Ron Suskind’s first book was “A Hope in the Unseen,” the story of an academically hungry boy from a troubled city high school applying to an Ivy League university. The boy, Cedric, referred to the people who thought his obstacles were insurmountable as “dream busters.”
Around the time the book was published (1998), Suskind and his wife learned that their second son, Owen, had autism. At the outset of “Life, Animated,” the author’s memoir of the family’s 20-year struggle to communicate with and create a meaningful life for Owen, Suskind recalls sitting on the floor against a cinder-block wall in his son’s new school for children with disabilities, observing the first day of class.
He finds himself lamenting the “wild-eyed expectations you carry around about your kids, especially when they’re young.” They could grow up to be a president, a Nobel Prize winner, a Super Bowl quarterback. “Or, more soberly, millionaire philanthropists or, at the very least, graduates of the finest colleges.”
Sitting in the classroom, he systematically reviews which of these dreams might be realized for Owen: “Best way to figure that is to extract them, one by one, and smash them in the corner.”
That’s a natural reaction for a parent of a child with developmental disorders. Yet “Life, Animated,” like that first book, turns out to be a story of hope.
As a child, Owen was transfixed by Disney’s animated films. He watched them over and over, rewinding favorite scenes, from the classics (“Dumbo”) to the also-rans (“Home on the Range”). Mumbling to himself, the otherwise noncommunicative boy was quietly practicing lines of dialogue.
His mother, Cornelia, was one day startled to realize that Owen’s apparent gibberish — what the Suskinds heard as “bootylyzwitten” — was the key message of “Beauty and the Beast”: “beauty lies within.”
“Could he actually be understanding what he’s watching?” Suskind asks his wife.
That epiphany triggers an intensive, years-long course of “treatment” in which the family helps Owen learn to express himself through the fables of the animation world. Walt Disney, Suskind writes, instructed his early animators to create scenes “so vivid and clear that they can be understood with the sound off.” It is, Owen’s parents come to realize, “a dream portal for those who struggle with auditory processing.”
Remarkably, given Disney’s well-documented proprietary control over its titles and characters, Suskind claims in an author’s note that the studio “agreed to exert no influence whatsoever” over the story he wanted to tell. Surely there’s a Disney lawyer who will grab for the phone when the author jokes how it sometimes felt like Disney had “kidnapped” his son, or how the company’s product was designated a “controlled substance” in the Suskind house after a young Owen begins losing sleep to secret late-night movie marathons.
Suskind, currently the senior fellow at Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, has encountered some controversy over allegations in his recent bestsellers about the Bush and Obama administrations. “Life, Animated,” for all the emotional uplift of its group singalongs, occasionally hits an off note. The re-created dialogue sometimes seems too idealized, and Suskind’s claim that cynicism “simply doesn’t exist in autism” — which may well be so for Owen — doesn’t quite ring true as a generalized statement of fact.
But there is no denying the beauty of Owen’s affinity for his favorite movie sidekicks — Baloo the good-natured bear and Iago the wisecracking parrot and Merlin the kindly, absent-minded wizard. As Owen seems to grasp intuitively, the supporting players are often more deeply drawn than the heroes, containing multitudes — “confusions, frailties, foolishness, pride, vanity, and hard-won, often reluctantly learned, insights. The spectrum of complex human emotions is housed with the sidekicks.”
When the Suskinds ask a favor of the veteran Disney voice actor Jonathan Freeman, he phones on Owen’s 19th birthday. Freeman, the voice of the dastardly Jafar in “Aladdin,” engages Owen in a discussion about why he loves that particular movie. It’s about good and evil, right? Freeman suggests.
“Umm. Sort of,” Owen replies. “I think it’s about more than that.” After a thoughtful pause, he continues: “I think it’s about finally accepting who you really are. And being okay with that.”
But if Owen’s story ties up nicely, it’s not always so tidy for some of his peers. During a Disney movie night with Owen’s friends at a transitional boarding school on Cape Cod, one young man says he identifies with Pinocchio, because he was “born with wooden eyes.”
“I’ve always dreamed of feeling what real boys feel,” he says.
His movie should have a happy ending, too.
James Sullivan, author of four books, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.