Thursday, June 2, 2011

House Rules: Boy with Asperger's syndrome on trial for murder

House Rules: A NovelHouse Rules, by Jodi Picoult
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I finished my June book group selection on the first day of June (not bad, eh?). I really enjoyed this Jodi Picoult novel about Jacob, an 18-year-old boy with Asperger's syndrome, who somehow finds himself on trial for murder.

Jacob, an amazingly bright young man, is obsessed with criminal science. For fun, he sets up crime scenes in his house for his mom to solve. His younger brother, Theo, is less amused. While Jacob knocks it out of the ballpark by memorizing lines from movies, the "CrimeBusters" TV show he loves, or scientific/mathematical facts, he lacks the ability to read between the lines, understand subtlety, and engage with others on an emotional level.

Typical of Picoult's novels, House Rules contains a court trial, a variety of characters' perspectives, and a few (small) twists at the end. As I mentioned to my husband, I am astounded at Picoult's amazing prolific catalog of novels, not to mention her exceptional research and preparation for her books. And they are well written, too! Here's an example of what I like about her writing--although somewhat dispassionate (being from Jacob's perspective), doesn't this describe the feeling one has after someone dies?:
"I would like to be able to tell her that, yes, now I get it. When someone dies, it feels like the hole in your gum when a tooth falls out. You can chew, you can eat, you have plenty of other teeth, but your tongue keeps going back to that empty place, where all the nerves are still a little raw."
Here are a few bits that feel a little "off" to me:
  • The mom, Emma's, character didn't always ring true for me. At times she comes across as an overprotective mom, and at other times she seems a little batty (the whole thing about the vaccine link to autism seemed like a sensational add-in that didn't quite fit). She only allows her sons to go on Web sites she prescreens, but she allows Jacob to stay out of the house at all hours without keeping track of where he is? She also seems completely insensitive to the difficult life Theo has to lead. And the other thing that baffled me was why, since she knew her son better than anyone else, why didn't she (or anyone else) just ask Jacob straight up if he did it.
  • The sudden return of Henry (the boy's father) also seemed a bit out of place. Was he just brought in to cause a bit of jealousy? For someone who had abandoned the family years ago and never really knew his sons--and also had a bit of Asperger's himself--why would he just show up to ostensibly help?
  • Prosecuting attorney Helen Sharp is just a bit too one-dimensionally evil and insensitive, and then there's the detective, Rich, who veers from making fun of Jacob's need for sensory breaks to being the one to help him when he panics...kind of like a bully who feels guilty about his actions.
  • I had to laugh at the stereotype of a young, inexperienced lawyer who essentially agrees to work for free. (Oliver shows his extreme naivete when he tells Emma to "relax" when Jacob is thrown in jail.)
On the other hand, I liked so much about this book as well, such as the way Picoult portrays the deep complications of parenting, especially special needs parenting:
"Real mothers wonder why (parenting) experts seem to have their acts together all the time when they themselves can barely keep their heads above the stormy seas of parenthood.

Real mothers don't just listen with humble embarrassment to the elderly lady who offers unsolicited advice in the checkout line when a child is throwing a tantrum. We take the child, dump him in the lady's cart, and say 'Great. Maybe you can do a better job.'
Real mothers know that it's okay to eat cold pizza for breakfast.
Real mothers admit it is easier to fail at this job than to succeed.

If parenting is the box of raisin bran, then real mothers know the ratio of flakes to fun is severely imbalanced. For every moment that your child confides in you, or tells you he loves you, or does something umprompted to to protect his brother that you happen to witness, there are many more moments of chaos, error, and self-doubt.

Real mothers may not speak the heresy, but they sometimes secretly wish they'd chosen something for breakfast other than this endless cereal.

Real mothers worry that other mothers will find that magic ring, whereas they'll be looking and looking for ages.

Rest easy, real mothers. The very fact that you worry about being a good mom means that you already are one."
Picoult detailed her in-depth research and sources for this book, including many kids with Asperger's and their parents. She describes the difficulty these kids have in making friends, and I note some crossovers to ADD/ADHD as well here:
"If you asked Jacob for a list of friends, he'd probably be able to give you that list. But if you asked those same kids for their lists, Jacob wouldn't be on them. His Asperger's leads him to mistake proximity for emotional connection."
At one point, Emma ponders that Jacob will never be able to understand love. I think she's just defining love in a "neurotypical" way here. But I believe the ending demonstrates that Jacob does indeed feel love and emotional connections. He just expresses them differently. I haven't loved all of Jodi Picoult's books, but I did enjoy this one.


  1. FYI, most autistic people who've read the book consider it to be HIGHLY offensive to us. It falls into the same parent-centric trap that characterizes so much of autism rhetoric.

    PLEASE don't consider this to be accurate.

  2. Thanks for your input. I'm aware that there is a huge spectrum of abilities and issues as part of autism.

    I'd be very curious to hear what about it you find offensive. I would certainly not consider it to be accurate--it's fiction.

  3. Try these links for a start: (I'm the anon above, BTW)

    Yes, it's fiction, but authors who cover real subjects such as a particular disability have an obligation to the people they're representing to be accurate and respectful, and Picoult clearly fails. I've yet to meet an autistic person who actually likes the representation in this book.

  4. Thanks, Sarah--you make your points very eloquently, and I can definitely see your perspective. I found Emma to be an annoying character, but I didn't think she was particularly whining about being the mom to a kid with autism. Instead, I thought she was playing the martyr. She in fact didn't seem to realize how much she had given up her own life's goals and joy to care for Jacob. I do not presume to understand what it's like to have autism, but I do understand the feeling of loss when your child is not what society would define as "normal."

    My oldest son was born extremely prematurely at 24 weeks, weighing 1 lb, 6 oz., and I still grieve for the loss of his normal birth and early years, not to mention what I had always hoped for him. In spite of his rough beginnings, he is doing very well at almost 15 (he has epilepsy, ADHD, and a few other health issues). I often wonder what his life would have been like if he had been born on time instead of early.

    I am always very interested in hearing what others think about books, so I really appreciate you sharing your perspective. I agree that the book was didactic and simplistic in many ways, and I can understand why you are concerned that it represents someone with autism in a stereotypical way. I believe that Picoult's intentions were good and certainly not "ableist," but her execution was imperfect at best. (Similar to Kathryn Stockett's portrayal of African-Americans in The Help.) Thanks again for sharing your blog and opening my mind a little!