Rain man, by Leonore Fleischer, is in some ways a really good book. If it was not, nobody would have made a major movie from it. Methinks, she puts excellent character development into Charlie, the allistic (non-autistic) brother.
The way the people in the book respond to Raymond (“Rain Man”) is often an accurate portrayal of how society looks at autistic people and others who are different. The book also shows an institutionalized autistic man connecting to someone, and having some moments of success outside his institution. What is not to love, if you are autistic?
The book is problematic in the way it pictures autistics – I think the writer met one autistic person. But the writer have met a lot of allistic (non-autistic people in her life, and realistically portrays some of the ways people respond to us.
The psychologists tell Charlie (Rain Man’s younger brother) that Raymond (Rain Man) cannot connect to people, and that he has only two emotions: Fear-and non-fear. These “experts” also say Raymond lacks any motives, and could not lie because he has no motive to do so. They say he cannot love – that piece of him is missing. (I wonder if that is why some autism organizations have puzzle pieces as a symbol, but I digress.) He cannot connect to people.
But in the story Raymond is excited and stimulated when he wins at cards, and he has compassion when he sees his brother feeling shocked at striking out at baseball. He has emotions! When they asked Raymond about a bandaged (accidental) injury, he has enough of a motive to lie to the psychologists – he wants to protect his brother. He does have motives, he could lie, and he did connect with his brother!
At the end of the book Charlie tries to show the psychologists that his brother, Raymond, is capable of more than they thought. Yet the psychologists only say it was a fluke, and that they are still the people who know best what Raymond needs.
They were wrong about everything – And yet they still believe they know best. Not even evidence changed their prejudices.
And here is the rub: The story the book tells is not one which say the doctors are wrong, that the stereotypes of autism is wrong. The story shows Raymond breaking the stereotypes, but the writer still tells us the stereotypes are true – when Raymond did not act accordingly it was a fluke. That is the big issue that every autistic person whose opinion I ever heard on the story has against it. But I have a second problem with the story, which is equally bad in my mind.
At the end of the book, Charlie, after spending a week on the road with Raymond, takes his brother back to the institution and tells them Raymond belongs with him, Charlie.
There is one thing we have to get straight here: I am under no illusion that Charlie is a saint. If Charlie went for career guidance counselling, nobody would suggest nursing the disabled. But Charlie did bring out positive qualities in Rain Man in a week that the institute did not do in decades. Even when Charlie used Raymond for gambling, Charlie presumed his brother is (somewhat) competent.
In the meeting with the Institution staff, Charlie shows Raymond at his best – connecting with his brother, learning, doing things which the doctors said he’d never do.
The doctors then say that it does not change a thing – their opinion about Raymond and the care he needs is still the same. And at that spot, after a whole book frustrating autistics by convincing the world we are irreparably damaged goods – even while showing the opposite in Raymond’s actions – comes the part I really hate:
The institution staff knows how to bring out the worst in Raymond. And then they do it, for the simple reason of making a point – they want to prove he is too broken to leave the institution. To bring out the worst in humans, when you can help it, is heartless at best and evil at worst. (Charlie also, once or twice over the week, brought out Rain Man’s worst. But that was never his purpose, he simply did not understand his older brother’s needs.)
After putting the patient in an emotional state, they reason the very fact that the patient gets into such states is a reason why the patient is too broken to escape their care. And Charlie believes them. Raymond stays with the people who expect nothing good of him, who will bring out his worst simply to make a point.
Leonore Fleischer tells us this is the best we could offer the Raymonds of the world. Sorry, Leonore, I disagree.
Note: I never saw the movie based on this book, and thus I am not commenting, directly, on the movie.