Ralph James Savarese


On his book See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor

Cover Interview of March 13, 2019

The wide angle

I think of my book as a kind of literary ethnography. It roughly resembles the sort of work that made the late neurologist-writer Oliver Sacks famous. In the preface to one of his books, he speaks of acting “in part like a naturalist, examining rare forms of life; in part like an anthropologist, a neuroanthropologist, in the field.” The neurologically disabled, according to this trope, are like an exotic form of butterfly or a tribe of people that hasn’t yet encountered “civilized” people. With Sacks, the medical case study becomes, as he puts it, a “paradoxical tale” of enabling disability. In See It Feelingly, I, too, offer a series of profiles, but I entirely dispense with what Sacks couldn’t quite shake off: namely, the tyranny of norms and the need to pathologize neurological difference. How did I come to this subject? Twenty years ago, I adopted from foster care a badly abused, nonspeaking, six-year-old boy with autism—he was said to be “profoundly retarded.” Two years ago this May, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Oberlin College as its first nonspeaking student with autism. And last year, he won a prestigious Peabody Award for the documentary Deej, which follows his inclusion journey and which he co-produced, starred in, and wrote. This experience was obviously transformative for me as a person and writer. Luckily, the field of disability studies had begun to gather traction around the time that I adopted my son. I now had an interdisciplinary field in which to insert my work. The field distinguished between “impairment,” a physiological condition, and “disability,” a social construction. The latter occurs when the built environment and prejudicial attitudes conspire to not only exclude, but also to demean, people very different from ourselves.