If I say that after I finished reading Richard Powers’ Bewilderment in just three days I would have thrown it across the room had I been reading the hardcover edition and not an ebook, would it tell you what I thought of it?
(Forewarning: at the end of this post, I am deliberately and ruthessly going to spoil the end of the book, as well as that of another Powers novel.)
I got angry early.
His second pediatrician was keen to put Robin “on the spectrum.” I wanted to tell the man that everyone alive on this fluke little planet was on the spectrum. That’s what a spectrum is. I wanted to tell the man that life itself is a spectrum disorder, where each of us vibrated at some unique frequency in the continuous rainbow.
(The possibilities, we are told later, are “two [votes for] Asperger’s, one probable OCD, and one possible ADHD”.)
It’s somewhat common, in my experience, for actually-autistic people to have a deep loathing for the claim that we’re all a little “on the spectrum”. The neurological reality is that our brains are different, whether we want to call that a disorder or not. We are atypical because our brains are in the minority, which is what makes autism a thing we distinguish from other things.
To be fair, there’s a medical question here and then also a philosophical one. In a juster world, in many ways we would and could indeed not worry so much about specific pathologies (or about pathologizing specifics) and simply concern ourselves with making each individual’s life have the value they seek to give it.
But we don’t live in that world. We live in one designed by and for typical brains. By both the medical and social models, autism spectrum disorder is a disability. Flailing about “continuous rainbows” won’t, and can’t, change that.
A little further on, Powers’ narrator comes close to something more attuned to this reality, in a sense.
Watching medicine fail my child, I developed a crackpot theory: Life is something we need to stop correcting.
Unfortunately for all concerned, Powers’ narrator also denies that any doctor “can diagnose my son better than I can”. He just, he says, wants “some treatment short of drugs that will calm him down and get his principal off my back”. So much for not “correcting” life.
That said, Robin does have violent outbursts, toward himself and toward others. Eschewing pharmacology (or even, you know, diagnosis), Powers’ narrator agrees to let his son participate in some cutting-edge neurofeedback research, a decision which eventually leads to Robin training his brain to match the saved brain scan of what his dead mother felt as the feeling of “ecstasy”.
This is Powers’ version of what inspired his story: a “new neurofeedback technique” that made him wonder “what would happen if [it] could expand a person’s capacity for empathy”.
(“Suppose researchers perfected an empathy machine that could greatly magnify emotional intelligence?” he wrote in an author’s note included in advance copies of the novel, in which he recalls a nephew who “talked to ‘critters,’ but who flew into violent rages at the stupidity of humans” and who thusly failed to become “an accomplished … adult”.)
The problem here is that Robin doesn’t suffer from a lack of empathy. His biggest challenges (outside of things like being bullied at school) are ones of emotional regulation and impulse control. He’s acutely empathetic with the natural world around him and suffers at the world’s rapidly descending biodiversity and climate crises.
At one point, Powers’ narrator asserts that his child “struggled with grasping the minds of others”, but the novel itself doesn’t bear this out. Robin might sometimes express confusion about why people are the way they are, but he harbors no ignorance as to how they are. When one’s “restricted interest” happens to be the state of the natural world at the hands of one’s fellow human beings, this seems like the only relevant response.
Despite the narrator claiming that “after months of neural feedback, his empathy was surpassing mine”, Robin’s empathy seemingly remains unchanged. What changes is his behavior, as he’s now more capable of what the neuroscience researcher calls “self-control and resilience”.
Powers’ narrator often does not seem to know what, exactly, he wants for his son. This is made clear deep into his days with his changed son, who now is somewhat gregarious around strangers.
I want my son back. The one who knew that large bipeds were not to be trusted.
When the time comes that a conservative government shuts down the research project upon which Robin has come to depend, he feels that he is “going backwards”. As all the changes recede into the past, he turns to the narrator.
Dad? He sounded petrified. I don’t want to go back to being me.
Here’s what happens at the end of the book.
Powers’ narrator takes Robin camping. While visiting a river where Robin’s parents once swam before he was born, the two of them are distraught to find cairns interfering with the water’s flow, and so, too, with the river’s inhabitants. The river is too cold and some of the cairns too far across to reach as they work to take them down.
That night, Robin sneaks off. Powers’ narrator finds him atop a rock in the middle of the river, motionless and moaning. Pages later, Robin dies.
There are two more sentences at the end of the paragraph I quoted at the start of this post, about the narrator’s views about the idea of being “on the spectrum”, and the man telling him his son might be.
Then I wanted to punch him. I suppose there’s a name for that, too.
I wanted, by the end of Bewilderment, to punch it.
This is a book about a man who is so intractably opposed to medicine and psychology that he subjects his son to an experimental and unproven treatment that proceeds to turn Robin into someone else. He still has the same interests and the same concerns but he goes about addressing them in ways deemed more acceptable, more typically social. (And, even then, the narrator nonetheless has moments of wanting his son “back”.)
Powers’ narrator only briefly wonders about the potential impact of his son losing ongoing access to the treatment. No one is sure if his brain will adopt the changes permanently or lose them without continuing training. Robin, when he does lose access, is “petrified” of going “back to being me”.
Part of me wants to believe that Powers somehow is engaged here in a sort of book-length troll, playing devil’s advocate and waiting for people to tell him what happens here is devilish: the story here is of a parent who seeks to change his autistic child through an experimental treatment, in the end leaving his child scared to go back to being himself.
Once he does return to being himself, Robin dies.
What is the point here? What I am supposed to be getting out of this? Whose story is this meant to be? What does Powers mean for it to tell us?
The book wants to link Robin to autism spectrum disorder, but Powers cherry-picks the sort of autism he has so that he then can cherry-pick Robin’s symptoms so that he can cherry-pick a treatment—a treatment that mostly just makes Robin more palatable and amenable to neurotypical environments and, worse yet, makes him afraid of going back to how he was.
There are ways for autistic people to tackle the challenges of emotional regulation and impulse control that don’t involve turning them into neurotypical people, but the “enemy” here (such as there is one in a novel like this) appears to be autism itself.
Near the end of Powers’ Galatea 2.2, the novel’s artificial intelligence gives up. “This is an awful place,” she says, “to be dropped down halfway”.
Bewilderment appears to be Powers’ argument that being autistic is a bit like being artificial: dropped down halfway and so not worth the living.