Owen Suskind was a normal toddler as he approached his third birthday. Then, without warning, he vanished, lost in the depths of his own head. His parents, Ron and Cornelia Suskind, panicked, searching for a clue as to what happened to their son. After numerous tests and trips to doctors’ offices, Owen was diagnosed with regressive autism.
On Thursday, August 7, at the Chilmark Community Center, Mr. Suskind will present his latest book, Life, Animated, as part of the Martha’s Vineyard Author Lecture Series. Life, Animated tells the story of how Owen has learned not only to survive, but to thrive with his condition. Mr. Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has written five books previous to this one, demonstrates the complex and incredible inner workings of Owen’s mind, and how their family of four helped Owen realize his full potential.
“One in five people have a neurologically expressed condition in America,” Mr. Suskind said in an interview with the Gazette. “What people are realizing from this book is that maybe they saw that community in the broken toy department, but in fact, for every visible deficit, there is almost certainly an equal and opposing strength. It’s a very liberating thing to understand.”
For the Suskind family, Owen’s passion for classic Disney films such as Aladdin and The Lion King proved to be the key to understanding the magic simmering beneath the surface. While Owen struggled to communicate in traditional terms, he demonstrated an uncanny understanding of these films, describing complex themes and relating them to his own family and the greater world. When his older brother, Walter, got emotional after his birthday party, six-year-old Owen said to his parents, “Walter doesn’t want to grow up, like Mowgli or Peter Pan.” This was the first coherent sentence that Owen had shared since his diagnosis.
“Movies are so powerful in shaping us,” said Mr. Suskind. “There is a fascinating set of yin and yangs, the two-sided flipping coin of movie reality and the real lives we live. Owen often crosses the line, in that he knows that it’s a movie, but he has embraced the power he feels from the movies.”
At the end of the memoir, Mr. Suskind includes an original story by Owen, who just graduated from a special needs college program on Cape Cod. The story, titled The Sidekicks, metaphorically shows Owen getting lost in the darkness of his autism, and how his favorite Disney sidekicks helped him find his way, and to find a hero in himself. Although the story lasts just nine pages including original illustrations, it shows Owen’s struggle in intricate detail, demonstrating his incredible creativity and mastery of storytelling.
While Owen’s talents are unique, many children on the autism spectrum have similar affinities that lead to remarkable abilities. On the Life, Animated website, LifeAnimated.net, parents of other children on the spectrum have submitted stories like Owen’s as well as videos showing how their children have embraced their unique learning styles. The stories range from a math genius to an artist with a nearly perfect photographic memory to an eight-year-old wind chime expert.
“What is so nice about the website is that it is very affirming for the kids and for the parents, and it is helping people in the wider society see this particular condition with the same new eyes that Cornelia and I were forced to adopt,” said Mr. Suskind. “That can only be a thing of goodness and value.”
Although Life, Animated has only been available for a few months, Mr. Suskind has already received countless letters from other parents of children on the spectrum, explaining that the book has helped them to communicate with their children in new ways.
While the book has clearly had a large impact on these families who deal with similar situations, the lessons are relevant to anyone who has ever learned something important from a story. In explaining the lessons that Owen gleaned from Disney films, Mr. Suskind harkens a line by Joan Didion: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
“At its core, this book is about something that has nothing to do with autism,” said Mr. Suskind. “It is about the extraordinary might, the shaping power of stories, and how we use stories to shape our lives and our view of the world. I think that is true for our nation. It is literally, and startlingly, true for my son.”
Ron Suskind will appear at the Chilmark Community Center on August 7 at 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit mvbookfestival.com/authorlectures.