I live it. If you are a purist and prefer to read Look Me In The Eye in its original profane glory, the hardcover remains untouched.