Have you ever wondered how the mind of someone different from you works and what the person might be thinking and feeling? That is exactly the insight that Eli Gottlieb provides when he gives you a glimpse into the mind of an autistic man, Todd Aaron, in “Best Boy.”
We first meet Todd when he is 13 years old, on the day his mother is leaving him at Payton Living Center. Todd describes Payton Living Center as a community of “Developmentals” and “BIs” (brain injured). The drop off at Payton Living Center is stressful for Todd, as he “felt the volts getting ready to burst and sizzle in my head and I began to scream.” Payton Living Center becomes Todd’s permanent home and we next meet him 41 years after the drop off.
Todd is one of the most senior members of Payton Living Center and the staff refers to him as the village elder. He begins by describing his life there as happy until several things happened and then he stopped being happy. “The unhappiness kept getting larger and larger till finally I was so unhappy that it was raining all the time in my head even in sunshine and wherever I looked all I saw were gray dots of water falling sideways across the view.” Todd’s story and insights revolve around the events that made him unhappy.
The first cause of his unhappiness was a new roommate, Tommy Doon, who lived with him in a two-person cottage. Tommy Doon had suffered a brain injury and spends most of his time in the cottage trying to make Todd miserable. “Staff explained to him that if I get too upset I’ll suffer an attack of volts and he’s been trying to make it happen ever since.” Todd avoids Tommy as best he can.
The second cause of Todd’s unhappiness is the arrival of a new staff member, Mike Hinton (Mike the Apron). When Todd first encounters Mike at a meeting in the community hall, he immediately feels sick and begins to whimper and cry. At this point we learn that Todd struggles with new male staff, but generally adjusts. But Mike Hinton reminds Todd of his violent father and Todd cannot get past his initial reaction. As a result, the staff decides that Mike and Todd need to spend more time together and that’s when trouble starts.
While Todd is dealing with Tommy and Mike, he becomes romantically attracted to a new resident, Martine, who encourages Todd to stop taking his medications. The reasons for Martine’s stay at Payton are not entirely clear, although her prior decision to poke out her own eye may have had a role.
Todd’s brother, Nate, checks in with Todd on a regular basis and Todd decides he wants to move home with Nate and his family. Todd starts out on a challenging quest to make that happen. After a great deal of resistance, Nate arranges for Todd to spend some time with his family and his experience is difficult, but positive. While visiting Nate, Todd tours the home where he grew up and the entire family experiences a flood of memories. Ultimately, Todd returns to Payton Living Center, the problems that faced him are resolved and he continues his life there.
Throughout the story we learn a lot about Todd and how his mind works. For instance, we learn that Todd remembers every song he has ever heard and can remember exactly where he was and what he was doing when he first heard it. Todd does not like looking people in the eye “because it feels like they’re touching my nerves with their actual fingers.” He explains that although he does not always understand what people say to him, he can feel their meaning. And we learn that the people in his life are very important to him. At a particular low point, Todd comments that, “To try to feel better I remembered the people who loved me.”
Most importantly, we learn that although he is different and does not communicate in a familiar way, he is sensitive, perceptive and just like everyone else, wants to be loved and accepted.
“Best Boy” is a short, thoughtful and enjoyable read. You can reserve a copy at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/rerd/C__Rb11154635__Sbest%20boy__P0%2C3__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng.