Tom Fields-Meyer on Gumby, Otters, and Raising an Autistic Son

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Long-time writer Tom Fields-Meyer is used to writing stories about families who have overcome some difficulties. For years, he wrote People magazine's human interest features, the emotionally resonant pieces tucked behind the celebrity news. Today, with the release of Following Ezra: What One Father Learned About Gumby, Otters, Autism, and Love From His Extraordinary Son, Fields-Meyer turns his focus on himself and his own family. I spoke with the author about his new book:

What is Ezra's understanding of what you do to make a living? My assumption is that you approached him to talk about turning his story -- his and your story -- into a book before you sold the rights and planned to print. What were his feelings about being made the subject of a book? Did he have any concerns?

Ezra has known from the time he was quite young that his mother is a rabbi and his father is a writer. Like a lot of kids, he didn't have a great understanding of what my wife and I actually did all day at work. Then, I wrote the final story in my twelve years at People magazine, a piece about raising Ezra -- in particular our regular visits to the Los Angeles Zoo. I told him I was writing it, but I wasn't sure how much he understood at the time. At age 11, Ezra wasn't much of a reader of anything besides Simpsons comic books and animal encyclopedias.

As my wife says, you should always look for the gift in what might at first appear to be a challenge.

The day I brought the issue of People home, I was shocked when he grabbed the magazine, sat down at the dining-room table and slowly made his way through the entire story. At the end, he stood up, smiled, and said, "That's a very good story about me." I was delighted.

That article became the seed of Following Ezra. Before I sent my proposal to my agent, I discussed the idea with Ezra, and basically asked his permission. He loved the idea. I told him that it might be helpful to many parents of younger kids with autism, and he liked that, too. I was concerned that some of the funny stories about things he did as a younger child -- say, the time he went up to an obese neighbor and asked him how he got so fat -- might be embarrassing. Ezra would just say, "No, that's okay. I'm not embarrassed. I don't do that anymore."

The book opens in the summer of 1999, but this is not just a flashback to help set up the narrative. The story covers a lot of ground between the mid-'90s, when Ezra was born, and his bar mitzvah 13 years later. Were all of the vignettes that make up the individual chapters written relatively recently, at the time you decided to put them down in book form, or have you been writing all along?

Since we first started noticing differences in Ezra when he was a toddler, I've been taking notes. Not for a book, but to figure him out, to try to understand his mind, how we could help him, what to expect -- and what the future might bring.

Many of those notes took the form of emails I wrote to myself, to my wife Shawn, to my parents and in-laws and others who cared about Ezra. (Age 7: "Last night I was making waffles with a new waffle iron. He kept grabbing letters from the fridge and taking them into the playroom. When I went to tell him the waffles were ready, he had spelled out 'dinosaur' on the train table. 'Yeah! I spelled 'dinosaur!' That's how you spell 'dinosaur!''")

After a while, I felt like a foreign correspondent or an anthropologist, reporting on the customs and practices in an exotic land. (Age 6: "Will only eat a banana one way: whole. I open, pull the peel halfway down, hand it to him. If it breaks before he eats it, he screams: 'You broke it!'")

But all along, I was noticing not just Ezra's challenges, but also how truly extraordinary he was, the astonishing ways his mind worked. (Age 8: "We were reading a book that mentioned a woodpecker. I asked if he had ever seen a woodpecker. 'No. But I heard one, on a hike on November 29, 2003. It was a Friday.'")

It's difficult (or at least it was for me) to live with someone like that and not be constantly taking note of the remarkable things that would come out of his mouth.

I posed the previous question because you're a professional writer and have been for more than 25 years. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that you turned, privately, to that form of expression as a way to sort out your own complicated thoughts on raising an autistic child. How did putting Ezra's story into words help you -- if it did at all -- to understand any feelings you might have been working through?

People have asked me if writing the book was therapeutic. I never saw it that way. But I felt deeply compelled to write it. Mostly, I just love telling these stories. Over the years, working as a journalist, I'd find myself at lunch with a source or colleague and instead of interviewing the person or talking about work, I'd be regaling them with the latest anecdote about how my son had memorized the premiere dates of every Disney movie or how Ezra could remember years later which cereals a neighbor had in her pantry.

And then I kept seeing new books by parents of children with autism, and almost none of them reflected my experience. Either they made parenting these children sound incredibly bleak, or they presented a story about some miraculous cure. (Of course, there is no cure for autism.) Either way, they all told the same basic narrative, about battling against a disease. I just didn't see it that way. I wanted to capture, with humor and tenderness, the kinds of remarkable moments that Shawn and I were having every day in raising Ezra.

And how was writing this story similar to and different from the other writing that you've done in the past? In part, you're known for the time you spent at People magazine writing what you've described before as "dramatic, moving tales of families and individuals triumphing over adversity." There must be some parallels.

People is known mostly for its celebrity stories, but I wrote the human interest stories -- the ones we called "real people" stories. Often they were about individuals who had experienced terrible tragedies of one kind or another -- the death of a child, a rare illness, a natural disaster. My editors were always looking for silver lining, the stories about people who had bounced back in remarkable ways, or found ways to use their experience to help others. (I should note that, as a writer, I benefitted from a tremendously talented staff of reporters who found and reported these stories.) You could not help but be inspired by the Indonesian man who survived the Asian tsunami and opened his house to hundreds of suddenly homeless people. Or the woman in Georgia who helped medically fragile children find foster homes.

Those kinds of narratives always appealed to me, because they resonated with a deep feeling I have always had that you should make the most of your circumstances, and that we're here to make the world a better place. As my wife says, you should always look for the gift in what might at first appear to be a challenge.

One of my favorite passages in the book is when you accept an assignment to interview Tito, a special-needs child who defies any negative stereotypes, crafting moving poetry at a young age and learning Shakespeare with his mother. You visit Tito with questions you need answered to complete your article, but also questions you need answered to help you better understand your own son. Are there any other subjects you've worked with from which you were able to learn a little more about Ezra and your relationship with him?

After I left People, I helped a Holocaust survivor named Eva Brown write her memoir. Eva was a remarkable woman who had lost 60 members of her family in the Holocaust, yet she was able to tell her story with a surprising amount of humor.

She loved to describe how in Auschwitz she was enlisted for the job of shaving S.S. officers. Eva had grown up in an orthodox Jewish family in Hungary. Her father was a rabbi who had a long beard, and she had never even seen a razor before. Another time, to earn a morsel of bread, she volunteered to play flute in a band ordered to entertain the S.S. men. She had never played flute; she faked her way through, all the while worrying that she would be found out. When Eva told these stories, her eyes would light up, and she would flash a huge smile. That mix of comedy and tragedy really brought her stories alive. And I figured, if Eva could laugh about Auschwitz, I could certainly share how we had laughed along with Ezra.

It's clear that you've learned a lot from Ezra over the years, about far more than just Gumby and otters, two of the subjects that make it into your book's subtitle. Pretend, for a minute, that the subtitle could be much longer than it currently is, that there were no space restrictions. What else might you include in the list, what else have you learned?

Actually, Gumby and otters are important. Like a lot of children with autism, Ezra developed strong obsessions. A therapist warned us early on to be careful what we expose him to, since one of those things could become a fixation. But how can you do that? One of first things he latched onto was Gumby. At age six or so, he would talk day and night about Gumby and Pokey, about this whole cast of characters. He didn't care that other kids were trading Pokémon cards or talking about little league. He didn't care that Gumby was a nearly extinct cartoon character. He followed his own passion. And isn't that what we want all of our kids to do?

Otters are Ezra's favorite animals. We've been to the zoo hundreds of times since he was very young. At first I took him because that's where he was happy, being among the animals. Then I noticed that at the zoo, all of the things he struggled with would disappear -- the incessant repeating, the fixations on one thing or another, the tics and constant movements. At the zoo, Ezra was calm and open. I came to understand that what he liked wasn't just the animals, it was that predictable, ordered world, where everything was where it was supposed to be.

Most of all, he liked the otters. Ezra couldn't sit still in class for five minutes, but he could stand in front of the otter exhibit forever -- enthralled, captivated, and exuding joy: "Look at the otters! See them? They're swimming!" From that, I learned that if you can find what makes you happy, and pursue it, you're a lucky person.

Of course, raising Ezra has taught me much more: That our job as parents isn't to fix our children, but to understand what makes them wondrous. That what seem like your greatest challenges can become your most profound blessings. That children whose minds work differently can enrich the lives of their siblings and their entire families.

Oh, and I've learned a lot about The Simpsons. Do you know the only significant character who doesn't appear in The Simpsons Movie? I do. We have lots of conversations in our house about stuff like that.

I was only halfway through the book when I turned to Google to find out what, if anything, your son was up to now. Only a few clicks later I was watching some of his animations. The book ends with an epilogue that takes place just nine days after Ezra's bar mitzvah. Can you give us a brief epilogue to your epilogue?

Ezra is now 15, he starts tenth grade in a few days, and he's thriving. The biggest news is that he has a book of his own coming out in a few weeks. He is the coauthor of a hilarious children's book called E-mergency. Ezra started taking animation classes around age twelve at a place called Media Enrichment Academy, where they teach children with special needs. Within a few months he made a computer-animated short called "Alphabet House," about all the letters living together. The letter F gets injured and the others all help him get to the hospital.

One of the people who saw it on YouTube was a talented, bestselling children's author and illustrator, Tom Lichtenheld, who thought it would make a clever children's book. The result is E-mergency, which is whimsical and hilarious. What I love is that the story is the kind of thing only someone with a mind like Ezra's could concoct -- someone who thinks obsessively about categories like letters and colors.

Ezra is the happiest kid I know. He has two brothers who love him -- Ami, who is 17, and Noam, 13 -- and he wakes them up on the first day of every month at the crack of dawn shouting with glee, just because he gets to turn a new page on the calendar. "It's September first! It's the first day of the month!" Do you know anyone who starts every month with that kind of enthusiasm? It's infectious. One of our main jobs as parents -- with all three of our kids -- is to help them keep that joy, to keep waking up happy and grateful to be alive.

Read an essay reprinted from Fields-Meyer's book, Following Ezra.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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