It seems like so rarely do we see autism in fiction, and when it’s done as well as Living Through Charlie, one has to wonder at how much truth really lies behind the story. While it might have started out more like a memoir, author Rebecca Woods says it really ended up as a novel, “because real life, for the most part, isn’t as interesting as fiction.”
Living Through Charlie is a story about Meg, a mother with the perfect family picture in mind, but instead she struggles with coming to terms with accepting her son, who has Asperger’s, and herself.
Having raised two daughters with special needs, one with ADD and one with Asperger’s, readers might wonder if Meg is a reflection of the author herself. “My life isn’t that horrible, my experiences weren’t that way, and I wasn’t that self-destructive,” says Woods. “I would say that the emotions are true, and non-fictional, but the actual events are fiction.”
What Kirkus Review calls “an irreverent but stylish critique of a privileged social milieu,” Living Through Charlie is set in the mom-eat-mom world of private schools in southern California. “Private school is an interesting environment,” says Woods. “I thought it was a great environment in which to set this book because it’s such a microcosm of ‘mommy competition.’”
That being said, Living Through Charlie is not an attack on the private school system, but rather an observation based on some personal experience. Woods says, “I’ve been asked ‘is this book an indictment against private schools,’ and it is absolutely not. I think in the beginning of my child’s education, I was caught up in the ‘I live in Pasadena and these are the schools that children go to, these are the schools that indicate you are of a certain social strata, these are the uniforms you want, this is the license plate holder you want, and I think I lost sight of who my kids really were. Unfortunately it took a lot of trial and error before I figured it out. I would have done it completely differently from beginning to end.”
Because she could draw from some personal experience, the fiction in the book is more genuine and realistic than what you’d typically find in books about autism. “Any novel that I’ve ever read, and this goes for some memoirs too, about a mom of a child who is diagnosed with special needs — kid gets his diagnosis, mom mourns for a page and a half, and all of a sudden, she is like a champion and expert, and she’s testifying in front of Congress and fighting with school boards, she’s doing all of these things, and there never seems to be any self-doubt,” comments Woods. “There never seems to be a moment of ‘gosh, I really wish my kid didn’t have this,’ and I just don’t think that’s very realistic.”
Woods adds, “I think it is completely unrealistic to think that as soon as a mom moves into acceptance of her child’s diagnosis that she would never again look at another child, another family, or another mom and not feel envious. That she’d never think I could have done more or I’m doing something wrong.”
Woods writes in her blog that she often finds herself thinking WWABMD, or “what would anyone but me do?” Woods says it might be a good philosophy “before we get on the self-doubt, self-blame train,” and while moms might take a moment to think about what another person would do, they often in the end do “what a mom would do.” Woods adds, “I hope that special needs moms would find more compassion for themselves.”
Living Through Charlie might be fiction, but it offers that real support for special needs and neurotypical moms alike. “This book resonates with moms. Especially it resonates with special needs moms because these are experiences that they have felt, but moms who do not have special needs children also feel this sense of ‘mommy competition’ where we so overly identify with the accomplishments of our children that we are only as happy as our least happy child,” says Woods. “We can’t be truly settled until our children are settled. It doesn’t matter if a child is discriminated against for a disability or if your kid is on a regular soccer team and everyone else in the class gets to be on the club soccer team. It’s still this identity through our children.”
For moms of neurotypical children, “first I would want them to experience compassion and understanding,” says Woods. The definition of Asperger’s in the book is actually taken directly from the DSM-IV, “so there is a ‘textbook definition’ of Asperger’s in there,” says Woods. “Interestingly, when I started this book, I had to overly explain Asperger’s because people didn’t know what it was, and I think it’s a testament to how far we’ve come that it’s becoming a more commonly known term and I don’t have to over explain any more.”
While both of Woods’ girls are very high functioning, the book does provide support and advice special needs moms. “I think moms of special needs children have a great compassion for their children, but I don’t think they treat themselves as well,” she says. “I do hope she’ll see herself in this book and in Meg and not be so hard on herself.”
Living Through Charlie might just be the respite you need. What does Rebecca Woods read for fun? “I like funny books about dark topics,” she says, and while she didn’t really like the popular Fifty Shades of Grey, she raves about Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Room by Emma Donoghue, and The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta. As for Woods herself, she’s working on her second novel. “I’ve started and stopped three different things since Charlie was published, and I’ve settled now on a novel set in a Catholic girl’s high school,” says Woods. “I think I’m still a little obsessed with the private school environment and didn’t quite get away from that yet.” While Living Through Charlie might be her only novel about autism, Woods feels lucky that she can write what she wants.