House Rules by Jodi Picoult (Washington Square Press, 2010)

 

On my first day as an Assistant Principal at John P. Stevens High School in Edison, a woman and her son walked into my office. The purpose of their visit, as the mother explained, was to introduce themselves to me and help reduce her son's anxiety about having a new assistant principal assigned to his grade level. Adam had a diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism that I had never heard of before. The mother briefly explained the characteristics of a person who has Asperger's and then encouraged Adam to introduce himself to me.

Fortunately, Adam and I had a lot in common which made our initial meeting more comfortable for both of us. At the moment his obsession was his religion, Judaism, and when he learned that not only was I Jewish, but that we shared the same rabbi, he began to relax and we were able to lay down bonds that would take us through our journey over the next two years of working together. People who have Asperger's often become consumed by a passion and this becomes a major force in their day to day living.

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However, when school started, I witnessed Adam's inability to form social bonds with his peers, and found it to be heartbreaking. On the first day of school I escorted Adam to the cafeteria at lunch time to help him find a group of teens who would invite him to sit at their table. Adam, a junior at the time, was shunned even by freshman students who quickly formed negative opinions of him by his flat affect in speaking and his lack of eye contact. Fortunately, the school librarian invited Adam to have lunch in the library every day, where after finishing his meal, he could assist her in completing library duties. This proved to be a fortuitous match, which led eventually to Adam pursuing a career in library science. Youngsters who have Asperger's frequently relate better to adults than they do to their peers. Thus, I was grateful to the librarian for her compassion and foresight in reaching out to Adam with his lunch time dilemma.

The driving force, clearly, in Adam's life was his mother, who was the primary mover in fighting for his rights, for the appropriate Individualized Educational Program (IEP) to be developed for Adam's educational development, and for Adam to learn to read social cues that neurotypical people take for granted in functioning in every day life. I viewed Adam's mother as one of the greatest parents I had ever met in her gentle way of informing the public of what Asperger's is and how to help people who have it. During my two years as Adam's Assistant Principal I witnessed tremendous growth in his ability to take part in school activities, contain his behavior in classes so that he was appropriate, and even to accepting hugs on occasion. But Adam's progress took tremendous effort on all of those who were part of his support system.

Adam was my first student diagnosed with Asperger's, but in my thirteen years as an administrator in Edison, I had the opportunity to work with several others. Fortunately, each child had great parents who worked cooperatively with the school system to insure the best experience possible for their children, who tend to be extremely intelligent, but unable to fit into the mainstream of society.

This has been a long introduction to a review of Jodi Picoult's fascinating novel, House Rules, which essentially portrays how a single mother deals with the effects of autism on her family, and how those who communicate differently are challenged by a justice system that does not understand how to accommodate for autistic citizens in a way that guarantees their First Amendment Rights are adhered to and respected. However, as I read House Rules I felt compelled to compare her main character, Jacob Hunt, who had Asperger's, with the youngsters with whom I had interacted over the years. Clearly, Picoult did copious research on what a person who has Asperger's endures on a daily basis, and created a compelling character about whom the story revolves.

The narration of House Rules is told through multiple character point of view from the five principal characters in the story. Emma Hunt is the mother of two sons; Jacob, an eighteen year old, who began life as a seemingly normal baby, but began to exhibit symptoms of Asperger's syndrome not long after receiving his inoculations, around the age of two. At that point Jacob began to withdraw from the world, exhibit behaviors such as stimming and flapping which are seen in those who are autistic. Jacob experienced uncontrollable meltdowns in public when he was overloaded with stimuli, such as bright lights, colors that he found emotionally upsetting, loud noises, and clothing that irritated his ultra-sensitive skin. By having Emma, Jacob, and her younger son, Theo tell the story from their points of view the reader is able to get a clearer picture of the effect of such episodes on each of the characters involved.

The other two characters who move the narration forward are Jacob's novice lawyer, Oliver Bond and Detective Rich Matson, the police officer whom Emma makes the mistake of trusting. By using these five characters to relay the story, Picoult succeeds in allowing the reader to see a range of perspectives in the events as they happen. The multiple character narration also keeps the plot moving at a rapid and heightened pace, keeping the reader turning the pages to see how the story will resolve.

Jacob's fixation during the course of the novel is forensic science. His hero is Dr. Henry Lee, the famous forensic giant who worked on the Jon Benet Ramsey case and the Nicole Brown Simpson case. Also, Jacob is obsessed with the show Crime Stoppers. Jacob must be home every day at 4:30 to watch the show and record the episodes in his notebooks, testing himself to see how quickly he can solve the cases before the program's conclusion. Even though he has viewed the episodes as many as twelve times each, watching Crime Stoppers is a necessary part of Jacob's daily schedule.

Jacob owns a police scanner, has a fingerprint detection set up in his bedroom, and frequently simulates crime scenes at home to test his mother to see if she can figure out the crime scene that he is imitating. He even insinuates himself into a police investigation early in the novel, helping the cops to figure out that a man found dead has succumbed to hypothermia. Jacob, clearly, is on his way to a successful career as a forensic scientist . . . that is until his social coach, a beautiful young graduate student named Jess, disappears and Jacob ends up being accused of the crime.

As Jacob is arrested for the crime and experiences the tribulations of the legal system, his mother is forced to fight with the police, Jacob's lawyer, and the judge handling the trial to make them understand that Jacob simply cannot be treated like other people. Emma's struggle with the system and fight for her son are what make House Rules an important book and tremendous social commentary on how America's justice system is going to have to adapt to human beings who are exhibiting atypical behaviors more and more in the contemporary world. The number of youngsters who are diagnosed as being “on the spectrum” is growing exponentially and schools are accommodating the needs of those children by opening special classrooms, studying techniques to help them learn, and providing early intervention programs by the time the children are pre-school age. What this shocking rise in autism means moving forward is that agencies such as law enforcement are going to have to put programs into place to help autistic people cope with a justice system that they may simply not understand, should they get into trouble.

In talking to Oliver, his lawyer, Jacob tries to explain what it is like to be autistic. He states, “When I first got my diagnosis, my mother was relieved, because she saw it as something that would be helpful. . .the diagnosis helped me get an IEP, which was great, but it also changed things in a bad way. . . I'm not autistic; I have autism. I also have brown hair and flat feet. So I don't understand why I'm always 'the kid with Asperger's.'” (p.482-83) Jacob just wants to be accepted by other kids, by his own brother, and even by his father, who abandoned the family when Emma's time became absorbed by caring for an autistic child.

Jodi Picoult has made her mark in contemporary literature by taking topics that are very much part of the social fabric of modern life, and creating novels that stimulate important discussions on how society must deal with issues, whether it is teen suicide, autism, organ transplants, or school shootings. Picoult's characters are, in a sense, “Everyman,” in that she successfully holds up a mirror to all of us to say, “Wherefore but the grace of God, go I.” Picoult is an author whose books readers feel compelled to share with others, and that is Picoult's intent and triumph as a writer of modern fiction.