John Elder Robison describes what it’s like for an Aspergian father to rear a similar son in Raising Cubby: A Father and Son’s Adventures with Asperger’s, Trains, Tractors, and High Explosives, an explosive new memoir. That’s not to suggest their relationship is especially fraught—quite the contrary. It does, however, involve dynamite.
Asperger’s syndrome may cause repetitive behaviors and obsessive interests, and John’s son Jack Robison, aka Cubby, got the chemistry bug early on. He built his first lab in his father’s basement and was detonating high explosives in the woods behind the house at 17. Experimentation almost led to incarceration: after being reported by an online equipment vendor and a subsequent investigation, Cubby was charged in Massachusetts Superior Court with three counts of malicious explosion, felonies carrying a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
“All [Cubby] could see was the purity of science,” John writes in Raising Cubby. “His inability to grasp others’ point of view was typical of people on the autism spectrum. It was a stark reminder of how powerfully Asperger’s had affected him, and how invisible to others those effects had been.”
Aspergians experience difficulties with communication and social interaction, from gauging others’ emotions to functioning within the parameters of society.
Cubby thinks he’s educating other by posting videos of his experiments online. The DA thinks he’s a potential terrorist. “He comes to the attention of some opportunistic public officials who think they can make an example of him,” Jack says.
Bookended by the ignition and ultimate resolution of Cubby’s criminal charges is an engrossing account of a father parenting a unique son from conception through young adulthood. It is poignant, insightful and funny—though John never knows which parts are funny until readers tell him (really). John wanted to offer an alternative to some of the other accounts of parenting autistic children he’d read, many authored by neurotypical mothers. “Those stories, even though they were certainly well-intentioned, portrayed heroic parents raising horribly crippled kids,” Robinson points out. “If you’re the kid in that story, how can you possibly feel good about that: what a horrible little monster you were…when you were a kid? I thought there was a need to tell a different side of the story, one that was funny and upbeat, about things that we could do, not just things we couldn’t do.”
John understood the difficulties his son would face all too well—the difficulties detailed in his first memoir, Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s. (He was encouraged to write the book by his brother Augusten Burroughs.) A high-school dropout and self-taught engineer, he built rocket-shooting guitars for KISS before settling down and building a successful luxury car restoration and resale business to support his young family.
He’s not the first father to feel like he’s tending a complicated machine without an instruction manual. Through trial and error, he attempts to get it right. “I tried to break down the situation and evaluate it logically, as I am wont to do. When you look at kid acquisition from the outside, the hidden joys of parenthood may escape you,” he writes.
Nevertheless, he is protective of his progeny from day one. At the hospital, he marks the baby’s foot with a Sharpie to ensure that the correct one is returned. “I never trusted authority. To me, the idea that the hospital would keep track of him was just ridiculous,” he writes. John has prosopagnosia (face blindness), which affects one to two percent of the general population and 30 to 40 percent of the autistic population—but still. “It was hard for me to know what other people might think,” he explains, “but I guess I could speculate that mothers who have read my stories about mothers might say things like, ‘Please, I could recognize my baby anywhere.’” To John, “that just sounds like the kind of thing a mother would say; I don’t know if it’s grounded in fact.”
Telltale ink aside, there’s little doubt that Cubby is his father’s son. When he comes head-to-head with the DA, his father is there to support and advocate for him. It’s left up to the grand jury to determine if Cubby is dangerous or just different—Asperger’s aside. As John puts it, “Using Asperger’s as a defense would be confessing to something he didn’t do and asking forgiveness.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @mlabrise.
Photograph of (l-r) John Elder Robison and Jack Robison courtesy of the author.