Look Me in the Eye (Robison)

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperberg's
John Elder Robison, 2007
Random House
320 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307396181


Summary
Ever since he was young, John Robison longed to connect with other people, but by the time he was a teenager, his odd habits—an inclination to blurt out non sequiturs, avoid eye contact, dismantle radios, and dig five-foot holes (and stick his younger brother, Augusten Burroughs, in them)—had earned him the label “social deviant.”

It was not until he was forty that he was diagnosed with a form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome. That understanding transformed the way he saw himself—and the world.

A born storyteller, Robison has written a moving, darkly funny memoir about a life that has taken him from developing exploding guitars for KISS to building a family of his own. It’s a strange, sly, indelible account—sometimes alien yet always deeply human. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—1957
Where—Athens, Georgia, USA
Currently—lives in Amherst, Massachusetts


John Elder Robison is the author of the 2007 memoir Look Me in the Eye, detailing his life living with Asperger syndrome. He is the elder brother of memoirist Augusten Burroughs, who also wrote about his childhood in the memoir Running with Scissors.

Robison was born in Athens, Georgia while his parents were attending the University of Georgia. He is the son of poet Margaret Robison and late John G. Robison, former head of the philosophy department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. After John Elder's birth, the family lived in Philadelphia, Seattle, and Pittsburgh, where his brother Augusten Burroughs (born Christopher) was born. In 1966 he and his family settled in Amherst, Massachusetts where he spent most of his childhood.

Robison dropped out of Amherst High School in the tenth grade, to join the Amherst-based rock band, Fat. Robison would later receive an honorary diploma from The Monarch School in Houston in May 2008. “It is unconscionable to me as an educator,” said Dr. Marty Webb, founder and head of The Monarch School, “that someone of John's intelligence, competence and life achievement is walking around without a high school diploma.” Monarch, dedicated to providing an innovative, therapeutic education for individuals with neurological differences, has collaborated with Robison on the development of teacher guides for his best seller, Look Me in the Eye as well as the sequel, Be Different.

Several years later his ability to design electronic circuits allowed him to work for Britro sound company. He later became a sound adviser for Pink Floyd and KISS, for whom he created their signature illuminated, fire-breathing, and rocket launching guitars. He subsequently designed electronic games at toy maker Milton Bradley. Robison then worked for Simplex Time Recorder, Isoreg Corporation and Candela Laser of Wayland, Massachusetts.

He later managed J E Robison Service Co from his backyard. He became successful from the venture, the business being one of the largest independent Land Rover, Rolls-Royce and Bentley specialty shops in the country, and becoming one of only 20 four-star service agents for Robert Bosch GmbH of Germany.

Asperger Syndrome
Like many people his age, Robison was unaware that he had Asperger syndrome, first learning of his condition when he was 40 years old. As of 2009, Robison serves as a volunteer spokesman for the Graduate Autism Program at the College of Our Lady of the Elms in Chicopee, Massachusetts.

He has also worked with Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone of Harvard Medical School and Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center on the use of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation as an experimental autism treatment.

Robison has written about that work on his blog and elsewhere. He has been interviewed by Diane Rehm on NPR, Leonard Lopate of WNYC, and Erin Moriarty of CBS Sunday Morning. He has appeared on CBS News, The Today Show, and other news programs.

Recent life
In June 2009, Robison served as a public reviewer for the National Institute of Mental Health when they reviewed applications for autism research that are to be funded as part of the economic stimulus package of 2009.

In early 2011, Robison's guide for people with Autism and Asperger Syndrome, Be Different, was published. It includes what things to say in social situations, how to fit in, and some of his experiences that were not expressed in Look Me in the Eye.

Robison currently lives in Amherst, Massachusetts and is still continuing his activism across the country. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
There's an endearing quality to Robison and his story that transcends the "Scissors" connection … Look Me in the Eye is often drolly funny and seldom angry or self-pitying. Even when describing his fear that he'd grow up to be a sociopathic killer, Robison brings a light touch to what could be construed as dark subject matter…Robison is also a natural storyteller and engaging conversationalist.
Boston Globe


Robison’s lack of finesse with language is not only forgivable, but an asset to his story.... His rigid sentences are arguably more telling of his condition than if he had created the most graceful prose this side of Proust.
Chicago Sun-Times


(Critics Choice) Deeply felt and often darkly funny, Look Me in the Eye is a delight.
People


It's a fantastic life story (highlights include building guitars for KISS) told with grace, humor, and a bracing lack of sentimentality.
Entertainment Weekly


(Starred review.) Robison's thoughtful and thoroughly memorable account of living with Asperger's syndrome is assured of media attention (and sales) due in part to his brother Augusten Burroughs's brief but fascinating description of Robison in Running with Scissors. But Robison's story is much more fully detailed in this moving memoir, beginning with his painful childhood, his abusive alcoholic father and his mentally disturbed mother. Robison describes how from nursery school on he could not communicate effectively with others, something his brain is not wired to do, since kids with Asperger's don't recognize common social cues and body language or facial expressions. Failing in junior high, Robison was encouraged by some audiovisual teachers to fix their broken equipment, and he discovered a more comfortable world of machines and circuits, of muted colors, soft light, and mechanical perfection. This led to jobs (and many hilarious events) in worlds where strange behavior is seen as normal: developing intricate rocket-shooting guitars for the rock band Kiss and computerized toys for the Milton Bradley company. Finally, at age 40, while Robison was running a successful business repairing high-end cars, a therapist correctly diagnosed him as having Asperger's. In the end, Robison succeeds in his goal of helping those who are struggling to grow up or live with Asperger's to see how it is not a disease but a way of being that needs no cure except understanding and encouragement from others.
Publishers Weekly


First-time writer Robison diagnosed himself with Asperger's syndrome after receiving Tony Attwood's groundbreaking work on the subject from a therapist friend ten years ago. In his well-written and fascinating memoir, the fifty-something brother of Augusten Burroughs (Running with Scissors) addresses the difficultly of growing up in a household with an abusive and alcoholic father, the social problems he encountered at school, and his great affinity for mechanics. It made no difference that he lacked a high school diploma-Robison's natural skills landed him work as an automobile restorer, Milton Bradley engineer, and stagehand responsible for the pyrotechnic guitars used by rock band KISS in the late 1970s. Despite these successes, the author suffered social difficulties while developing his ability to connect with and understand machines, a thread that is explored in great detail. If there is a drawback here, it is that readers do not get a strong sense of how his self-diagnosis impacted his life. But even among the growing number of books written by those diagnosed later in life, this entry is easily recommended for public and academic libraries with autism collections. —Corey Seeman.
Library Journal


(Starred review.) Robison's memoir is must reading for its unblinking (as only an Aspergian can) glimpse into the life of a person who had to wait decades for the medical community to catch up with him. —Donna Chavez
Booklist


Affecting, on occasion surprisingly comic memoir about growing up with Asperger’s syndrome....The view from inside this little-understood disorder offers both cold comfort and real hope, which makes it an exceptionally useful contribution to the literature.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. Recent studies indicate that autism affects 1 of every 150 people, or 1 of every 50 families. Do you know people who exhibit any of the traits Robison describes in his book? What do you notice about the way they interact with the world?

2. As a child growing up without a diagnosis, Robison was sometimes called names or labeled “deviant.” Knowing why he was different than others might have helped smooth his way. Today, more children are being diagnosed with Asperger’s than ever before. Discuss the advantages of early diagnosis. Might there also be disadvantages? How does a label affect how we treat someone? How does it affect the way we see ourselves?

3. “Different” kids like Robison are often teased or bullied at school. Does Robison’s story give you any ideas for preventing or stopping that behavior?

4. How would you describe Robison’s childhood? How did his parents contribute to the feelings of loneliness he suffered? How did the birth of his brother change his life?

5. Describe logical empathy. Does it differ from the kind of empathy that most people who don’t have Asperger’s syndrome feel? In Chapter 3, on page 32, Robison writes, “I cannot help thinking, based on the evidence, that many people who exhibit dramatic reactions to bad news involving strangers are hypocrites.” Do you think that’s true?

6. Robison describes the way his Asperger’s sometimes causes him to display inappropriate expressions. For example, he might smile when many people would frown. Have you known people whose facial expressions struck you as odd or overly blank? How did it make you feel, and how did you interpret their behavior?

7. In Chapter 6, “The Nightmare Years,” Robison writes about the new names he chooses for his parents with Dr. Finch’s help. What do they reveal about the family dynamic?

8. Robison describes his struggles in school, which culminated in his being invited to drop out. How might the school system have accommodated him?

9. As a teenager, Robison listened to older people ridicule his dreams of joining a band, yet he did it anyway and became very successful. What might have caused Robison to follow his heart despite contrary advice from friends and family? Did he know something they didn’t, or was it just luck that he succeeded?

10. Why does Robison pull what he calls “pranks”? Did any of them make you uncomfortable? In general, do you think pranks are a legitimate way for children or teenagers to express excess energy or frustration?

11. In Chapter 16, “One with the Machine,” Robison says, “Sometimes I think I can relate better to a good machine than any kind of person.” Discuss the reasons he gives for his affinity. Why might a person find comfort in machinery but not in people?

12. In the same chapter, Robison describes being “the brain of the lighting system” at a rock concert, which requires intense focus and concentration. “You must develop a sixth sense for your system, to feel how it’s doing, to be really great,” he writes. When you engage in an activity you love or at which you excel, are there times when you feel the almost magical sense of focus Robison describes? How is that state of mind different from ordinary consciousness?

13. Despite career advice from music industry insiders, Robison doesn’t want to move to a city. Compare the life he experiences when he’s on tour with KISS to his life back in Shutesbury. Why might the idea of living in a city be intimidating to someone with Asperger’s?

14. Robison describes life on the road with bands in the 1970s. Do you think the experience of traveling with a band would be the same today? Would the experience of traveling with a band be similar to that of traveling with another performing group like a theater company or circus?

15. bison writes that he can’t smile on command. How often do you smile “on command” whether you want to or not? How would not being able to automatically produce the expected facial expression make your work life more difficult? Your personal life?

16. As he explains in Chapter 20, “Logic vs. Small Talk,” Robison is also unable to perform the little verbal niceties that often pass for conversation. Questions like “How’s your wife?” or “Have you lost weight?” don’t occur to him when speaking with friends or acquaintances. Do you remember how you first learned to make small talk? Have you ever struggled with it? Are there any conventions of small talk that strike you as peculiar?

17. Robison describes himself as being very direct, and indeed that is a trait of people with Asperger’s. He says that’s both good and bad because some people appreciate directness while others are offended. What are some situations where directness would be of benefit, and where might it be a disadvantage? Why?

18. After his time with KISS and other rock ’n’ roll bands, Robison moved into the corporate world.What did he like about his job with Milton Bradley? What didn’t he like? How did he feel about his position in management? What made him decide to leave a financially comfortable life as an executive for the uncertainty of starting his own business?

19. Robison has described a number of ways in which he differs from other people. In Chapter 22, “Becoming Normal,” he writes about his transition from “Aspergian misfit” to “seeming almost normal.” How did his differences help him in operating his car business? How might they have hampered him?

20. What kind of father is Robison? How is he different from his own parents? Did anything in Chapter 23, “I Get a Bear Cub,” strike you as funny? How is “Cubby” like his father? How is he different?

21. In Chapter 24, “A Diagnosis at Forty,” Robison meets an insightful therapist who helps him realize that he has Asperger’s syndrome. What effect does this discovery have on Robison?

22. t times Robison calls his little brother Varmint and his wife Unit Two. Discuss Robison’s habit of renaming people. Why do you think he sometimes avoids people’s given names?

23. Discuss Robison’s relationship with his wife, Martha. What special challenges might exist in a marriage to someone with Asperger’s? What benefits?

24. In Chapter 26, “Units One Through Three,” Robison writes about choosing Martha over her two sisters, and about the impossibility of being certain that one has made the best possible choice in life. Do you think there is such a thing as a “best sister”? In the book, Martha answers with “depends what you want her for.” How would you answer that question?

25. When choosing a mate, we confront many pieces of folk wisdom, one of which is: Marry someone who’s similar to you; your shared interests will keep you together. An equally popular piece of advice is: Marry someone who’s different from you. Variety is the spice of life and opposites attract. Do you think a person with Asperger’s would do well to find a spouse who has Asperger’s too? Or would that person fare better with a spouse who doesn’t have Asperger’s? What might be the advantages and disadvantages of each?

26. What do you think of Robison’s writing style? Do you notice any quirks in the way he expresses himself that might have to do with Asperger’s syndrome

27. If you met someone tomorrow who acted a bit strange or eccentric, how might the insights from this story affect how you responded to that person?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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