Feature

A life of strange obsessions

Throughout his childhood, Tim Page

Throughout his childhood, Tim Page’s bizarre inner life confounded him, his teachers, and his parents. Decades later, his condition finally was granted a name.

My second-grade teacher never liked me much, and one assignment I turned in annoyed her so extravagantly that the red pencil with which she scrawled “See me!” broke through the lined paper. Our class had been asked to write about a recent field trip, and, as was so often the case in those days, I had noticed the wrong things:

“Well, we went to Boston, Mass., through the town of Warrenville, Conn., on Route 44A. It was very pretty and there was a church that reminded me of pictures of Russia from our book that is published by Time-Life. We arrived in Boston at 9:17. At 11 we went on a big tour of Boston on Gray Line 43, made by the Superior Bus Company like School Bus Six, which goes down Hunting Lodge Road where Maria lives and then on to Separatist Road and then to South Eagleville before it comes to our school. We saw lots of good things like the Boston Massacre site. The tour ended at 1:05. Before I knew it we were going home. We went through Warrenville again but it was too dark to see much.”

It is an unconventional but hardly unobservant report. In truth, I didn’t care one bit about Boston on that spring day in 1963. Instead, I wanted to learn about Warrenville, a village a few miles northeast of the town of Mansfield, Conn., where we were then living. I had memorized the map of Mansfield, and knew all the school-bus routes by heart—a litany I would sing out to anybody I could corner. But Warrenville was in the town of Ashford, for which I had no guide, and I remember the blissful sense of resolution I felt when I certified that Route 44A crossed Route 89 in the town center, for I had long hypothesized that they might meet there. Of such joys and pains was my childhood composed.

I received a grade of “Unsatisfactory” in Social Development from the Mansfield Public Schools that year. I did not work to the best of my ability, did not show neatness and care in assignments, did not cooperate with the group, and did not exercise self-control. About the only positive assessment was that I worked well independently. Of course: Then as now, it was all that I could do.

In the years since the phrase became a cliché, I have received any number of compliments for my supposed ability to “think outside the box.” Actually, it has been a struggle for me to perceive just what these “boxes” were—why they were there, why other people regarded them as important, where their borderlines might be, how to live safely within and without them. My efforts have been only partly successful: After 52 years, I am left with the melancholy sensation that my life has been spent in a perpetual state of parallel play, alongside, but distinctly apart from, the rest of humanity.

From early childhood, my memory was so acute and my wit so bleak that I was described as a genius—by my parents, by our neighbors, and even, on occasion, by the same teachers who gave me failing marks. I wrapped myself in this mantle, of course. But the explanation made no sense. A genius at what? Were other “geniuses” so oblivious that they couldn’t easily tell right from left and idly wet their pants into adolescence? What accounted for my rages and frustrations, for the imperious contempt I showed to people who were in a position to do me harm? Although I delighted in younger children, whom I could instruct and gently dominate, and I was thrilled when I ran across an adult willing to discuss my pet subjects, I could establish no connection with most of my classmates. My pervasive childhood memory is an excruciating awareness of my own strangeness.

Despite their roseate talk, my parents and my school put a good deal of effort into finding out precisely what was wrong with me. And so, between the ages of 7 and 15, I was given glucose-tolerance tests, anti-seizure medications, electroencephalograms, and an occasional Mogadon to shut me down at night.

I suffered through a summer of Bible camp; exercise regimens were begun and abandoned; and the school even brought in a psychiatrist to grill me once a week. Somehow, every June, I was promoted to the next grade, having accomplished little to deserve it. Meanwhile, the more kindly homeroom teachers, knowing that I would be tormented on the playground, permitted me to spend recess periods indoors, where I memorized vast portions of the 1961 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia.

In my darker moods, I think that the rest of my life can be encapsulated in a single sentence: I grew up and grew into other preoccupations, some of which have served me well. I became a music critic and culture writer, first for New York’s SoHo News and then for The New York Times, Newsday, and The Washington Post. In the middle of all this, I became enamored of the American author Dawn Powell, whose life and works I absorbed in much the same manner I had the World Book, and I spent five years editing her novels, short stories, plays, diaries, and letters, and writing her first biography. This was simple, even fun; day-to-day existence was another matter.

In the fall of 2000, in the course of what had become a protracted effort to identify—and, if possible, alleviate—my lifelong unease, I was told that I had Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. I had never heard of the condition, which had been recognized by the American Psychiatric Association only six years earlier. Nevertheless, the diagnosis was one of those rare clinical confirmations which are met mostly with relief. Here, finally, was an objective explanation for some of my strengths and weaknesses, the simultaneous capacity for unbroken work and all-encompassing recall, linked inextricably to a driven, uncomfortable personality.

The syndrome was identified, in 1944, by Hans Asperger, a Viennese pediatrician, who wrote, “For success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential.” In his 1998 book, Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals, Tony Attwood observed, “The person with Asperger’s syndrome . . . is primarily viewed by other people as different because of their unusual quality of social behavior and conversation skills. For example, a woman with Asperger’s syndrome described how as a child she saw people moving into the house up the street, ran up to one of the new kids, and, instead of the conventional greeting and request of ‘Hi, you want to play?,’ proclaimed, ‘Nine times nine is equal to 81.’”

The Asperger’s spectrum ranges from people barely more abstracted than a stereotypical “absent-minded professor” to the full-blown, albeit highly functioning, autistic. We are informally referred to as “Aspies,” and if we are not very, very good at something we tend to do it very poorly. Little in life comes naturally—except for our random, inexplicable, and often uncontrollable gifts—and, even more than most children, we assemble our personalities unevenly, piece by piece, almost robotically, from models we admire.

So preoccupied are we with our inner imperatives that the outer world may overwhelm and confuse. What anguished pity I used to feel for piñatas at birthday parties, those papier-mâché donkeys with their amiable smiles about to be shattered by little brutes with bats. On at least one occasion, I begged for a stay of execution and eventually had to be taken home, weeping, convinced that I had just witnessed the braining of a new and sympathetic acquaintance.

Caring for inanimate objects came easily. Learning to make genuine connections with people—much as I desperately wanted them—was a bewildering process. “I despise the Beatles and their ilk,” this remarkably Blimpish young man proclaimed in a school paper shortly after the first Ed Sullivan show, when other boys my age were growing their hair long and learning to play the guitar. My favorite pop musician then was the Scottish comedian Harry Lauder, a star in vaudeville and music halls at the beginning of the last century, who told obscure jokes in brogue and sang through exaggerated hiccups in a state of pretend intoxication. The depth of my admiration for Lauder now baffles me as much as the steady diet of horehound drops I adopted as snack food, or my insistence, much of one autumn, that I wear a rabbit’s foot in each buttonhole of my shirt, which I kept tightly fastened up to the neck. But nobody could have persuaded me to abandon these quirks, and any attempt to do so would have been taken as a physical threat and reduced me to hysteria.

Oddly, the inanimate object that helped pull me into the human race was Emily Post’s book Etiquette, which I picked up in a moment of early-teen hippie scorn, fully intending to mock what I was sure would be an “uncool” justification of bourgeois rules and regulations. Instead, Post’s book offered clearly stated reasons for courtesy, gentility, and scrupulousness—reasons that I could respect, understand, and implement. It suggested ways to inaugurate conversations without launching into a lecture, reminded me of the importance of listening as well as speaking, and convinced me that manners, properly understood, existed to make other people feel comfortable, rather than (as I had suspected) to demonstrate the practitioner’s social superiority.

There is no cure for Asperger’s syndrome, however—though there is some question today whether it should be considered an affliction or merely a “difference.” A group called Aspies for Freedom runs a Web site that celebrates what it calls “neurodiversity,” arguing that there are advantages as well as disadvantages in an autistic condition.

I cannot pretend myself that Asperger’s has not made much of my existence miserable. I’ve transcended Lauder and horehounds, though, and my passions range now widely, if spottily, through any number of fields. Laughter, meditation, therapy, Valium, antidepressants, loyal and patient friends, a congenial work situation that allows me to spend much of my time alone—all these have helped me to carry on.

Besides, I am fairly used to myself now, and my symptoms bloom publicly only on rare occasions. Waiting for the check after a Washington lunch in 2005, I realized that it was both the 140th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination and exactly 40 years since the murderers of the Clutter family (In Cold Blood) were put to death in Kansas. I doubt that my companion was equally thrilled by this coincidence, especially when elaborated upon in such sudden, bursting detail in the middle of a lovely spring day, but at least I controlled the temptation to launch into a lengthy exculpation of John Wilkes Booth’s associate Mary Surratt. I count that as progress.

From a story originally published in The New Yorker. Adapted with permission of the author.

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