I borrowed a copy of To Siri With Love from a friend, so I could read it and opine on the controversy without financially supporting an author I’d heard was problematic. However, Amazon is now not allowing reviews by people who don’t have a “verified purchase” through Amazon. I currently live on only a few hundred dollars per month (on most months), but I purchased a copy just so I could leave a review on Amazon. I’m autistic, you see, and I think it is so important that autistic people endeavor to make themselves heard on the issues raised in this book.
Autistic voices are almost always overlooked, silenced, and dismissed. It’s a phenomenon embodied in this book, and in Amazon’s policing of its reviews in this case.
To Siri With Love had a deep impact on me. I was able to identify, not with the supposedly heartwarming and hilarious struggles of a mother trying to come to terms with a son who doesn’t live up to her standards, but with the struggles of an autistic child who is ignored, harassed, abused, and condescended to by a mother who cannot see what a wonderful person he is.
Gus is now 16 years old, and his mother still hasn’t—will obviously never—come to terms with the fact he’s autistic. Instead, Ms. Newman seeks to make her son into something he’s not. No matter how hard she tries, however, she can’t force him to be normal. Oh, woe is her.
There are parts of this book that were almost heartwarming. The author, time and time again, seemed as if she were just about to realize the errors of her ways, and accept her son for the amazing individual that he is.
Then she would ruin it by saying or doing something that made me want to curl up and cease to exist, because of how often I’ve had similar opinions and actions directed at me, and how badly they hurt.
It really sucks that a book that’s basically making fun of you—and everyone like you—for hundreds of pages can make it to a NYT Bestsellers’ List. And if I feel like that, I’d hate to know how Gus feels. Ms. Newman didn’t let Gus read the book, but I’m certain he understands her attitudes toward him more than she realizes.
I was born before autism was a diagnosis. I’m not certain when I first realized that I was different, though most of my childhood memories of interacting with others are marked by bullying, abuse and harassment. People constantly made fun of, tried to correct, or were angry at me for my behavior.
Any change in my daily routine or plans would spark a meltdown—an uncontrollable episode of anger and fear—which earned me mockery and rage from my parents. My peers sneered at my suggestions we write a dictionary of a made-up language, or compile a catalogue the local plants. They ridiculed my age-inappropriate toys. They wanted to play boring games like house, or tag, but when I tried to join in, I’d get all the rules wrong, and end up rejected, curled in the grass in a fetal position, sobbing.
It was decades before I figured out what I was doing incorrectly: nothing. I was just being autistic, in an allistic (non-autistic) world.
Those who rejected me never learned that lesson. They still haven’t. Allistic people can’t see that there’s nothing wrong with being autistic, or with autistic behavior.
I do understand that autistic people can be embarrassing or difficult to deal with, but 9 times out of 10, this would change if the allistic person would simply change their attitude and adherence to pointless ideals, and stop trying to get us to conform when our brains and bodies simply can’t.
To Siri With Love relates all these same experiences I had as a child, but not from the point of view of the child. Instead, it’s told from the standpoint of a mother who is fed up with her boring, weird, and difficult son.
Ms. Newman repeats over and over that she loves Gus. One gets the impression she’s trying to convince herself, or simply that she thinks stating it will make up for the fact that she doesn’t really love him that much (like those who prelude their racist statements and actions with “I’m not racist but…). Every time she states she loves her son, she follows it up with an anecdote that makes me want to weep, because of how clearly it demonstrates her contempt and dislike for Gus. Ms. Newman throws away her son’s toys—in which he obviously takes great comfort and joy—because she thinks a boy his age shouldn’t play with them anymore. She thinks the fact he enjoys Sesame Street is “alarming and frustrating”.
She steals and reads his phone when he’s texting with his friends because, in her words, “this is not a child who will ever have real friends,” and she’s just trying to protect him from people who are trying to use and hurt him (not seeing the irony). Her idea of friendship appears to be “people you go everywhere with”, “people who tease you” and “people you have healthy competitiveness with”. That makes sense, given the way she treats the son she supposedly loves: making fun of him and constantly comparing him to other mothers’ neurotypical sons.
She says all these things, even though she paints a picture of a son who is unerringly kind, genuinely likes people, and can discern when someone is being unkind.
Except, perhaps, when that person is his own mother. He doesn’t know any different, like a lot of abused kids.
Ms. Newman chuckles over her belief that Gus will never have a good career, or any sort of life at all, even though he already worked (as a child!) successfully as a doorman in their building—a job that was ultimately ended by ableism, not any fault of his own.
Ms. Newman rolls her eyes repeatedly throughout the book and states outright that her son is “boring”, because he likes to talk about ambulances, escalators, and trains. I can understand that you might find a hour-long monologue about trains boring, Ms. Newman. Autistic people often feel the same way about small talk, or endless discussions of pop culture, sports, and the best recipes for vegetable chips (unless one of those is a special interest). Please accept that you are every bit as boring as we are, sometimes.
And then there’s the outright eugenicist bent of this book.
Ms. Newman hates her son’s autism so much that she’s stated she plans on getting medical power of attorney so that she can have him forcibly sterilized. Ms. Newman, here is the answer to the question you posed in the pages: you cannot even consider sterilizing your son without sounding like an eugenicist, without being one. Yes, many eugenicists are supposedly “well-meaning” people…just like you.
I want everyone reading this book to be very clear in their mind that this is what eugenics looks like. Ms. Newman and her supporters try to justify themselves by saying someone like Gus would never be a good father. This is demonstrably not true; please speak to the autistic community, and to ME personally. I’m a mother, and my former partner—a man so much like Gus I cried through parts of this book— was also a loving and amazing companion to my daughter. You and your supporters say, “wouldn’t sterilizing him be better than an unwanted pregnancy?” If so, all children should be sterilized, because allistic people have more unwanted pregnancies than autistics.
Eugenicists always have justifications for their behavior, and Ms. Newman is no different. Let’s call a duck a duck, please. There’s no excuse for eugenics.
In her mind, Ms. Newman is only trying to protect her son from hurt with her repressive, shaming, and controlling behavior. However, autistic people know from experience that parents like these can be the biggest source of hurt in a child’s life.
As an autistic person, I’ve never understood why it is so important to allistic people that I act like them. If I want to play with my toys in public, or sing a song about my grocery list as I wheel my cart down the aisle, it is clearly not hurting them. In my mind, I’m expressing joy in being alive, or at the simple act of grocery shopping (as well as trying to remember my list, since I always forget something). However, I’ve been tailed by store personnel for this “suspicious” behavior.
I am a human being. I crave attention, love, and acceptance the same way anyone does. I have crushed so many of my loves, hopes, dreams and joys in an attempt to fit in.
After forty years, I can safely say it doesn’t work. I still don’t fit in.
So here is my advice to you, Ms. Newman: love the amazing son you have, not the allistic one you’ve spent 16 years mourning.
I’ll end this review with a couple quotes from the book:
Does he even understand that most people are not entranced by escalators? That he doesn’t see the world the way most others do? I’ve tried to approach the question a few times—“Do you know you are autistic?”—and he always acts like he doesn’t hear me. I want to understand what he’s thinking. Is he thinking? I keep trying.
Your son is thinking, Ms. Newman. He’s trying and trying to get through to you, to make you happy, to be good enough in your eyes. It’s tragic that he will obviously never succeed.
Do you know you are allistic, Ms. Newman? That not everyone is entranced by a tome vividly detailing emotional abuse? The autistic community is trying to tell you this, but you seem unwilling, or unable, to learn.
Through pain there is growth. I think about this all the time. Do I want my son to feel self-conscious and embarrassed? I do. Yes. Gus does not yet have self-awareness, and embarrassment is part of self-awareness. It is an acknowledgment that you live in a world where people may think differently than you do. Shame humbles and shame teaches.
Your son has self-awareness, Ms. Newman. I’m wondering if you do.
I don’t want you to feel self-conscious and embarrassed, because I don’t wish pain upon anyone. But I do want you to acknowledge that your son thinks differently than you…and that that’s okay. You don’t need to change that.
I want you to have the self-awareness to acknowledge that you are hurting your son—and all autists—deeply with your attitudes, and this book.
Just because you don’t understand autistics, doesn’t mean we don’t think. Just because we bore you, doesn’t mean we’re not intelligent or interesting. Just because you imagine a Benny Hill soundtrack to our lovemaking, doesn’t mean others won’t want to make love to us.
Just because you don’t see our value doesn’t mean we deserve to be sterilized, or worse.
You don’t need to shame and humble us out of our autism. Just let us be.
To the world, from all autistic people: please, for the love of God, just let us be.
Elizabeth is an author whose neurodiverse characters show a lot of agency, and have active inner lives. You can find her on Amazon.