Understanding the author’s motivation is essential to a satisfactory memoir-reading experience. This is because once we know why the writer felt inspired to memorialize, we are better equipped to trace the narrator’s transformational trajectory as it is expressed between the front and back covers.
Mordecai and Me, published in 2003, was inspired by Montrealer Joel Yanofsky’s complicated relationship with Mordecai Richler, a literary icon who could win the prize as the Canadian writer we most love to hate. In that earlier memoir, the writer’s inspirations are clear. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Bad Animals.
The confusion begins with the prologue. Here Yanofsky describes — for nine pages — his lifelong love affair with books. We learn about his precocious literary tastes, his rejection of the television-heavy suburban reality of his childhood, and how he was once almost crushed by the weight of his obsession with the printed word. But it is not until the very end of the prologue that Yanofsky mentions what is supposed to be the theme of this memoir, a father’s education in autism.
As the book progresses, we do learn more about Yanofsky as the father of a child who is diagnosed as high-functioning on the autism spectrum. We hear about stims (repetitive self-stimulatory behaviors), we are privy to the tantrums and the endless and expensive therapy sessions that both Yanofsky and his amazingly patient wife Cynthia desperately hope will help young Jonah. There is ABA (applied behavioural analysis therapy) and RDI (relationship development intervention). There is an ever-changing cast of experts, consultants, educational shadows, teachers and school administrators, all of whom offer their definitive opinions about what’s best for Jonah. There are hurtful comments by strangers and friends that remain lodged in memory even though they would be better off forgotten. And there are the books — by doctors, by parents, and sometimes by people with autism.
Throughout it all, Yanofsky is nothing if not self-deprecating, willing to acknowledge his inability to act like an adult in the face of his son’s diagnosis, quick to chronicle his many failings as a husband and father, almost eager to point out that his own behavior, if evaluated by a social worker or psychologist, would likely fall into the autism spectrum.
But by the end of the book we are no closer to understanding Yanofsky’s journey as the father of an autistic child. Because while the writer is more than willing to expose his flaws, there is no sense that he has any desire to be transformed in any real way by his experience. Yes, he takes us on a tour of the therapies in vogue these days, and provides a handy bibliography of books and articles about autism and related subjects. But he himself remains at best grudgingly resigned to his fate.
The best insights in the memoir relate to Yanofsky’s career as a book reviewer. Given his passion for books, Yanofsky is most engaged and engaging when talking about the world of literature. Perhaps one day he’ll get a chance to publish a memoir about his life as a book reviewer. At least then, his inspiration would be obvious.
April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day.
B.A. Markus is a mother, writer and teacher. She knows a lot about tantrums (her own and others’).