The author and his son describe their family’s journey through autism as chronicled in the Oscar-nominated documentary Life, Animated.
Author Ron Suskind & Owen Suskind
Tavis: Ron Suskind is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author who has written some of America’s most important works of nonfiction. His latest bestseller, “Life Animated”, chronicles the 20-year struggle of he and his wife with their youngest son’s autism.
Owen’s inspirational story is the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary of the same name. Before we start our conversation with Ron and then later meet his son, Owen, first a clip from “Life Animated” directed by Oscar-winning director, Roger Ross Williams.
Tavis: I whispered to Ron when that clip was running that the people at Disney, Mr. Iger and company, must be loving you and Owen right now. Like who knew that Disney had the power — I mean, I’m a Disney fan — but who knew Disney had the power to do all of this?
Ron Suskind: Well, you know, look. I think they loved the way Owen interprets them for the world. I mean, you know, there was a book before the movie and they saw the way he sees them and how he sees more in them than often even the animators who made the characters.
And it’s a beautiful story about the power of movies, all kinds of movies, but certainly Disney movies in shaping who we are, who we become.
Tavis: You gave a bit of that — you answered this question to some degree, Ron, in that clip just now. But how did you process the minute you realized the power that these characters had in Owen’s life?
Suskind: Well, it was just kind of stunning, Tavis. I mean, you know, Owen’s about six and a half there when this happens with the Iago puppet. And he’s up to about a three-word sentence after just endless hours of therapy.
All of a sudden, I realize that he’s memorized 50 Disney movies and we speak in Disney dialog. You throw him a line, he’ll throw you back the next line. He can go for hours [laugh]. So all of a sudden, I’m like, “My God, we can communicate!”, but only in dialog.
So we began what we called the basement sessions. We played scenes night after night down in the basement. That’s over years, he gets his speech back, he learns to read larger by reading credits. And what we did in the basement was meditate really on big issues like the emergence of the hero.
You know, I mean, those days, my life, I’m interviewing presidents by day. By night, we’re thinking about the power of myth and fable and shaping who we are. And in a way, the basement conversations were the most real in terms of how political dialog is declined in this period.
Tavis: Yeah, sure. Nothing’s real these days, it seems. Or at least as it appears.
Suskind: We were in earlier stages of unreality then. Now we’re way down the path.
Tavis: What did this process teach you or reinforce for you — you tell me, Ron — about the power of fiction, given that you and I are nonfiction guys?
Suskind: You know, look, what it taught me was just the power of story, all kind of story. I mean, this thing between our ears, it’s a narrative machine. We don’t even remember facts unless it’s shaped into a narrative of some kind. And that’s what we’ve learned over the last 15 to 20 years in neuroscience.
Well, we were living here and saying, okay, so what sorts of stories shape us to understanding of courage or justice? We do that as nonfiction people, but now I saw that in fiction and nonfiction in a way, it’s all the same in the way this brain processes story.
As Owen often says, “All we are are stories. All we leave behind are our stories.” That made me a better journalist. You know, I appreciated story because it was the only way we could connect with the person we love so much.
Tavis: Did this experience, has this experience, has this revelation given you and your wife not just a new way to communicate with Owen, but a different way of seeing or understanding him? Am I putting too much on it?
Suskind: No, no. Absolutely. I mean, we’re told early on when he loses speech, when we’re told you have to support him for the next 50 years, 30 years after you’re dead, that sort of thing, don’t hope for much, we started to trim our hopes and losses, if you know what I mean, as any parent would.
And then after a time, we said wait a second. He changed, but we’re changing too and we’re being able to see what we couldn’t about lights hidden under bushel baskets, about things that maybe others miss. And as Walter, Owen’s older brother, says, “Owen is my best teacher”.
And that’s the twist of it all. Here we are, educated people with our graduate degrees. Owen ends up teaching us through his silence and in the days in which he emerges more than we could otherwise learn. As Cornelius says, “He helped us find our inner heroes to meet him where he lived.”
Tavis: I don’t know about you, but I want to meet Owen and we will do that in just a second. Before he takes his seat, though, next to his father, a clip from Owen discussing the Disney Club that he started.
Tavis: So, Owen, nice to meet you.
Owen Suskind: Nice to meet you too, Tavis.
Tavis: Shake your hand? Nice to meet you. Before I get to this Disney thing, there’s a question I’ve been burning to ask Owen and I wonder if I can.
Tavis: I hope I’m not speaking out of school here.
Ron: No, no.
Tavis: When I saw Donald Trump — oh, look at that face [laugh]. When I saw him mock this disabled reporter…
Ron: The New York Times guy.
Tavis: The New York Times guy. Did you see that? What did you think of that, Owen?
Owen: It was so horrible.
Ron: What did you say to me and Mom? You were saying to me that when you saw him do that, what’d you say about Donald Trump?
Owen: That he’s like Gaston.
Ron: From where?
Owen: From Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”.
Ron: Why is he like Gaston?
Owen: Because he’s handsome, but a mean bully.
Ron: And he mocks people.
Owen: He mocks people…
Ron: Who are disabled.
Ron: I mean, you know, Owen, you’ve been mocked sometimes as people with disabilities are.
Ron: How does that make you feel?
Owen: Really horrible.
Ron: Do you have something you want to tell Donald Trump if he was sitting where Tavis is right now? What would you tell Donald Trump if he was sitting right there?
Owen: That he should never make fun of anyone.
Tavis: Powerful. Do you have a favorite Disney movie, Disney character?
Owen: I love them all.
Tavis: Yeah. It’s hard to pick a winner.
Ron: Hard to pick one. It’s like picking a favorite child for Owen [laugh]. He doesn’t want to offend any of the others.
Tavis: Is there one that you watch the most?
Ron: What would you say are some of your favorites?
Owen: The big four. “The Little Mermaid”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “Aladdin” and “The Lion King”.
Ron: The big four.
Tavis: I love that [laugh]. The big four.
Ron: You want to do a voice for Tavis from one of them?
Owen: What if I do the sorcerer?
Ron: That’s a different one. That’s another one he loves called “Sword and the Stone”, 1963.
Tavis: Wow, you went back on that.
Ron: Merlin and Arthur, after they do the squirrel scene, there’s a scene. What happens in the squirrel scene? Arthur, the boy. Merlin’s, of course, the wizard.
Owen: The wizard.
Ron: And Arthur discovers what in that scene?
Owen: Love, and he says, “You know, I love this. This is a powerful thing.” “Greater than gravity?” “Why, yes, boy. I think it’s the greatest of all.”
Ron: Owen loves that scene.
Owen: Sure do.
Tavis: He has memorized all these movies.
Owen: I sure did.
Ron: Hundreds of hours. We’ve been doing them for years. There’s scenes, Tavis, that Owen embraces for events, for moments.
Ron: Like, you know, before he went off to college, this college program you’re going to see in Disney Club here, Owen brought his [inaudible] to watch “The Little Mermaid” and there was a scene — which scene did you do then that you showed us with Sebastian?
Owen: “It’s like any ordinary seal, Your Majesty. Children have got to be free to live their own lives.” “Like you always say, Sebastian?” “Mm-hm.” “Then I guess there’s just one problem left.” “And what’s that, Your Majesty?” “How much I’m going to miss her.”
Ron: And then Owen paused it and turned to me and Cornelia and says, “Are we going to be okay?” He’s leaving in the morning for college. And Cornelia says, “Yes, buddy, yes. We’re going to miss you terribly. That’s because we love you so much and that’s the way it ought to be.” He say, “Fine” and then he watched the rest of the movie.
I mean, but it’s a way to process the world through movies, which we all do some. He’s got to do it almost like no one else, with power.
Tavis: Not that it matters, but my favorite is — I’m a “Dumbo” guy.
Owen: I love “Dumbo”.
Tavis: You like “Dumbo”?
Tavis: High-five. I like that.
Ron: “Dumbo” is an amazing movie. I love that movie. I mean, what’s the big idea from “Dumbo”?
Owen: The inner ears.
Ron: Yeah. What’s your inner ears?
Owen: My art work.
Ron: It’s the compensatory abilities Owen talks about.
Ron: The thing that makes Dumbo different is his what?
Owen: His ears.
Ron: And his greatest what?
Tavis: I got to come to your house one day, man [laugh]. I’m inviting myself to dinner one day so I can just sit and be a part of these conversations. It really is arresting, though. It really is arresting to see what he takes from these films that so many of us even miss, even if we liked them.
Ron: Yeah. That’s the power of the story of “Life Animated”. The viewers sit there and say, “How can someone who is considered disabled…” Look, Owen seems like one in a million, 40 feet tall on the screen. He’s one of millions. How can he see so much more in these movies I’ve seen than I do? It reverses the equation.
So people say different, but not less, because look at that. Or maybe different and greater in areas of strength. That changes the way people see a world of folks like Owen and, in a way, themselves too.
Tavis: Before I close, how is the course coming along?
Ron: Disney Club. They have a Disney Club where he lives now, and Owen is still a fan of all of the great classics. You’ve moved on to some live action now, though, too.
Owen: Yeah, and others too.
Ron: Do you want to do a little bit of that — why don’t you do a little Michael — he broke up with a girlfriend…
Owen: No. But we’re still just friends. I have a million more…
Tavis: [laugh] I love that.
Ron: There’s more fish in the sea?
Tavis: There’s more out there. There’s more fish in the sea, right?
Ron: So at one point, Owen — you’ll love this, Tavis. Owen was working through that and he says, “There’s a movie I’m using.” Tell Michael Caine from “Batman”.
Owen: “Broken wings mend in time. One day Robin will fly again, I promise.” The late Michael Gough, now Michael Caine. “Why do we fall, sir?” “So that we can learn to pick ourselves up again.”
Tavis: Thank you, sir [laugh]. Every man who’s had his heart broken feels and appreciates that [laugh].
Owen: Moved on!
Tavis: But Owen says he’s moved on, though.
Ron: That’s right.
Tavis: I love it. Well, if you say that to yourself every day, eventually you can move on.
Ron: These themes are universal, every guy and with us on the couch.
Tavis: And a child shall lead them [laugh]. Congratulations on the nomination.
Tavis: Nice to have you both here.
Ron: Owen, you going to get up there on the red carpet in the Academy Awards? Are you excited about going to the Academy Awards?
Owen: Yeah, but I’m not an actor. I’m an artist being celebrated.
Tavis: Ooh, I can’t do no better than that. That’s it. Thank you for watching.
Owen: You’re welcome.
Tavis: Keep the faith [laugh]. He’s gone.
Ron: See you, buddy!
Tavis: Owen has left the building [laugh]. Owen has left the building. I love that man. He just got up and walked out [laugh].
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