The slyly funny, sweetly moving memoir of an unconventional dad’s relationship with his equally offbeat son—complete with fast cars, tall tales, homemade explosives, and a whole lot of fun and trouble
Misfit, truant, delinquent. John Robison was never a model child, and he wasn’t a model dad either. Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at the age of forty, he approached fatherhood as a series of logic puzzles and practical jokes. When his son, Cubby, asked, “Where did I come from?” John said he’d bought him at the Kid Store and that the salesman had cheated him by promising Cubby would “do all chores.” He read electrical engineering manuals to Cubby at bedtime. He told Cubby that wizards turned children into stone when they misbehaved.
Still, John got the basics right. He made sure Cubby never drank diesel fuel at the automobile repair shop he owns. And he gave him a life of adventure: By the time Cubby was ten, he’d steered a Coast Guard cutter, driven a freight locomotive, and run an antique Rolls Royce into a fence.
The one thing John couldn’t figure out was what to do when school authorities decided that Cubby was dumb and stubborn—the very same thing he had been told as a child. Did Cubby have Asperger’s too? The answer was unclear. One thing was clear, though: By the time he turned seventeen, Cubby had become a brilliant chemist—smart enough to make military-grade explosives and bring state and federal agents calling. Afterward, with Cubby facing up to sixty years in prison, both father and son were forced to take stock of their lives, finally coming to terms with being “on the spectrum” as both a challenge and a unique gift.
By turns tender, suspenseful, and hilarious, this is more than just the story of raising Cubby. It’s the story of a father and son who grow up together.
Several years ago, I taught a Grade Seven class that included a student from our Asperger’s class. During the year we were together, M called 911 on his mother because he felt that it was unfair that she tried to get him to take a bath. He took me aside and politely asked me to use a different colour of paper for photocopying because he found blue paper was highly distracting. He also discovered that girls were different creatures, and tried everything possible to gain the attention of the girl of his dreams. Sadly, teenaged girls can be heartbreakers, and he spent a good portion of the year in frustrated tears, asking his teachers to explain what he needed to do to gain her affection. For someone who had extreme difficulty in picking up on social cues, he read her discomfort and her refusal loud and clear.
I thought of M when reading John Robison’s book, and wished that I had a copy of this book to give to that teenaged boy. If nothing else, it would have provided reassurance that he was not alone, that there was always the possibility of love in his future … and that the struggle would never really end, even when he was a father himself. Robison’s book is a memoir of a father who loves his son very much. How he chose to demonstrate that may not have fit with our conventional ideas of parenting, but at the end of the day, he continues to give his son what he needs and always reminds Cubby that he is loved.
Robison has already outlined his own struggles in two prior books, and this is very much a book about the role between a parent and his son, Jack (nicknamed Cubby). What strikes you first and foremost is how differently Robison approaches his relationship with his newborn son. He refers to his son’s birth as his ‘hatching’, and in hospital, he marked his son’s foot with a Sharpie marker in order to ensure that they would never be given the wrong baby. He worried obsessively that his son was going to be damaged or taken away in some manner as an infant. Robison compared his son to a small bear cub (the nickname comes from his mother’s nickname of Little Bear). He refers to his son’s walking attempts as “getting up on his hind legs”, and comments on his ‘paws’. He even goes as far to comment “Dads like me could learn a lot from successful veterinarians, who learn to read discomfort in animals”. Robison genuinely wanted to make his son’s life better, but when you have difficulty reading cues such as hunger and fatigue, making a connection such as taking care of an animal provides you with a coping strategy that works for both parent and child. His strategy was unconventional, but it worked.
There are also some poignant moments to the book. Robison describes how his mother was his son’s first babysitter, and how Cubby and his grandmother connected. An older woman recovering from a stroke would not necessarily be everyone’s first choice of a child minder, but Robison describes why is worked for them:
“ He kept her awake and active as she chased him through the house in her wheelchair. The two of them even learned to walk together. My mother had to figure out how to get up and use and cane, and Cubby had to learn to get onto his hind legs and walk. Both of them were determined to succeed.”
We learn that while they drifted apart later in his childhood, Cubby reconnected with his grandmother when he was older, even developing a relationship where he stops by to visit and care for her several days a week.
Like every child, Cubby asked his father lots of questions. Unlike most parents, however, John Elder Robison was …. creative … with his responses. When asked where babies came from, his response was “the mall”, even going so far as to take his son to show him where the shop used to be. He convinced his son that he had been born with a tail, explaining how it was removed at a young age. The concept of Santa Claus was told as a sailing expedition gone wrong, and when his son decided that he wanted to attend the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Robison took him to the “strolling of the cows” in Vermont. Each of these episodes is both funny and a little moving as you see him trying to create a memory for his son. What struck me most though was the intelligence confidence he worked to instil in his child. By purchasing stock options at many utility companies, Robison used this position as a ‘shareholder’ to give his son the opportunity to visit behind the scenes at railway stations, nuclear power plants, navy ships, rail yards and hydro-electric dams. There was a purpose for these missions:
“I always hoped our adventures made Cubby a little smarter. Some people said intelligence was innate and you couldn’t change it, but I knew a foundation of experience would have a powerfully beneficial effect on whatever reasoning ability he was born with … I also hoped he’d see something that caught his interest… I knew he’d have a great advantage in life if he found his interests early. If I could help him find the things he wanted to pursue and encourage him to study and go to college, I knew he’d be on a good path, with excellent odds of success.”
As I read this book, it became clear to me that Robison wanted to create opportunities where his son would not have to encounter the same difficulties that he himself had faced. He knew, even from the beginning and without any formal diagnosis, that his son would encounter problems, and that it was up to him as a father to turn what had been negative experiences in his own life into more positive opportunities. In this way, Robison was teaching his son that Asperger’s was a diagnosis, but not a hindrance. It simply meant that life needed to be approached in a different fashion.
It is in the final act of the book that you see how much Robison loves and cares for his son. Cubby’s love of explosives, encouraged by his parents, resulted in him facing a grand jury indictment at the age of seventeen at the hands of an over-eager prosecutor. It’s a tense time for everyone, and the process is long and arduous. However, Robison is unwavering in his conviction that his son was a good person, and that he was being unfairly prosecuted. He lays out the evidence logically and tries to understand the process. Throughout it all, his thoughts are of his son and how he copes with his ordeal.
I went into this book thinking it was the story of father who discovered that his son had a diagnosis of Asperger’s, just like him, and how the father dealt with that situation. What I found was a story of a father and son who love each other very much, and who both struggle to bond with the world around them in meaningful ways. John and Cubby are funny, intelligent and logical individuals who continually attempt to make connections, but who also genuinely enjoy each other’s company. It may not have been a typical upbringing, but John’s story shows him making every effort to provide his son with meaningful (to him) experiences and opportunities to learn, while supporting his son’s interests and questions. After all, isn’t that what good parents do every day?
“Right now, all over the world, several million young people are coming of age with Asperger’s or some other form of autism. Many of them are wondering if they will be able to find love, friendship and a good quality of life. Cubby’s life shows that such a thing remains possible, even today. I did it years ago, and he’s doing it now.
I can’t believe how far he’s come.”
Raising Cubby is published by Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House Canada. It may be purchased from Indigo, Amazon and your friendly independent bookstore. ISBN: 9780307884849, 384 pages.