Re: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night‐Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night‐Time is a prize‐winning piece of fiction by Mark Haddon which purports to be the true narrative diary of a 15‐year‐old boy called Christopher. Christopher evidently has Asperger Syndrome: this is never mentioned in the book, but the author confirms it elsewhere. I read the book on the recommendation of a friend. I give here firstly a Synopsis, secondly My thoughts as I read the book, and thirdly a Reflection. Spoiler alert: read no further if you don’t want to know the plot.

Synopsis

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.

Reflection

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 prominent 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 open 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
May 2004