What I Read: House Rules

I had this book in my hand at the store for a long time. I kept waffling between putting it back on the shelf or carrying it with me to the cash register. Considering our current situation, did I really need to read something like this? Yet the slight aversion I had to reading the story was closely related to what brought me to the book in the first place: Asperger’s Syndrome. It wasn’t that I was drawn to Jodi Picoult’s House Rules because of the author or any other reason. Sure, I’ve read many of Picoult’s books. They have a quality to them that make them quick and engrossing reads. It all started with My Sister’s Keeper and went from there. They were a great way to pass the time during bedrest. But the problem is that they all revolve around central themes, and despite being great entertainment, they start to blur together after a while. Parent in turmoil, child with some sort of anomaly, perhaps a distressed sibling, all revolving around a legal drama and told in multiple voices that make the pages fly by. But this one? Asperger’s? I took the bait.

So Emma is a single mother of 18-year-old Jacob and 15-year-old Theo. Jacob has Asperger’s Syndrome while Theo is neurotypical. Unable to deal properly with the strains of the diagnosis, the boys’ father leaves early in their childhood. Now, Jacob is a senior in high school and Emma has devoted her life to finding the right diet/ supplement/ treatment to help Jacob reach optimal functionality. She even retains a social interaction tutor, Jess, a local grad student, to help Jacob overcome his difficulties. Jacob is also obsessed with forensic science as a symptom of his Asperger’s. He pops up at crime scenes after hearing them announced over his police scanner. He constructs elaborate crime scenes in the home to quiz Emma. He even built a makeshift fuming chamber for fingerprints.

When Jess turns up missing and is soon discovered to be dead, the very symptoms that tell experts that Jacob has Asperger’s are the same traits that indicate guit: failure to make eye contact, fidgeting, obvious physical discomfort. Is he just an “Aspie” or did he kill his tutor? Or both?

So how could I possibly be human without attributing some of this story to my own family right now? When Emma defends Jacob’s meltdowns in the grocery store. When she fears that he will be misunderstood to his detriment. When she wishes that someone else could hold the weight of her family for just a bit in order to get some sort of reprieve. And then in the descriptions and information given of Asperger’s. Picoult really did her research on this one, almost to a fault in that it sort of takes on some redundancy when the same descriptions and explanations appear over and over throughout the story. And she painted Jacob’s character to have every single symptom and sign. In reading the story, I kept having little breaks where I thought to myself, “This isn’t how Evan acts. Everyone is wrong, including myself!” (Incidentally, he saw the psychiatrist the other day to manage meds and she  also brought up Asperger’s to John without anyone having mentioned it to her. So now we have educators, the psychiatrist, and the psychologist who all believe he has some form of it. We got the paperwork in the mail today for official testing.) But in truth, it doesn’t have to be that bad. There is a spectrum of functionality, and I think Jacob’s character would be more effective if he wasn’t so profoundly affected by every damned trait

Of course there were parts of the story that left me wondering about my own family, of aspects of this that I didn’t think of. Mainly? Zachary. If Evan truly is “on the spectrum”, how is this going to affect Zach? This was driven home by Theo, Jacob’s younger brother who is forced to behave as the older sibling in the relationship. Just as Jacob’s mom has made autism her life, Theo’s life has come to be defined by his association with Jacob. This passage sums it up best:

“I used to have dreams that my brother was normal. You know, that we could fight about ordinary things, like whose turn it was to control the television remote, or who got to ride shotgun in the car. But I was never allowed to fight with Jacob. Not when I’d forget to lock my bedroom door and he came in ans stole my CD’s for some forensics project; not when we were little and he’s walk around the table at my birthday party, eating cake off the plates of my friends. My mother said it was a house rule, and she explained it like this: Jacob’s different from the rest of us. Gee, you think? And by the way, since when does being different net you a free pass in life?

The problem is, Jacob’s difference doesn’t confine itself to Jacob. It’s like the time my mother’s red shirt bled in the wash and trned all my clothes pink: my brother’s Asperger’s has made me different, too.”

Through the voice of Theo, Picoult drove home the realization that when one domino falls, so do the ones in closest proximity. Zach is not Theo and Jacob is not Evan, but as we start this journey with Evan, the fictional boys have shown me where I need to rest my focus: if you space the dominoes close enough to where they can still  enjoy their proximity, yet keep them spaced enough that they have their own distinct shadow and can fall without bringing the other crashing down, you can minimize the damage.

And then I realized something else: I am not Emma, either. I won’t let myself be. I will do whatever needs to be done for my boys, whether one has Asperger’s or not, and still, somehow, manage to care for myself. In a way, I think I am totally selfish for thinking this way. But just when I think this, I am reminded of the way in which my family depends on me. And I do not want to be that person–the martyr who has no other life outside of her son’s diagnosis. And Evan’s diagnosis doesn’t make him any less Evan to me. It just helps me understand him a little better, or I hope it will. Regardless of whether I refuse to et this overcome us, we are still us. And I still love both of my children fiercely. Toward the end of the book, Emma sums it up beautifully as she is sitting and watching her oldest son sleep:

“When Jacob slept, the slate was wiped clean, and he could have been any child. Any ordinary child.

Instead, during his waking hours, he was extraordinary. And that truly was the definition for him–outside the perimeter of the norm. At some point in the English language, that word had acquired positive connotations. Why hadn’t Asperger’s?

You could say I was different. I had willingly traded my own future for Jacob’s, giving up whatever fame or fortune I might have achieved in order to make sure his life was better one. I had let every relationship slide, with the exception of the one I’d built with Jacob. I have made choices that other women would not have made. At best, they made me a fierce, fighting mother; at worst, it made me single-minded…

…I do not know what kind of life I’d have had without Jacob, but I don’t want to know. If he hadn’t been autistic, I could not love him any more than I already do. And even if he is convicted, I could not lvoe him any less.” 

House Rules is a book worth the read. You will love it if you fancy yourself a fan of Picoult’s, and even if you haven’t read a single other word of hers, you will find the book entertaining and interesting.


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