Abbie wakes in a hospital bed with no memory of how she got there. The man by her side explains that he’s her husband. He’s a titan of the tech world, the founder of one of Silicon Valley’s most innovative startups. He tells Abbie she’s a gifted artist, a doting mother, and the love of his life.
Published by: Quercus Fiction
Publication Date: 8th August 2019
I. S. B. N.: 9781786488527
I got this book from Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival. On the Friday there was a pop-up Crime Files event where this book was given out.
I hadn’t planned to read or review it yet, but something was brought to my attention by the delightful @autiedragon on Twitter, who was reading an eARC and came across something that they felt had to be highlighted. Before saying anything I wanted to read the book and form my own opinion. I have, and I fully support @autiedragon’s response.
You will see what I mean when I get in to the review. As regular readers know, I don’t normally review books I don’t like but this is important to me. I need to warn Autistic fans of thrillers, psychological suspense novels etc. about the content.
There will be spoilers in this review. If you don’t want to know what happens, there are other reviews available elsewhere.
Well, this wasn’t the thrilling, psychological suspense it was advertised as. I’m really glad I didn’t pay for this book, because I’d have been taking it back to the retailer. It’s better described as speculative fiction, despite the author’s demural on that front. No, seriously, in the Acknowledgements JP Delaney (pseudonym of Anthony Capella) states:
I was always very clear that I was writing a novel of psychological suspense, albeit one with an unusual speculative element, not a techno-thriller.Acknowledgments in Quercus hardback edition, page 434
In the opinion of this reader the book fails as both a psychological suspense and as a thriller. I guessed fairly quickly that Tim had murdered Original-Abbie because he was a controlling, misogynist arsehole. It quickly became obvious, once I read the sort of school Danny (the autistic child of Tim and Abbie) was going to and Abbie’s response, why she was trying to get away. It made the rest of the novel pointless for me. Clearly, AI-Abbie was not going to find Original-Abbie when she ran away with Danny, I just couldn’t work out what was going to happen to them, or who she was going to meet. Her eventual suicide and Danny’s rescue by Mike, Jenny and Lisa was also a bit obvious.
I found the flipping between perspectives and time threw me out of the narrative repeatedly as I tried to work out whether the narration was about Original-Abbie or AI-Abbie. That revelation of the two different narrators, and who they were, at the end was probably the only decent part of this novel. I liked that – the interconnected AIs of Abbie’s life, looking out for her, and the AI-Tim watching her every move. It was clever.
The writing wasn’t great. There was a lot of repetition about how ‘hot’ Abbie was, how ‘alpha male’ Tim is, how intense. There wasn’t much in the way of character development. It was fairly obvious he was an arse from the start. The only interesting people were bit players – Lisa, Abbie’s sister, Mike, Tim’s best friend and Jenny, Mike’s wife and a talented mathematician who worked at Scott Robotics. It would have been a much more interesting psychological suspense if it had been written from their perspective.
Part of Jenny’s story is the misogyny in Silicon Valley, and to be honest, a lot of tech businesses have that problem. It’s obvious from the start that Tim has a Madonna/Whore Complex going on. This wasn’t really expanded on though, no thoughts about the cause or reason for the problem. It’s another angle that could have made the story more interesting.
Danny, Abbie and Tim’s son, 10 when AI-Abbie comes online, is autistic. I’m not entirely sure why it was necessary to the story to have Danny be autistic though. The tension brought about by the presence of a child doesn’t really work in this context, but it does allow the author to do several things:
- Proselytise about ABA
- Talk about how inhuman autistic people are (I will be sharing examples late – early warning for readers)
- Give Tim a reason to think about empathy in AI and thus develop the ‘cobot’
- Show AI-Abbie bonding with ‘her’ child – because the robot and the autistic child ‘think the same way’
- To talk about Thomas the Tank Engine (I do not have a problem with this, I loved Thomas Tank as a kid, Percy is the best)
Any decent editor would have asked a few questions, checked the validity and truth of the statements made by the author. What the hell were the editors and publishers thinking, allowing this into the world? It’s full of lies about autistic people, made in reference to the character of Danny. Reading some of the behaviour descriptions, I recognised a lot of ‘pain’ responses – like self-harming, screaming, shutting down. It’s the response to an overwhelming environment from a person struggling to communicate.
He’s an interesting character. I liked his use of Thomas the Tank Engine to communicate. It’s a very clever work around when the words won’t come. Kids got some brains in there, if he’d been helped with an alternative means of communication rather than abused with ABA, he might have been better able to communicate.
There are comprehensive descriptions of ABA being applied to the character of Danny, who is described as having Heller’s Syndrome – Childhood Disintegrative Disorder – a pervasive developmental disorder similar to, and described in the books as, autism that appears between the ages of 4 and 10, in which a child loses most speech, some motor functions and some self-care abilities in a ‘sudden’ regression. It was amalgamated along with Classic Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Pathological Demand Avoidance, etc. in the DSM-V under Autism Spectrum Disorder. It was ‘discovered’ in 1908 by Viennese special education teacher, Theodor Heller in six children he was teaching. He called the condition dementia infantalis. In 1943, Leo Kanner suggested that infantile autism and dementia infantalis were two separate conditions.
ABA is an abusive form of ‘therapy’ pushed as the ‘only evidence based intervention’ for autism. Based on the work of Ivar Lovaas and B.F. Skinner, behaviourism attempts to make autistic people ‘indistinguishable from their peers’. This translates to making us ‘act like neurotypicals’, it is pushed as a ‘cure’ and absolutely necessary for an autistic person to achieve anything in life. ABA uses rewards and punishment to discourage ‘autistic’ behaviours and encourage ‘normal’ behaviour.
The author in the text, and later in the acknowledgments asserts much about ABA:
‘you remember your excitement when the two of you first discovered applied behavioural analysis, this way of teaching children with autism that, according to some studies, was even capable of curing them, or at least making the indistinguishable from other kids’ (page 30)
‘most effective intervention for autism there is’ (page 336)
‘ABA is evidence-based and it works’ (Acknowledgements, page 433)Quotes from text ot ‘The Perfect Wife’, Quercus hardback edition I.S.BN. 9781786488527
Now, I hang around on Twitter with a lot of other Autistic people (and yes, generally we prefer Autistic to ‘person with autism’), and the general consensus is ABA does bugger all for non-speakers, forces us to mask, increases anxiety, causes PTSD and is generally abusive. Luckily it’s not as strongly pushed here in the UK as it is in the US, where it’s often the only therapy that insurance will pay for, despite speech therapy and occupational therapy being regarded as much more useful to auties by Autistic people themselves. Organisations like A.I.M and Autistic UK question ABAs usefulness and there is a lot of criticism from autistic people who have been forced into ABA, while practitioners are often insulting to anyone who doesn’t automatically agree with them – I have seen this on social media many times, most recently here.
Right, so why is the author pushing ABA? Simple, he used it on his 21 year old son for 15 years. It’s self-justification. I have a feeling, from the references in the text to Danny watching Thomas videos that JP Delaney/Anthony Cappella is drawing on his own experience with his son Ollie – sorry no one in 2016 watches video tapes any more. But late 1990s/early 2000s – maybe they would have done. It’s an incongruity that also dragged me out of the near-future setting.
Not just that, the author has clearly swallowed the ABA line about us being empathy-less, robotic, morally empty zombies that need fixing. It screams out of the text, like Kanner and Skinner come to life. We get it Delaney, you resent your son, now stop spreading lies about what it means to be autistic.
A few samples of the insults he directs at us:
The mother of a child with autism knows her feelings for him will never be reciprocated. Her child will never say I love you, never draw a Mother’s Day card, never proudly bring home a school project or a girlfriend or a fiancee or a grandchild. He will never tell you about his day, or confide his deepest fears.Page 44
How wrong? Let me count the ways:
- Autistic people prefer Identity First Language; Person First Language separates an essential part of us – a genetic, intrinsic way our brains are wired – from ourselves. We wouldn’t be us if we weren’t autistic.
- Of course we can reciprocate feelings, but we might struggle to express them in a way neurotypical people expect and assume.
- Many autistic people are in relationships, are married or have children; being autistic doesn’t stop us doing that but cross-neurotype relationships are difficult because we’re using different operating systems.
- Also, assumption that autistic = boy
‘People with autism have very low empathy – they find it hard to identify emotion, much less understand them.’
‘…He’s a human with impaired empathy…’
‘The autistic brain simply doesn’t have the capacity to learn…With autism, you have to use much more simplistic teaching methods.’Page 158
Well, that’s all just a load of bollocks! Well, the stuff about empathy and learning is. Autistic people have the same range of empathy as non-autistic people, but we show it differently. For instance we might do something practical rather than pat your arm while saying empty words. Or if we see someone drop something we might assess whether we’re supposed to help them or if there are people already helping etc. If another person would just get in the way rather than help, we might back off, or if it’s clear the person can manage we might think we’ll just annoy them by trying to help. It’s not clear what the appropriate action is so we could spend time considering what to do, rather than just jumping in, for instance. This sort of thing has been taken as evidence that autistic people are unfeeling and unempathetic, when the opposite, that we’re trying to cause as little upset as possible, or that we’re still processing the situation, is in fact the case. But researchers rarely ask us before coming to their conclusions. A fine example here.
Not knowing what we’re feeling, being unable to identify feelings, that’s called alexithymia, and it isn’t exclusive to autistic people, but it’s quite common among us. It also has nothing to do with empathy.
Alright, only one more quote, I promise. It’s upsetting me to re-read and I don’t want to upset anyone reading this.
‘And Danny? Is he more or less human than others?…When people talk about their ‘humanity’, after all, they generally mean their empathy, their compassion, their moral code. But of course Danny isn’t any less human just because he doesn’t have those things.’Page 398
Seriously? We have no empathy, compassion or moral code, apparently. How insulting can you be, JP Delaney? How ignorant? I feel sorry for your son.
Now, it occured to me that, given that there are some ambivalent statements in the novel, the author might have been saying these things for literary effect. But then I read the Acknowledgement.
Martyr Parent(TM) Alert!
I should have known from some of the other things in the novel, especially the exchange between AI-Abbie and a family in a diner during the escape attempt. The author actually thought he’d given the impression he didn’t agree with ABA – considering his depictions of the controlling and abusive nature of the ‘therapy’ and practitioners – but from my perspective it was very clear he approved of ABA.
Nowhere does the author say ‘these are things people believe about autistic people, I have used these stereotypes to heighten tension and to show that AI-Abbie is learning from the internet input, but they aren’t true and I don’t believe my autistic son has no empathy’. Some of the statements in the novel, even if they’re for literary effect, are essentially hate speech and since the author doesn’t explicitly condemn them when he had the chance, I am left to believe he not only condones the lies but also is perfectly fine with people thinking things like that about his own son.
I really hope people who read this novel take his description of auties with a bucketful of salt and find out for themselves what it is to be autistic, by asking us.
But if you’re autistic I wouldn’t read this book at all.
This book fails as a psychological suspense novel, fails to accurately depict autistic people, fails at character development and the plot is weak. Not worth the time or money. My copy, sans many, many post-it notes, will be going to a charity shop. I’m not tip-exing the marginalia though.