When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind and his wife found out their son had autism, they were crushed by the fear that they couldn’t communicate. But they began to realize that he was learning to tell stories through Disney movies. The realization made Suskind ask, who decides what makes life truly meaningful? Suskind offers his Brief but Spectacular take on finding everyone's story.
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The fall of 1993, we arrive in D.C., my wife and I, Cornelia, and two lovely kids. And I’m the senior national affairs reporter for The Wall Street Journal.
Which I’ve got to kill people to get it. And I kill 10 guys to get the job, fabulous job.
The moment I arrive, we find out our son, our little guy, is autistic. He vanishes on us, that we have no way to talk to him, and it crushes us.
When we first heard the word autism, we were stunned. I said, you mean like “Rain Man,” like Dustin Hoffman in that movie? And the doctor says, “Well, maybe, but, you know, he speaks, and some of them never get their speech back.”
And that’s the last thing I heard in that appointment. That can’t be my son. It was. And our education was about to begin.
There’s no way to talk to him. He can’t even make his needs known. And we just watch him. And then, all of a sudden, it dawns in us, what’s he doing? He’s doing what we all do. Story. He’s watching the Disney animated movies, all the ones you know, “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King,” “Dumbo,” “Peter Pan. ”
He can’t really communicate. But, all of a sudden, in a moment, it dawns on us. He’s making sense of the world using these movies, just like we all do, as a mirror, as a map, as a vessel. That’s what we do with story.
We start playing out scenes night after night. We call them the basement sessions. We all play characters. First one, I’m Balou. Then I’m Merlin. Then I’m Mufasa. He learns to read by reading credits. He emerges as a unique autistic individual.
At that point, I’m interviewing presidents, you know? But the fact of the matter is, what’s happening in the basement as we meditate on the emergence of the hero, that’s the stuff that’s most meaningful in our life.
We realize, he’s memorized his movies, 50 Disney animated movies since “Snow White.” I go up to the room. How do I find a way back in? I grab a puppet, a puppet I know he loves, Iago, the evil psychic to the villain Jafar in “Aladdin.” You know this character, Gilbert Gottfried. Anyone can do his voice. It’s like a busted Cuisinart.
“Owen, Owen, how does it feel to be you?”
He turns to the puppet like he’s bumping into an old friend. He says- “Not good. I’m lonely. And I have no friends.”
And we talk for two, three minutes. It’s Iago and Owen back and forth. And then I hear him clear his throat. And then he says, “I love the way your foul little mind works.”
We begin to live inside of story. We live inside of characters, as our son Owen says, and now those characters live in us.
The key question, who decides what the meaningful life is? We saw the way the world looked at our son. And they looked at him long enough to look away.
Who decides what the meaningful life is? Is that a decision someone else makes for us? Some values? Some received wisdom? Some cultural decision-making happening from on high?
Well, clearly, they made a decision about him. Who decides what the meaningful life is?
I’m Ron Suskind. This is my Brief But Spectacular take on finding everybody’s story.