This is a synopsis of the narrative of Christopher’s diary, turned into the 3rd person.
Christopher, an intelligent and difficult 15‐year‐old boy, lives in Swindon with Father. Mother died two years ago. In the garden of their neighbour and family friend Mrs Shears, Christopher discovers that Mrs Shears’s dog Wellington has just been killed with a garden fork. Mrs Shears assumes that Christopher is the culprit and calls the police. Christopher, terrified, hits a police officer and is cautioned. The family’s friendship with Mrs Shears ends.
Christopher makes door‐to‐door enquiries to find out who killed Wellington, despite being warned not to by Father, by the neighbours, and by his understanding Special Needs teacher Siobhan. He suspects Mr Shears, who separated from Mrs Shears two years ago. Father extracts from Christopher a string of promises designed to “stop this ridiculous bloody detective game”. Christopher interprets his promises narrowly, and his continued probing reveals that Mother had an affair with Mr Shears. Father stumbles upon Christopher’s diary in which all of this is recorded, reads it, is furious, confiscates the diary and bloodies Christopher’s face. Christopher readily accepts Father’s apology.
Christopher searches furtively in Father’s room to recover his diary, which he intends to be the text of a detective novel. He finds it together with many unopened letters addressed to him from Mother. Mother is not dead; Father has lied; Mother ran off with Mr Shears. Father is contrite and confesses the true position, which includes the fact that he fell out with Mrs Shears and killed Wellington.
This time Christopher does not accept Father’s apology. He reasons that Father, having lied and killed Wellington, could kill him next. Supported by his pet rat Toby and Father’s cash card, he embarks on a brave, resourceful, naïve and hair‐raising solo journey to Mother’s house in London, leaving a trail of pursuing carers in his wake. Mother leaves Mr Shears in order to look after him. He achieves grade A in A‐level mathematics. Father begins to regain his trust, and Christopher looks to his future with more confidence.
The book’s main interest, however, lies not in the story line but in its brilliant portrayal of Christopher’s eidetic memory, logical precision, obsessive focus, erratic behaviour under stress, and social fragility.
My thoughts as I read the book
These are some of my thoughts as I read the book, particularly about similarities and differences between Christopher and me. The numbers in the left margin are page numbers.
Christopher uses prime numbers for the chapter labels. If I were looking for an unconventional way of labelling chapters, I’d number them consecutively from 0. That’s the natural way to label any well‐ordered countable set.
Christopher likes murder mystery novels. I just don’t like fiction. You’ll see soon why this book is a rare exception.
When I’m scared I freeze, and so I could not have hit the policeman.
“Hearing three different pieces of music at the same time … is uncomfortable and confusing and not nice like white noise.” Yes. Even more uncomfortable, to me, is three or more people talking at the same time. The worst sound I know is the sound of perhaps 10 people talking at once, as at a party – too much information. But the sound of 30,000 people yelling at a football match is comfortable, as it’s white noise – no information.
“It was nice in the police cell.”
Only a few hours before I read this I had confessed, to the friend who recommended the book, that I thought I should be very content if I were in prison.
When I was a child, Mum sometimes sent me to my room for misbehaviour. I would content myself with a book, and when Mum found this out she realised that it was no punishment at all. So next time she sent me to my room, she added, “and no books!” I don’t remember this, but I am told I retorted through clenched teeth, “You can’t stop me thinking.”
“I don’t like proper novels, because they are lies about things that didn’t happen.”
In general I share Christopher’s difficulty in engaging with fiction. I am engaging with this piece of fiction by Mark Haddon, because I identify with his character Christopher.
I wouldn’t say that fiction generally consists of lies. Generally there is no intention to deceive. Rather, the author asserts neither truths nor falsehoods: he asserts nothing. To me that generally makes fiction pointless. I have written about this before, in my essay A person with Asperger Syndrome tries to understand Santa Claus, which I hope to add to this website soon.
“He said, ‘Leave it.’” That is so familiar to me. Dad said, “Drop it, Eric!”
“I said I wouldn’t mind things changing if I became an astronaut, for example.” As a child I shared the almost universal Asperger Syndrome boy’s love of astronomy. An adult visitor once asked me, “Eric, would you like to be the first man to go to the moon?” I pondered and replied, “No, but I’d like to be the first man to come back from the moon.”
“I said I couldn’t take orders.” I can, and as a child I could, and indeed I often felt at my most secure when it was my job to do as I was told.
There is a clear example here of my own social blindness. Siobhan says, “If she does hit you again, … come and tell me what she has done, or tell one of the other members of staff what she has done.” One of the other members of staff? Ah! So Siobhan is Christopher’s teacher.
When Siobhan was introduced on page 2, I felt lost because there was nothing to tell me who she was. And despite all the hints between pages 2 and 39, which are obvious to me on a second reading, I never gathered that she was a member of staff. I only knew she was a member of staff when that information could be not merely gathered, but deduced, in this case as an implication of the phrase “one of the other members of staff”.
“I do not like people I have never met before.” Knowing that I am to meet a new pupil is the most stressful part of my job as a driving instructor. I try to avoid knowing until the day of the first lesson. (Note added 2017: this was in 2004.)
Christopher recounts that he hated being on holiday in France “because if you went into a shop or a restaurant or on a beach you couldn’t understand what anyone was saying which was frightening.”
When I was 13, a boy in my school was unable to take his place on a school cruise to the Mediterranean, and I was offered his place at half price. I declined without even consulting my parents, to their bewilderment and disappointment. There was a second opportunity when I was 16, and I went reluctantly, pressed by my parents. I felt numb and lost and empty and homesick throughout, except when I was playing chess (I won the tournament) or practising my piano solo for the closing concert. At our first port (La Coruña in Spain), I refused to go ashore at first, which surprised even me because I was usually a very obedient child – and I was certainly a child at 16. I didn’t at the time think of it as fear or stress, but merely that going ashore was something that I very strongly wanted not to do. I thought, “At least now Mummy and Daddy will take me seriously the next time I tell them I really don’t want to do something.” The impasse was resolved by a very understanding teacher (Harold Weaver) who put it to me that I was needed: we had been arranged in groups of four, and the three other pupils in my group were too young to go on their own. The younger children made all the running and I just tagged along. We walked through a sign that said PROHIBIDO EL PASO. The younger children asked me what it meant and I said I didn’t know. Intellectually I obviously had a pretty good idea, in that the sign would have the same purport whether I guessed PASO to mean “pace” or “pass” or “path”, and I would have come up instantly with a good answer in any stress‐free context like a school examination, but the stress of being away from my parents and in a foreign land prevented me from recognising that knowledge or acting on it. This shows that my freezing under stress is not the same as erring on the side of caution. I would never have gone through on my own or led the way, but I followed. And the staff thought that the younger children were in safe hands, because I was excellent at my school work and no trouble and therefore they regarded me highly.
“Then, when I’ve got a degree in Maths, or Physics, or Maths and Physics, I will be able to get a job and earn lots of money and I will be able to pay someone who can look after me and cook my meals and wash my clothes, or I will get a lady to marry me and be my wife and she can look after me so I can have company and not be on my own.”
On one level it seems so bleak that a child should think like that. But at the same time Christopher has an understanding of his future needs that I never had as a young person. (Helped by his teacher?) It is really difficult for a man with Asperger Syndrome to look after himself, and my admiration goes out to Christopher for his insight in that regard.
Christopher says he smashes things when angry or confused. I could never have developed “active” behavioural problems like that because I wouldn’t have dared. Or perhaps I tried it once and never dared again. I did occasionally scream from frustration. But almost all my behavioural problems (and I have many, though they are undiagnosed) are “passive” ones: doing nothing when I should be acting, rather than doing things I shouldn’t.
“Father put his head in his hands and said, ‘Jesus wept.’” Many a time my father responded to some socially inept comment of mine with the despairing words, “For crying out loud!” or “My conscience!”
“My memory is like a film.” Mine is more like a tape recorder. I remember, word for word, speech that I have heard or spoken or thought. Like Christopher, I remember it as an auditory stream complete with prosody, even when I cannot interpret the prosody. I have not got a good visual memory. I may however happen to notice some tiny visual detail; and if I recount it, that may give the impression that my visual memory is good.
Here is the first thing in the book that doesn’t ring true to me. Christopher tells of “imagining” himself in a submarine. I don’t think an intelligent and precise boy with Asperger Syndrome like Christopher would use such language. He would talk of “considering what it would be like” or “wishing he could do it”, these being modes of thought that, for a person with Asperger Syndrome, do not involve imagining. Christopher has already accurately described, on page 98, the difference between the imagery of a person with Asperger Syndrome and a neurotypical person:
“The pictures in my head are all pictures of things which really happened. But other people have pictures in their head of things that aren’t real and didn’t happen.”
I have written of this before, in my essay A person with Asperger Syndrome tries to imagine, which I hope to add to this website soon.
Christopher makes a map of the zoo from memory as a test. When I first went to the old Portobello School in Edinburgh at age 11, I made a map of the school. I did this not for fun or as a test, and certainly not from memory. I did it so that I could find my way from class to class, unable to recognise and therefore follow my classmates. Like many people with Asperger Syndrome I am partly face‐blind. (Note added 2017: that’s the “old” old building, replaced in 1964.)
Another, and a more blatant, example of my own social blindness. Christopher finds, hidden in his father’s bedroom, an unopened envelope addressed to him in what he recognises may be his mother’s handwriting. Only at that point did I see that his mother was not dead. I had missed all the clues, starting from Christopher not being allowed to visit her in hospital, and not attending her funeral. At least I tumbled to it before Christopher did.
Christopher reads one of his letters from Mother: “And that was when I started spending lots of time with Roger. I mean obviously we had always spent lots of time with Roger and Eileen.” Ah, I’ve got it. Roger, with whom Mother is living, is Mr Shears.
I dare say that was obvious to a neurotypical reader, but it was far from obvious to me. I quite understood that Mother had had an affair with Mr Shears; and I quite understood that Mother had separated, and that Mr Shears had separated, and that the two of them had separated at about the same time, two years before the diary entries. But still it never occurred to me that they might have separated to be with each other. Nor could it ever have occurred to me. Throughout my life, my understanding of the relationships between people around me has simply been what I have been told, and I was reading the book by the same token. I simply do not read human relationships. I do not even try. On the very odd occasions in the past when I have tried I have been bad at it, and apt to misunderstand: and I fear I could cause great embarrassment, conceivably even havoc, if I did or said anything based on such a misunderstanding. So I don’t make assumptions. For example, the friendly middle‐aged man and woman who have lived next door to me for the last 17 years are Brian and Morag Fleming, but on those facts alone I would never have assumed, without corroboration, that they are man and wife, rather than, say, brother and sister. For years I supposed they were man and wife, but I couldn’t trust that supposition or act upon it. Eventually I got corroboration. And I only remember Brian’s first name because I have just looked it up in the copy of the electoral roll that I keep in the house for such purposes. (Names have been changed to avoid embarrassing my kind neighbours.)
It seems to me that I should have to be very different indeed from the way I am, before I were equipped to judge how likely it was that Mother and Mr Shears had both separated in order to be with each other. I have no intuition, knowledge or experience to the point. I can name only two people whom I have personally known who, to my understanding, were unfaithful to spouse or partner, or left spouse or partner for another person. I must have known many, but I have no idea who they are. That does not seem strange to me, for I can’t think of any reason why I should want to ask anyone, and I can’t think of any reason why anyone would want to tell me.
“And he said, ‘I killed Wellington, Christopher.’” I didn’t see that coming either.
“I could see the constellation Orion. People say that Orion is called Orion because Orion was a hunter and the constellation looks like a hunter with a club and a bow and arrow. … But this is really silly because it is just stars, and you could join up the dots in any way you wanted. … And there aren’t any [separating] lines in space, so you could join bits of Orion to bits of Lepus or Taurus or Gemini and say that they were a constellation called The Bunch of Grapes or Jesus or The Bicycle.”
I have always seen this exactly the way that Christopher does. Like him, I have never seen any of the patterns in the constellations that I am meant to see.
“And the thought of going somewhere on my own was frightening.” Yes, young man. Isn’t it.
Christopher can see the railway station and yet has to ask how to get there. This reminds me of an incident in my own childhood. I was about 8. My school was on the corner of a block, and I lived 400 metres away close to the opposite corner of the same block. I walked to and from school. My parents had authorised two routes to and from school: the “front way”, via two sides of the block and the front gate of the school, and the “back way”, via the two other sides of the block and the back gate of the school. At the end of school one afternoon I came out of the back gate and was told, by a neighbour whom Mum had stationed there for the purpose, that I was to meet Mum urgently at the front gate. Now this took me right out of my comfort zone. My reasoning told me there should be a direct route round the corner (160 metres), but I had no confidence in such a route, having never explored that bit of road, nor been shown it. Instead, greatly anxious lest I might be doing the wrong thing, I hurried round the block (700 metres). And this was with a younger brother in tow, whose own idiosyncrasy lengthened our journey by a further 250 metres. It took us 25 minutes.
If that seems bizarre, consider the background. The only route I knew from the back gate to the front gate was through the school, but school rules forbade me from going back into the school after coming out. This left me feeling stranded and vulnerable. With my partial face blindness I did not recognise the neighbour, and so I hadn’t the confidence to ask her for help. I was responsible for my brother. The route round the corner, supposing it existed, passed the Secondary School, and there might be big boys there, and I was a natural target for bullies, and I could not predict how the big boys might react if we crossed “their” patch. Besides, I was not allowed to use routes that I had not been shown. Indeed Dad had explained to me that I should avoid unauthorised routes precisely because I could not know if they were safe. I can think of 3 previous occasions when Mum or Dad had told me off for using an unauthorised route. On one such occasion all I had done was cross to the other side of a quiet street to avoid a known bully (but I never told them that). My route home from my piano lesson each week, on my father’s instructions, was not the obvious 2‐mile bus journey, but a 5‐mile bus journey in the opposite direction round the same circular route including a wait at the terminus, to avoid crossing a road at each end.
I felt very hurt when Mum berated me for lack of common sense. I had done as I had been taught. I do not blame my parents: I was largely street dumb, and perhaps their rules were necessary for my own safety. But I do think that, in imposing those rules, my parents unwittingly tended to stifle what little geographical initiative I had.
So if I didn’t see it coming that Siobhan was a teacher, or that Mother was still alive, or that Mother had run off with Mr Shears, or that Father had killed Wellington, then what sort of things do I see coming? I’ll tell you. I saw Christopher’s joke coming, about there being at least one cow in Scotland, of which one side appears to be brown. I had heard the joke before in a different version. I saw it coming two pages earlier, when Christopher narrated that on Wednesday 15th June 1994 he saw 19 cows in a field, of which 15 were black and white and 4 were brown and white.
“And I asked the policeman, ‘How much does it cost to get a ticket for a train to London?’ And he said, ‘About 20 quid’. And I said, ‘Is that pounds?’”
I think I can shed some light on Christopher’s thought processes here. He actually knows that quid means “pounds”: he has no reasonable doubt about it. But he is uneasy with the expression. It is slang, his parents don’t use it, his teachers don’t use it, and he doesn’t use it. Indeed he has never heard it used by anyone he trusts. His unease is the greater as he is away from home. He is seeking not information, but reassurance.
I did essentially the same thing at age 16. I was on the school cruise already mentioned. We were in Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory, and I needed to know where the Post Office was. I approached a man who seemed to be a policeman. At least, his jacket and trousers and boots were those of a policeman. But he wore a policeman’s helmet, and I was used only to Scottish police who wore flat caps. I knew that English policemen wore helmets, but the only people I had ever seen wearing police helmets were policemen in books, policemen on television, and children dressed up as policemen. This put into my mind not reasonable doubt, but anxiety. And I, like Christopher, was away from home. So I asked the policeman, “Are you a policeman?” “Of course I’m a policeman,” he replied. I can still hear him say it. Reassured, I was then able to ask him where the Post Office was.
Wow! Christopher looking for his train! I dreamt this last night! I was Christopher!
Christopher is anatomically accurate when he recites what he did in the toilet. When I was perhaps 10 and had what we called in our house “a sore tummy”, a guest of my parents asked me, “Have you got a sore stomach, Eric?” I replied, in front of my embarrassed parents, “It’s not my stomach: it’s my intestines.”
“And it’s best if you know a good thing is going to happen, like an eclipse or getting a microscope for Christmas. And it’s bad if you know a bad thing is going to happen, like having a filling or going to France. But I think it is worst if you don’t know whether it is a good thing or a bad thing which is going to happen.” Yes, I came to that conclusion myself when I was about 4. I cannot bear to watch recorded highlights of a Hearts match on Sportscene if I do not already know whether they won or lost.
“Whenever I thought about the future I couldn’t see anything clearly in my head and that made a panic start.” With me it’s not a panic but a paralysis. I think that’s why I can’t plan.
“And then I will get a First Class Honours Degree and I will become a scientist. And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own, and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington? and I found my mother and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.”
I’m proud of you, Christopher. I’m so proud of you.
This has been a wonderful book for me. The friend who recommended it wondered if I might find it childish, but I didn’t at all: just my level, in fact. For the first time, I know what people mean when they talk about identifying with a character. I identified with Christopher from the moment I saw his puzzlement with the cartoon faces on page 2. I got so angry with his father! When he was reunited with his mother I cried. I felt very, very relieved that his Swiss Army Knife never got used as a weapon. I had never believed that I could respond to a piece of fiction in that way.
My behavioural problems have never been anything like as severe as Christopher’s. I believe this is because of early strict training. That early training largely eliminated unsocial behaviour, but did nothing to replace it with social behaviour. That was partly patched by therapy in my early 20s. Thus when Christopher is stressed, he is disruptive: when I am stressed, I freeze. Also I am not nearly as competent visually as Christopher is. But, apart from visual matters, my thought processes are identical to his. All the little classic mathematical puzzles that he considers, I considered myself as a child, mostly in bed as other people might count sheep. And I considered other such puzzles that I have never encountered outside my head, but which must have been considered by many such children, and some of which could conceivably become classics if I or anyone else troubled to publish them. When Christopher mentions that he reached the number 33,554,432 by repeated doubling, I recognise the number (225) because I, too, visited it as a child. Christopher’s actions in dealing with parents who he felt didn’t understand him are closely mirrored not in my childhood actions, but certainly in my childhood fantasies. The enormous detail that he observes and recounts with no social significance; the offhand way he recounts detail that has enormous social significance without his realising it; his compulsive truth‐telling; his use of socially unacceptable language; his talking of his own savant abilities with no hint of modesty; his going off at a tangent; his erudite asides; his systemising of figures of speech; his discomfort with metaphor and slang; his dislike of fiction; his fear of being touched; his helplessness in unstructured situations; his inability to cope with unscheduled change; his failure to function properly under stress; his geographical naïveté; the painstaking rational thought that precedes his every action, and his awareness of it; his literal acceptance of all he is told, and his absorption of it into his knowledge base subject only to a consistency check; his absorption of highly charged matters like marital infidelity without emotional response: all these things dominated my world when I was a child, and they largely dominate it still.
There may be many lessons in the book for adults caring for children with Asperger Syndrome: but, to me, one lesson stands out. Never tell a child with Asperger Syndrome an untruth. Don’t tell him a story without making it clear that it is a story. Don’t lead him to believe in Santa Claus, no matter how young he is. Don’t say, “I’m popping out to the newsagent” if you mean you’re going to the doctor for antidepressants. A white lie may serve a useful social purpose between neurotypical people, but its usefulness depends on the speaker’s ability to predict the hearer’s response to the false information. An Asperger Syndrome child’s honest response to false information is utterly unpredictable to anyone outside his Platonic world, and can cause untold havoc. Further, if he finds out that he was fed false information by a carer, then his fragile and painstakingly built trust in that carer is shattered.
I was scheduled to teach two driving pupils today (21 May 2004) for 2 hours each. I cut them both to an hour. Sometimes I have to do that, when I feel I just cannot cope. Today it may be largely because I am playing in a concert tonight and I need to deal with things one at a time. But I think that also it has been partly because I needed a rest from the emotional exercise of reading that book, an emotional exercise of a kind that I have so little experience of.
There’s just one thing I don’t understand. Why does Mark Haddon omit Christopher’s apologetic footnote on page 28? You know, the footnote that read as follows:
*Actually Mother didn’t die at all: see page 141
(That is what is called a joke.)
Eric P Smith