This is the book everyone wanted to read after seeing the recent documentary, about Chris Packham where he ‘came clean’ about his Aspergers. I was one of them, having never really thought about the guy until this point, though he is controversial among the global hunting and shooting fraternities, which is always a plus in my book.
The TV programme demonstrated, rather like Odd Girl Out by Laura James, how someone with Aspergers can perform seemingly without nerves in front of a TV camera, but can struggle to live the life most ordinary. Chris was no exception, finding his love of animals easy to express, but his links with people rather more distant.
After years of not telling people about his condition, celebrity Chris decided to explain what it is like to really be him. Always feeling “a little bit weird”, Chris was not diagnosed with Aspergers, a form of autism, until his 40s, yet in many ways, the outsider’s unexplained sense of difference had defined his life when younger, led to curious fixations, and, sadly, two suicide attempts. Yet his deep connection with animals, while an Achilles heel, was also his healing balm.
Chris, according to his website, feels, given his media status, a duty to speak out, not as a representative for autistic people, who are, like everyone else, all individuals, but to portray their collective vulnerability, and difference, without wishing to ‘normalise’ because Aspergers is a large, though not defining, part of Chris. In the book and the programme, Chris appears totally honest and frank about himself and his condition. It is this refreshing honesty which presented the positives of Aspergers alongside the negatives. For example, Silicon Valley probably would not exist without a thriving community of extremely intelligent, highly-focused people with Aspergers. The programme includes a visit to America, where views on autism make Britain seem positively liberal.
I don’t want to give away too much about the book for those who haven’t yet read it. There’s a fair amount of experience and pain within the pages, and the language is at times dense; it is not an easy read in any sense of the word. Certainly, it took a while for me to get into it.
It is also quite difficult to empathise with protagonist Chris. Although the reader feels an engagement with him and an interest in his life outcomes, his motivations and actions are quite different to anything I’ve ever felt, making it enormously difficult to get into Chris’s skin. Part of reading a book is theoretically standing in the shoes of the other. We often imagine how we would feel as that person, how we would experience life as them. It is what makes characters important to us. I found this easier with Laura James’s book, perhaps because she is a woman with children, whose work involves writing and interviewing. It was much more familiar. Chris doesn’t make this so easy, but his life is far removed from anything I have experienced. I enjoy my own company, but his need for solitude is far over and above anything I can imagine bringing comfort. However, he makes the point in the book that loneliness is not being on your own; loneliness is being with a group of people, yet feeling disconnected.
By the end of the book, Chris’s sense of difference felt immense, a chasm my imagination could not breach. As a mother, I felt slightly sad at how difficult it must have been for his to reach him. I’d read the book yet still didn’t even vaguely know him, and suspect I never would. My adult self finds him likeable but my younger self would probably, like everyone else, have focused on his oddness, his sense of ‘weird’. Still I would call it an enlightening book.
If you read Chris’s story, ensure you also read the acknowledgements which, in this case, are a truly useful addition, providing further insight as a postscript, which is rather how I imagine his life to be.