My Son’s Not Rainman
by John Williams
Published by Michael O’Mara Books 2016 ISBN 978-1-78243-388-0
Today I had lunch with a debut author, stand-up comedian, blogger, and parent of a young son with cerebral palsy and autism. John Williams, who lives in Lewisham, has just published My Son’s Not Rainman. Not four weeks from publication date, this unsentimental, easy to read, funny and sad memoir about John and, as he calls him, The Boy, is in its second reprinting and translation rights have been sold to Russia and France. If you read The Guardian, you may have seen their story – Have you heard the one about the comedian and his autistic son? (2016). It featured John telling some of his adventures in, one might say, the disability business.
“Why ‘The Boy’?” I asked John over a glass of wine at Dulwich’s Café Rouge. “I feared my son might want to read the book and may be still too young to understand the trials and tribulations of his parents, now divorced but working together to do the best for our kid”, he replies. “But The Boy knows the book is out there, he’s seen it and approved the cover. No, that’s not him, looking blond and beautiful, but it might be the sort of child whose unnerving tantrums in a bus queue or a department store would incite a passer-by to ask the question… ‘Why?’ “
Williams has been asking that question for 15 years. And he makes a good fist of answering it when, in one of his blogs reproduced in the book (every one worth reading), he writes, with disarming honesty… “I can’t quite explain it but in some ways it feels we’re living our lives on a different time trajectory to everyone else… The Boy will get there eventually – he’s just following a different path”.
And in another blog he writes: “The Boy will forever dance to a different beat”. That path, from birth to the 13th birthday, is charted in a way that is unique and necessary, and different, from so many accounts of growing up with a, let’s face it, handicapped child in the family. Only here John, with his belief in the intrinsic value of life, tells of its joys and heartbreaks. As he said to me: “I’m just Dad and there is no better job in the world.” That must be one reason why his other day, or rather evening, job, is as a stand-up comedian. It was difficult, he is the first to admit, to write a script for a comedy but nevertheless he did, for a successful hour at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe.
I, too, am a parent of a son with autism, and never thought parenting might be a bit of a laugh. But this parent on his own gives all of that and more. He recounts, not only his own breakdown – when he spent two years, with various labels and diagnoses, in three mental hospitals and his transformative time as a care worker – but also The Boy’s progress through their challenging but happy times together. One of the outings is to Legoland: “Great for playing ‘Spot The Person On The Autistic Spectrum’. The place is filled with them.“ he says.
Eventually, there are the schools, the struggles with the education system and, finally, like the best of fairytales, the special school where ‘Mr Teacher’ telephones: “Things are going all right. He’s having a brilliant day. No hitting, no biting, he’s stayed in class all day. I’m really proud of him.”
John is now proud to be off all the pills that were a legacy of the hospital years. He is a successful comedian; he has developed a thick skin; he can joke about autism; he is very aware of the condition’s infinite complexity; he is a caring, loving, confident parent; and now he is a writer. As the cover announces – ‘One man, one autistic boy, a million adventures.’ I am unsurprised at news of a second printing. Life may be at times, to quote from the book, “a shitty game without winners… a frightening, horrible, angry, impenetrable fog“, but My Son’s Not Rainman is, in its inimitable way, a triumph of a memoir.
Have you heard the one about the comedian and his autistic son? Guardian Family Supplement, 10 Sept 2016
You can buy My Son’s Not Rainman from Village Books (Dulwich Village) at £7.99 , the net profits going to a not-for-profit group aiming to provide in south-west London a café/hub for welcoming young people with autism and their families and carers: people like John and The Boy. Dulwich@village-books.co.uk