Like many others, I heard about Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I was moved by David Mitchell’s emotional praise of the book, so I picked it up on my Kindle that day and read the introduction. Sure enough, Mr. Mitchell’s passionate endorsement of the book won me over, but it didn’t prepare me for the way that Naoki Higashida’s captivating words, the depth of his understanding, and the conversational delivery of his incredible pain.
The book is structured as a series of straightforward questions (“Why do people with Autism do ________?”) followed by a short answer . Many of the questions are similar to one another, and the answers end up feeling identical to others from time to time, but there is a constant thread that binds them; it is tremendously moving.
Naoki is fully aware of his condition. He is aware that the difficulties he faces in living a “normal” life extend beyond himself, weighing heavily on parents, teachers, peers, and the world around him. He experiences a near-constant anxiety and shame knowing that he is, as he puts it “remote-controlling a faulty robot.” I hesitate to take his testimony as canonical for the entirety of the community he represents, but I think there is something illuminating about his no-nonsense approach to describing living with Autism.
The book is punctuated with occasional pauses in the form of short stories, and it is in these that I feel the point really gets across. The metaphors are thinly veiled, and they serve to further reinforce the pain Naoki feels at his inability to exercise control, and the liberation and relaxation he feels when he recognizes something or is allowed to express himself in the way that comes most naturally to him.
The book is short, but it is groundbreaking, in that it provides and insider’s perspective to a world that is unimaginably different from our own. What’s more, we have made assumptions about the nature of that world but were woefully ignorant of the truth of the condition. It’s difficult to find the right words, honestly, to capture why this book left me feeling so strongly. I think a short description of the final short story will suffice to translate the depth of his sadness.
A boy is at a supermarket, walking through the aisles, when he realizes that none of the other humans can see him. He exits the market, and learns that he was hit by a car and killed, and that the jovial man who greeted him on the way in was none other than the reaper. The boy, unwilling to go to the afterlife, runs home and finds that his parents are looking for him frantically, but unable to see him. He tries, in vain, to get their attention, and fails. Eventually, he returns to the reaper, who takes him to heaven, where rather than some utopian village of winged humans frolicking, he assumes the role of a star, able to distantly view but not partake in the lives of his mother and father, who he holds most dear. He is pained, watching their unending sadness, but takes solace in the fact that he is able to communicate with several other stars. No matter the brief moments of clarity and lucidity, and the small joy he gets from speaking to his fellow deceased, he wishes more than anything to take the pain away from his parents. The reaper returns, telling him that it is possible, but that he would have to completely disappear and enter a new body, forgetting his previous life. He elects to do so, and a daughter is born to his parents. They live (somewhat) happily ever after with their new daughter.
Like I said, the metaphor is thinly veiled, but the raw emotion bleeds through it and carries with it a tremendous weight. I found the book to be illuminating and deeply moving, and encourage you to read it. 4/5