Samuel Johnson Shortlist Q&A: Steve Silberman
Describe your book in one sentence?
NeuroTribes is a history of society's changing perceptions of autism and autistic people, ranging from the life of an 18th Century scientist on the spectrum, to the disastrous mother-blaming theories of psychiatrists in the mid-20th Century, to the modern "neurodiversity" movement fighting for the civil rights of people with atypical minds.
What drew you to this topic in the first place – was it your own desire to know more or that you wanted to shine a light on the issue for other people?
After writing an article about autism in Silicon Valley for Wired magazine called The Geek Syndrome in 2001, I noticed that while the world was having a rancorous argument about vaccines, autistic people and their families were dealing with much more basic problems, such as having access to education, support services, housing, health care, and training for employment. It struck me that society's obsession with finding alleged causes of autism -- which was consuming millions of dollars of scarce research funding every year -- was leaving autistic people and their loved ones out in the cold.
How do you go about your research? Can an author read too much into the subject matter?
I interviewed autistic people, their families, and prominent researchers and clinicians; I downloaded decades of case studies and papers (about 13 gigabytes in total); I hired translators to translate documents from foreign languages; I begged librarians to send me rare items from their archives; I spent four days with 70 people on the spectrum of all ages; and I turned my room into a library of autism, with books piled on every available surface, many of them out of print or otherwise scarce.
What book do you wish that you had written?
Kaddish and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg. But I'm glad I didn't have to live through the ordeals with his mother Naomi that enabled him to write the epic title poem, which is even better than Howl.
Do you read your reviews? How do you respond to them, good or bad? Any advice on how to deal with the bad?
I read my reviews obsessively, which I am told is a terrible idea by writers much wiser than I am. I only very rarely respond, thank goodness. It does perplex me that people insist upon negatively "reviewing" books they clearly haven't read, based on other people's blogs and whatnot. Why bother? Go outside and look at a flower instead.
If you were trapped on a desert island, which two books would you want to have with you and why?
I'll spare you the cheeky answer about a boat-building manual and a guide to celestial navigation, and offer instead two collections of wisdom that never passes its sell-by date: Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and The Blue Cliff Record, a compendium of Zen stories that dance at the sheer edge of what can be put into words.
What was the last book you read?
Barry Prizant and Tom Fields-Meyer's wonderfully sane and compassionate new book Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism, which makes a marvelous companion to my book. For parents and clinicians, it's like the practical application of the lessons of autism history that I explore in NeuroTribes.