The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon)

Posted: February 7, 2016 in fiction
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I may not have to remind you that I am a mental illness hypochondriac. Reading a book with an autistic narrator may not have been the wisest move for me. I kept finding connections between his thought processes and my own, particularly when I was his age. The thing is, though, that if we follow current medical theory, we can talk about autism spectrum disorders; spectrum means that autism is more of a continuum than a toggle switch, and that means that we are all on it somewhere. Most people are grouped at one end that we call normal, and a few people are grouped at the other end that we call low-functioning autistic. Somewhere in between there’s a range that we call Asperger’s. These divisions are arbitrarily defined, and probably not very clearly defined. I really don’t know enough to say whether the idea of a continuum is even accurate; there may be more than one variable involved, which would take us from situating ourselves on a single line to finding our place on a plane, which is exponentially more complicated. So maybe I’m closer to the autistic side than most people, but that doesn’t mean that I have a disorder. It certainly doesn’t mean that if I ever talk to a doctor he’s going to prescribe medicine that I don’t want to take, so I probably don’t have to hide from all doctors ever. Though I do a pretty good job of that. As an example, I am not this extreme:

It takes me a long time to get used to people I do not know. For example, when there is a new member of staff at school I do not talk to them for weeks and weeks. I just watch them until I know that they are safe. Then I ask them questions about themselves, like whether they have pets and what is their favorite color and what do they know about the Apollo space missions and I get them to draw a plan of their house and I ask them what kind of car they drive, so I get to know them. Then I don’t mind if I am in the same room as them and don’t have to watch them all the time.

I don’t ask lots of questions, and it takes less than a few weeks of seeing someone every day for me to grow accustomed to them. But there are some people I feel instantly comfortable with, and some I don’t. I can tell how comfortable I am around someone by how often I look directly at him. If I’m uncomfortable, I will refuse to look at the person. Not consciously, it just sort of happens that way. Christopher’s narration is much more self-aware than I typically am; it’s only within the last few years that I’ve been trying to figure out why I do what I do and feel what I feel, and some of the answers I’ve come to in the last couple of months are epiphanies for me, and I’m twenty years older than the narrator of this book.

Christopher is a fifteen-year-old boy with autism who lives in Swindon. He’s writing a mystery story because the dog across the street got stabbed with a garden fork (which I imagine we have a different name for in the United States). The mystery is only the beginning of the book, though; halfway through the mystery is solved and we skew into a less-genre-specific, more generic journey/coming of age story. Christopher is being raised by his single working-class father, in a community that seems nice enough. Many Americans have a distorted perception of England because most of the media we get deals with the upper middle class or higher; it can be difficult for us to imagine rednecks with British accents, but they’re there. They just call them by names other than redneck.

Mr Jeavons said that I was a very clever boy.

I said that I wasn’t clever. I was just noticing how things were, and that wasn’t clever. That was just being observant. Being clever was when you looked at how things were and used the evidence to work out something new. Like the universe expanding, or who committed a murder. Or if you see someone’s name and you give each letter a value from 1 to 26 (a=1, b=2, etc) and you add the numbers up in your head and you find that it makes a prime number, like Jesus Christ (151), or Scooby-Doo (113), or Sherlock Holmes (163), or Doctor Watson (167).

Mr Jeavons asked me whether this made me feel safe, having things always in a nice order, and I said it did.

I play number games in my head too, but more often when I’m driving. Instead of multiplying as Christopher does, I factor. I’m very pleased with houses with numbers like 1326, because 26 is twice 13, which means that 1326 is a multiple of 102, so it’s 26 x 51, which is 2 x 13 x 3 x 17, or 34 x 39. If you asked me off the cuff what is 34 x 39, I wouldn’t be able to say. But I play the game anyway. It keeps my brain occupied, so I don’t have to think about all the other gleaming silver death machines trying to kill me. Or the red death machine that I drive, which may also be trying to kill me.

Another difference between me and Christopher is our relation to static. He embraces it; the white noise covers the things he doesn’t want to hear or can’t process. I don’t. When I get overstimulated (either through external things or strong emotions), I hear a buzzing in my head similar to static. It’s a sign to me that I need to get out of the situation and be alone to deal with things. It’s often associated with feelings of embarrassment or shame. For me, static means my brain isn’t working right.

A more significant difference, though, is our relation to the truth. Christopher can’t handle any sort of lie, including fiction. I escaped into fiction throughout my childhood (and adulthood too, if I’m honest), so it’s the life I’m accustomed to. I can hold multiple truth values in my head simultaneously and respond to people using the worldview that they themselves ascribe to. It’s convenient for getting along with different types of people, but it also keeps me from facing the question of what I really believe. And I’m not surprised when people lie to me, and sometimes I’m not even hurt by it. Like Mr Labor Day, who I’ve been thinking of again. He probably lied about nearly everything he told me because he didn’t want to start a committed relationship that night. The different things he said just don’t fit together. That being said, if I were to see him again, I’d still be interested in dating/fucking him, and I still hope that he’s happy, wherever he is.

A tendency that I see in myself (that I find alarming) is how quickly I will lie about things. It’s very strange, but I’ve been given to understand that it’s fairly typical of people from abusive homes, even after they become adults. If there’s someone I don’t want to get close to, I will lie inexplicably. I will refuse to give him accurate information about myself. It’s one of the ways I protect myself. I’ve tried to adjust this by being vague but still truthful, but sometimes the lies fly out before I can stop them. And the ways that I have lied to myself, all in the name of protecting the ego, well. It’d be startling if it weren’t such a common thing.

So when Christopher discovers the ways that he’s been lied to, because his father wants to protect him, he goes completely off the rails, as only an adolescent with autism can. As I certainly would not have. I would have simply classed this as yet another thing that we know deep down to be true but that we don’t talk about, like the fact that my cousin’s husband who just died a few months back was her second husband and not the biological father of her first child. Or the way that I figured out pretty early on that what we accept to be true at church and what beliefs we build our real lives upon are often different and contradictory.

Perhaps one of the most fundamental differences between me and Christopher is that he has complete faith in his ability to save and protect himself, which I have never had. Even when there’s clear evidence that I am an intelligent and capable person who can handle and survive any situation that he’s placed in, it’s hard for me to believe it. It’s part of the upbringing that I still haven’t overcome: the fundamental belief that terrible things are going to happen, both in the world in general and to me specifically, and there’s nothing I can do to prevent them. In the end, I think it’s likely that Christopher has ruined the lives of all the people around him in his quest for self-actualization, but he doesn’t feel it. All he sees is that he’s brave and strong and going to succeed in life.

And that’s another hugely significant difference: he can only interpret the most basic emotional cues. Anything more nuanced than a happy grin or a sad frown is lost on him. He even sometimes imagines that all the people who can interpret emotions are dead and the world is left to him and his severely autistic friends, whom he is certain must exist somewhere out there. I’m the opposite. I pick up on everything. A therapist friend once explained that it’s a defense mechanism of kids in abusive homes; we become hyper aware of other people’s emotional states because that’s how you keep from getting beaten. At least I’m learning to be better about understanding which emotions are mine and which are other people’s.

Sometimes I catch my brain asking myself, “Are you okay? Are you okay?” over and over. I tell myself that I am, even though a book like this can make me question that conclusion. I had started reading Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, but it might be wise to put that one down for a bit.


  1. cathcarter says:

    “…the fundamental belief that terrible things are going to happen, both in the world in general and to me specifically, and there’s nothing I can do to prevent them.” Yup. I have long interior conversations geared to getting one voice, or part, to convince some of the other voices or parts that nothing actively terrible shows any signs of happening to me personally right now. But the shrinkers and shriekers and cowerers invariably point out, with some truth, that probably a lot of the refugees in the world told themselves exactly that, back when they had homes and blankets and loved ones around them…and now look. Earthquake!

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