Review: Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

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My foray into YA as an adult has been an interesting one–as a youngster I had not the slightest interest in books that were “age appropriate” for me, and instead opted for horror novels by Stephen King and V. C. Andrews, as well as any and every historical fiction book I could get my hands on, particularly ones set in Tudor England.  In an effort to better understand myself as an adult, I have read countless nonfiction books on Asperger’s and Autism–memoirs, handbooks, workbooks, clinical papers, nearly anything I could get my hands on.  Some were helpful, some were horrifying, and some absolutely saved my life because finally, finally my reality was being reflected in the written word.

MOCKINGBIRD at GoodreadsInitially, I didn’t really know what to expect from Mockingbird.  I hadn’t read any descriptions of it before selecting it as my first book review–I just really like birds, and I suppose the idea of a book named after an animal that mimics the sounds of other creatures was just inherently appealing to me.  Initially, it was definitely an enjoyable read, and I connected with it in some unexpected ways.  But it had some really significant problems, which made it clear to me that it was written by someone with only a cursory understanding of the Autism spectrum.  There were too many moments when the main character Caitlin’s behavior was too textbook, and the writing clearly reflected a preference for a clinical view of Autism spectrum conditions.

To her credit, Erskine did employ some interesting tools to convey the communicative differences and challenges of Aspies, though sometimes it felt like it was written particularly for a neurotypical audience.  In her inner dialogue, Caitlin always capitalizes things that are of importance or special significance to her.  Initially, this felt clunky and awkward to me, but I think it very aptly illustrates how much energy we Aspies must put into social interaction: Caitlin must Look At The Person, remember to respect Personal Space, Mind Her Manners, and even then, sometimes she still doesn’t Get It, or she fails to get her point across and someone else doesn’t Get It.  These are things that neurotypicals take for granted that we on the Autism spectrum must learn; even if they come easier to us after years of practice, it’s just not something that’s built into our wiring, and it’s so difficult to convey how exhausting it can be for us.

Although Caitlin is only eleven, she has experienced more than her fair share of sorrow.  Her mother died of cancer when she was younger, and her older brother was recently the victim of a school shooter.  Her father is attempting to pick up the pieces of their broken life; he struggles with his inability to connect with Caitlin in the way that he feels he should, and he seems like he wants to avoid her questions about Closure and how she should go about achieving it.  As someone who lost her father at the tender age of six, I felt like this was some sort of divine intervention, that the universe had somehow aligned to heal me with this story, to help me find my own sense of closure.  I mean really, what are the odds that I would pick a book with a young Autistic girl struggling to understand her own grief while grappling with her social difficulties, desperately searching for a way to feel safe again?

This is where it gets disappointing, and where it becomes very clear that the author preferenced the clinical research over the thoughts, feelings and writings of those who actually live on the Autism spectrum.  Suddenly, Caitlin is being “taught” empathy–it’s something she must “work on.”  It’s not something she actually has but has difficulty expressing; it’s something that must be taught to her, like eye contact and personal boundaries.  As if empathy and Autism are mutually exclusive.

Finally, in true inspiration porn-y fashion, Caitlin Gets It.  She “learns” empathy, and likes it: “Even though I didn’t think I’d like empathy it kind of creeps up on you and makes you feel all warm and glowy inside.  I don’t think I want to go back to life without empathy.”  This epiphany is so problematic because it doesn’t feel like her epiphany, it feels like the epiphany of organizations like Autism Speaks, who want to “cure” us–the epiphany that neurotypicals who fail to understand us want us to have.  The NTs who don’t understand how deeply and viscerally we feel, and how we must be selective about what we let in because it physically hurts to feel so much.

There’s a cathartic moment where Caitlin finally comprehends her grief on an intellectual level well enough to express it in words:

“I can’t stop crying […] because of what happened to Devon.  Because his life got taken away and he can’t do anything and he can’t be happy or proud or live or love.”

It’s a really beautiful, touching moment, and it so closely reflected the moment where I processed my father’s death on an intellectual level that I began crying myself.

Until I read the next sentence.

She begins to laugh, and her father, puzzled, attempts to console her.  She Looks At The Person and says:

“I’m not crying for ME! […] I’m crying for Devon because I feel bad for HIM!  Isn’t that empathy?  I’m feeling for HIM instead of me!”

Just wait, his response makes it even worse:

Yes, he says, yes. Now you know what it’s like to feel for other people.

Excuse me while I go light myself on fire.

This book was awarded the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.  It was not without its merits, and it was fairly well-written.  But as well intentioned as it might have been, it was clearly written by someone with almost no understanding of what Aspies are really like–it was written by and for a neurotypical audience.  As an Aspie, I’m bombarded with ableist microaggressions each and every day: the benevolent arrogance of doctors who keep pushing me and pushing me to take psychotropic medications to help “manage” my condition, when I’ve been run through the gambit of SSRIs, SNRIs, and other mood altering drugs, and all they do is wreak havoc on my already sensitive system; former friends who won’t vaccinate their children because they’re afraid of “diseases” like Autism and ADD, despite all medical evidence to the contrary, because apparently a dead child is better than someone like me; family members who think it’s “scary” how Autism is “spreading,” even though it’s really not so much of an increase as it is better diagnostics and a better understanding of how it presents differently in across genders; and finally, friends who think I “just made up” my AS diagnosis because I want attention.

For once, it would have been nice to read something about Autism that didn’t end up being inspiration porn for neurotypicals, something to make them feel better about their belligerent attempts to force our square pegs into their round holes.  I think my dissatisfaction with the novel really speaks to the importance of having folks who actually live with and understand (or, you might even say, empathize with) our conditions write books and create worlds for us.  I would say that fighting for representation in any arena of life is an uphill battle (politics, media, etc.), but it is an important and worthwhile one.



About Author

Samantha Stanko

I have more pictures of my cats than I do friends on Facebook. I tie my shoelaces in bunny ears because I never learned how to loop, swoop & pull. I have this problem where I fall in love with fictional characters. I like to write about oppression, resistance and existence. Make me laugh and I'll love you forever. One day I will use my mutant Asperger's superpowers to set the world on fire.

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12 Comments

  1. Thanks for this review. Based on positive reviews that I’ve read and glowing feedback from students, I’d planned to use this novel in my fall Children’s Lit course. If I end up using it, I will put the novel into conversation with multiple reviews, including your critical reading of it. It complicates the discussion in some really important ways.

    As someone who’s not fully neurotypical but not on the spectrum, I am wondering whether perhaps there are multiple possible ways to represent someone with AS…? Are there different manifestations/combinations of AS characteristics?

    I get what you’re saying here about the problematic things in Mockingbird and will keep your review in mind as I read it. I do have that bigger question, though, especially since I’ve seen a number of reviews lately criticizing characters on the spectrum as too stereotypical.

    • Please keep in mind, Danielle, that most of the glowing reviews have, like the book itself, been written by people who are neurotypical. These reviewers may not have much understanding of autism and under those circumstances may not recognize stereotypes and inaccuracies or may be swayed by “inspiration porn.” If a person on the spectrum says that aspects of a book are offensive or hurtful, those concerns need to be respected and carry additional weight.

      Saying that persons on the spectrum “lack empathy” and repeatedly portraying us behaving in a callous or cruel manner can lead to the kind of mistreatment and exclusion that many of us, myself included, have endured over the years.

    • Yes, of course there is variety among autistic people. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that any possible portrayal of an autistic person is an accurate, well-realized character. It is extremely common for authors to write autistic characters that literally have every single possible characteristic–even though it doesn’t make sense that those characteristics would ALL exist in a single person. That is stereotypical representation, and as an autistic person I hate it. It’s turning us into a list of so-called symptoms instead of acknowledging us as complex individuals.

      TBF this book isn’t as bad as some books with this problem, but the character still didn’t feel quite real to me. Maybe that was the writing style, but whatever it was, it just didn’t click with me. But I actually think the bigger problem is in the regurgitation of myths like the “no empathy” myth, and the fact that the people around the autistic character are constantly trying to “fix” her, and this is presented as a good thing. I found that pretty upsetting to read, actually, to the point where I kind of glossed through much of the book after it became clear to me what the author was doing.

      BTW, hi to the blog writers. I’ve been following this blog for a while on Tumblr, but I don’t think I’ve ever commented before. I really enjoyed this post, as it encapsulates all of my frustrations with this book.

  2. I was in my late 60s before I ever heard of autism and learned that I was on the spectrum. I grew up long before there was such a thing as kidlit or young adult literature, so I’m finding these reviews very interesting. This one reminded me of trying to deal with the death of a close friend in a car crash years ago. On the inside, I was devastated. The pain was awful. But I’m one of those people who is very reluctant to reveal my emotions openly, so I can understand that, from the viewpoint of a neurotypical, I would probably have looked as if the death didn’t affect me at all. Books like Mockingbird foster that idea in a very damaging way.

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  5. The other reason for the capital letters, is that closure is also a computer term. In the closures, there are capital letters in the middle of the process in the examples I saw

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  7. Although I liked this book, I did think the portrayal of Asperger’s was stereotypical at times. I hadn’t noticed the empathy thing, but you make a good point.

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  9. I picked up this book to read to my kids specifically because it had a protagonist on the spectrum. We have discussed autism and AS before as a family, and I was hopeful that being able to immerse themselves in the inner minds of a child with AS might give them a better understanding of what it is like for their classmates with AS. I’m trying to the best I can to teach them about neurodiversity, but I’ll admit that I feel like I am stumbling through some of my explanations despite my best intentions.

    The short blurb on the inside cover noted that the main character’s brother was dead, but the fact that the book involved a school shooting threw me for a loop, and I ended up finishing the book on my own, as I felt very uncomfortable addressing the idea of school shootings with my 8 year old even though she was very engaged in the book. Upon finishing the book, I knew how I personally felt about the character of Caitlin and the book itself, but I was most interested to hear what those who actually have AS felt while reading the author’s portrayal of an AS kid. Was it well done? I really appreciate being able to find this blog and these reviews, and get a better feel for the areas of the book that were problematic in the portrayal of AS. So thank you.

    I can completely see after reading the review and these comments how the issue of empathy was mishandled. As a neurotypical adult reader I didn’t have the same initial read on the whole concept of “teaching” Caitlin empathy. I read it as her having always possessed empathy, but learning what neurotypicals meant when they said/interpreted the word, and how they expected empathy to be displayed. I was reading it more as a lesson for neurotypicals in empathy, in understanding, and a guide to why the neurotypical “rules of engagement” are exhaustively difficult for some spectrum kids to navigate. After reading these reviews I see how problematic the language is, especially when geared toward a younger audience. So thank you for writing this review. If you have any good suggestions for readings I will happily take them!

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