Autism, Writing, and the Courage of Observation

Robert Fromberg
Covering Autism and Creativity
TDR Regular Contributor / August 22, 2021

Now available for pre-order: Robert Fromberg’s How to Walk with Steve

Forty-three years after seeing it for the first time, I still think almost every day about a drawing of a highway sign done by my brother Steve.

The sign indicates a junction to Interstate 474, a bypass around our hometown of Peoria, Illinois. After five years of on-and-off construction, monitored breathlessly by Steve, the highway opened on August 30, 1978, a few weeks after Steve’s 15th birthday, and nine months after our father died.

Shortly after the highway opened, Steve, who has autism and at the time was only moderately verbal, made an unsanctioned solo pilgrimage to the centerpiece of the bypass, the Shade-Lohmann Bridge, which was 45 minutes from our house by bicycle. We found out because a neighbor happened to see him pedaling away as cars whizzed by. At that time, my mom, always deeply uncomfortable around people other than my dad, was still reeling from Dad’s death and not supervising Steve very closely. She died one year and ten months later.

In the drawing, Steve’s lines and letters are shaky, like those of a child younger than he was. Every item in the drawing is in the correct relative proportion. Each part of the sign is given attention, from the prominent “474” to the nearly invisible diagonal metal strips attaching the sign to its post.

The drawing has no shading, no sense of perspective. The only nod to anything surrounding the sign is a simple, short line representing the ground. Yet the sign is obviously in situ. If you observe highway signs beyond the information they provide, you will note that few are absolutely perpendicular to the ground. In Steve’s drawing, the sign leans slightly to the right, as the actual sign did.

To me, this drawing is elegant, careful, and proud. The sign, standing naked, has shed its context, its mere utility, its universally accepted purpose, and exists before us as an icon recognized and captured by a singular vision and artistic talent.

Several years earlier, I asked my mother, a painter, how she decided what to paint. She picked up a catsup bottle, turned it upside down, and set it back on the table, long neck supporting broader base. She gestured toward the bottle, but said nothing.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Mom’s lack of explanation, I got the point. You don’t paint a catsup bottle. You don’t paint a table. You don’t paint a person. You paint shapes, colors, light, shadow. You paint what you actually see, not that thing’s function.

Mom’s demonstration partially explains the success of Steve’s sign drawing. He, too, cast aside utility in favor of a more personal experience of an object. And Mom’s demonstration seemed particularly apt as I embarked on writing, first poetry and then fiction, and as I taught fiction writing, particularly description. Don’t describe what you think a house or a tree or an arm is supposed to look like, I would say, describe what you truly see.

Still, I was lousy at description.

I admired other authors’ elegant analogies, perfectly chosen adjectives, and bright choices of detail. Writing and reading my own descriptions, I felt nothing but the labor of their execution.

Steve’s drawing, I was convinced, presented an ideal of observation, an ideal of description. The stakes were high in that drawing. Five years of waiting. One-third of his life. Straining from the back seat of our station wagon for a glimpse of any fragment of concrete barricade or orange traffic cone or pavement or sign that suggested the highway taking shape, coming to life. The completion inspired not only Steve’s bicycle journey to see the result, but his first and only piece of creative writing. On a piece of typing paper, positioned horizontally, he wrote in large letters, “Route 474 is here now.” He adhered the paper to his wall with Scotch tape. It remains the greatest poem I have ever read.

My mom’s paintings also were, to me, ideals of observation and depiction, as well as lessons in description. They were nothing like Steve’s drawings. Where his drawings were spare, exposed, Mom’s paintings were thick, practically oozing. My favorite paintings of hers were encaustic, a mixture of pigment and hot wax. Mom would paint with a blow torch in one hand and a narrow palette knife in the other. Her paintings featured people—frequently herself—in silhouette and shadow. Facial features were suggested, but never clear. I once asked Mom why she didn’t paint faces. She said she just wasn’t very good at painting faces. Mom was an incredible technical artist. She could draw or paint anything she wanted in whatever medium she chose. But for some reason she didn’t, or couldn’t, paint faces, especially her own.

What Mom and Steve had in common was a form of courage that comes from confinement. Defined by a deep sense of the world as a place of beautiful hostility, Mom’s art staked its claim with her own insistent anonymity in the midst of sharply observed, ominously commonplace surroundings. Defined by the need for a narrow form of order within a world of painful illogic, Steve presented the purest, most direct, most controlled observation of the structure that gave him relief and joy.

Confined by their relationships with the world, Steve and Mom tenaciously occupied their defined positions, their art an act of courage that insisted on the integrity of those positions.

I quit writing in the early 1990s. I had had some success—stories and a short book published, almost 20 years of teaching. But I no longer knew what to observe in the world or inside my head or my body. And for what observations I could muster, I had even less idea of how to translate them into words. I still was terrible at description.

The skill I lacked, however, was not technical. I lacked the courage that Steve and Mom had to so an intent degree. I lacked the courage see and accept whatever vantage point I had on the world. I lacked the courage to observe fiercely from that vantage point. And I lacked the courage to stake my claim with descriptions that were as thin or extravagant or silly or studious or colorful or stark as they needed to be.

These days, as I think about Steve’s drawing of the Interstate 474 sign, I want to write something as perfect as his narrow lines representing the sign’s strips of supporting metal. And these days, it seems increasingly possible that the courage to make such highly selective observations can be accompanied by an equal measure of comfort.

Forthcoming September 7, 2021 from Latah Books:

“Robert Fromberg knocks me out.”
Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gilead

“In refusing easy consolations, Fromberg has created a memoir that shines like polished bone.”
– Patricia Eakins, author of The Hungry Girls and Other Stories

“Without a trace of affectation or adornment, Fromberg depicts the searing moments that made him who he is. Never have I read a more authentic, deeply-felt rendering of a child’s developing mind.”
– Leslie Lawrence, author of The Death of Fred Astaire and Other Essays from a Life Outside the Lines

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