Dear Judith Newman:
Clearly, you do not believe that your autistic son is a person.
In turn, I believe that you are a thief.
You have stolen your son’s story from him, opening windows with words on pages allowing perfect strangers to see carefully constructed caricatures set to a soundtrack of absurdity. You have robbed him of the right to craft his own narrative and reputation, laying bare and obscuring by turns whichever details he chooses.
Gus’ mantra may be “To Siri with Love” because perhaps you’ve proven yourself to be just like the Disney villains you briefly reference in your book.
Does your son know that between your pages you continually mock his struggles with communication, movement, and social connection, among a litany of other things? You render him a two-dimensional cartoon cutout, at best. It is also yet another solemn reminder that a friend of mine, Athena Lynn Michaels-Dillon, was right when she said, “It’s time to accept that they hate you.”
Who am I, you ask? I am like your son, the young man whose story you have co-opted in To Siri with Love.
I am a middle-aged autistic man: like your son might become, 30 years in the future.
Judith Newman, you’ve said that you wish to sterilize your son when he becomes 18 years old. When I reached that age, I struggled with bearing what Maya Angelou once called “the agony of an untold story” inside me. Mine was a tale of being mocked by the adults around me, mostly by the aunt who raised me between the ages of 12 and 18: repaid with physical and verbal abuse for my own communication, movement, and social connection struggles.
Unlike your son in To Siri with Love, I had no diagnosis growing up, not even a name for my brand of neurodivergence. Yet I did know subconsciously that my mind and neurology functioned “in ways that diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of ‘normal’” as another friend of mine, Nick Walker, put it. You see, back in the late 1980s when I was the same age as your son is now, “autistic” was not a label they readily handed to Black children assigned female at birth.
Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. Unlike what you clearly demonstrate towards your autistic son in your book To Siri with Love, I presume that you are a competent individual with agency.
Perhaps unlike your son, Judith Newman, I grew up being regarded as a socially inept bookworm with the all-too-familiar “gifted and weird” designation. “Smart in books, dumb in life,” was how my aunt taunted me, among a litany of other insults. When she spoke of me to others, it was in exaggerations and pejoratives paired with a “tsk-tsk” attitude and a lament of why I could not “just be normal.”
Ah, yes. “Normal.” That illusive thing that we autistics are supposed to aspire to be.
In the New York Times review of To Siri with Love, you are described as having mixed emotions about Gus’ dependency on “an unreal universe of screens and canned voices.” I could argue that technology with these features has a place in our world, providing useful services and access to ways in which people can have their needs met. Obviously Siri provides some things that your son finds valuable.
But the goal for autistics is to be “normal,” right? Or as Neurodivergent K, an activist and friend whom I deeply respect illuminates in her takedown of applied behavioral analysis, “indistinguishable from peers.”
Siri may be a nascent form of artificial intelligence. In To Siri with Love, they also become a chief character.
Judith Newman, I’ll ask you to consider a point. Curiously, the subtitle of your book also includes the phrase “the kindness of machines.” Even as an autistic adult healing from childhood abuse—or perhaps because of my need to heal—I craft fiction and poetry in which machines and non-human sentients exhibit kindness. Some of the autistic writers among my closest friends do the same thing. I imagine worlds in which organic sentients, non-organic sentients, and synthetic-organic amalgamated beings coexist in societies where all possess civil rights and are presumed competent, recognized as having agency, and given respect.
To Siri with Love could have been a meaningful, phenomenal tribute to your autistic son Gus finding ways to get his needs met through technology, provided you had his permission to share this narrative with the world. That’s how the New York Times reviewer attempts to portray your book, yet I strongly suspect you did not get his permission to tell his story.
After all, parents “own” their children, right? Especially autistic ones like him, like the child I was decades ago, who supposedly cannot be trusted to know ourselves and make decisions impacting our very lives!
As much as I’m tempted to tell you to go fuck yourself, Judith Newman, I have better things to do right now than continually hurl profanities at someone who likely does not view autistics like me as people in the first place.
In the meantime, I can only hope that your son Gus finds a way to escape your influence, assert his agency, and grow into a healthy human being. Perhaps then he will not be as scarred as I am, 30 years in the future.
I’ll end by saying “I’m praying for you.” Know that I grew up in an evangelical Christian culture where that phrase was weaponized in a passive-aggressive manner. Take that however you like.