‘To Siri With Love’: The tale of a mother, a son and a phone

  • Sunday, September 10, 2017 1:30am
  • Life

“To Siri With Love” by Judith Newman tells about her autistic son’s burgeoning relationship with machines. (Harper)

By Jamie Fisher / The Washington Post

Judith Newman’s twins, Gus and Henry, were born prematurely, after a difficult pregnancy. In the hospital, shortly after giving birth, Newman was visited by a friend, the editor of a parenting magazine. “She told me she knew immediately that Henry was extremely intelligent. She said nothing about Gus.”

When Gus reached 10 months, Newman began to acknowledge that something might be wrong. At a year and a half, he was more interested in acquiring the language of machines than of people. Newman joked to a friend, “I guess it’s good he’s a city child. Soon he’ll be doing car alarms, cars backfiring, buses emitting exhaust, drive-by shootings.”

When he did begin talking, he seemed to speak without full comprehension — wailing about elephants when he used the toilet or mimicking the sponsor credits on PBS. “I remember him at 4,” Newman writes, “running into my room at 3 a.m., for some reason screaming, ‘I don’t like whales!’ ” At age 6, Gus was diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum.

Newman’s memoir-in-essays, “To Siri With Love,” takes its name from her popular New York Times article about Gus and his unusual relationship with the Apple guide Siri, but readers expecting only an extended version of that essay will find much more. Newman is a gifted personal essayist, her warmth and wit recalling Nora Ephron’s. The result is a bracingly honest chronicle of life alongside an autistic family member.

For the many parents raising children with autism, the book offers both empathy and comic relief. But readers of all backgrounds will find it just as engaging. As Newman puts it: “It is a slice of life for one family, one kid. But I hope it seems sort of a slice of your life, too.”

There are, particularly in the early chapters, fillips of self-incrimination, which serve a double function in fleshing out the family’s character. (Besides Gus, we meet Newman’s husband — a retired opera singer — and smoothly entrepreneurial Henry.) But overall, Newman isn’t interested in explaining the ontology of Gus so much as she is interested — compellingly, magically — in Gus himself.

The book is organized into thematic sections. We learn about Gus’s love life, his job prospects, his precise knowledge of the subways, his affinity for cuddles. As a result, the book is less about decontextualized science than it is about intimacy. Chances are you, too, would much rather hear about Gus’s befuddled reaction to Simon Says than his mirror neurons.

An exemplary chapter, on traveling with Gus, punctuates screwball comedy with thoughtful melancholy. Newman explains that her son gets homesick not for people, but for things: snow globes and model trains, bedroom curtains and Disney paraphernalia.

She entices him to leave for a family trip to Orlando by sending him an email pretending to be Maleficent. “Dear Gus,” she writes in her fake persona, “Why don’t you and your mother drop by Disney World?” (“In my haste to write this email,” Newman admits, “I actually wrote, ‘Why don’t you and your mother drop by Israel?’”)

They make it to Orlando, but the villains aren’t around. Newman arranges for her son to attend a Cinderella breakfast, in hopes that one of the evil stepsisters might be there. The stepsisters are, but Gus’s preferred cereal is not. So it goes.

Newman’s narrative works on several levels. The point of the Orlando anecdote, for those readers churning through the book for helpful nuggets, is that children with autism may relate more easily to the emotions rendered so broadly by villains. But its strength lies in its full depiction of family life, and in Newman’s dry humor. “Autism awareness is all very well,” she concludes, “but the real point of this book is to make Cheerios available at Disney World.”

That humor helps to maintain a balance. The memoir is never sappy, but it is sometimes very sad, and Newman is unafraid to depict herself in an unflattering light, in all the hardest ways — not just in the easy “Broad City” gross-out moments, but in morally difficult thinking, as when she considers what will happen to Gus in sexual maturity. Gus was 14 when Newman was writing the book. “It is very hard to say this out loud,” Newman writes. “Let me try. I do not want Gus to have children. At least I’m pretty sure that’s what I want. Don’t I?”

Newman is proud that her son is a collector of noises, able to recognize the pitches of individual ambulances sight unseen. But she also knows that his talents, theoretically a point of connection, can isolate him in practice. Gus may have perfect pitch, but he spends his choir time in a corner making train noises.

Enter Siri. The voice-recognition software performs a wealth of functions for the autistic community: conversationalist, babysitter and elocution trainer. Like Disney animations, Siri provides a comforting commercial sameness. She has enabled Gus to have real, sustained conversations, albeit ones about turtles.

“To Siri with Love” is above all a close and wise portrait, Newman’s love letter not to technology but to her son. Newman has mixed feelings about Gus’s dependency on corporate products — the heightened schmaltz of cartoon emotions, the unreal universe of screens and canned voices.

But she has nothing but deep, wide love for Gus. “The screens may not be real life,” Newman concludes. “But just maybe they are providing scaffolding to help him create that life.”

To Siri With Love: A Mother, Her Son, and the Kindness of Machines

By Judith Newman

Harper. 221 pages. $26.99.

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