To Siri With Love

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Great and terrible
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On our shelf:
Gus, Henry, if you guys ever read this... Jesus Christ I'm so sorry your mother is like this. It's not normal. It's not right, and there is nothing wrong with you.
—Kaelan Rhywiol, autistic author[1]

To Siri With Love by Judith Newman tells the story of how she wants to sterilize her autistic son and likes to laugh at him behind his back. She wrote the book when he was only 13 and published it when he was 15.[2] It includes her twins, Gus (who is diagnosed with autism) and Henry (who has no diagnosis).

Kaelan Rhywiol, an autistic parent of 2 autistic kids, live-tweeted an in-depth review. The book caused Rhywiol to cry and to vomit twice.[3] And that about sums up the quality.

Troubling themes[edit]

Newman's writing reveals a deep disrespect for her son Gus and for autistic people in general. The theme of autistic people being bizarre burdensome creatures is clear, and she even claims that she can identify other "autism moms" because the stress turns them ugly.[4] How flattering for everyone involved.

Utter lack of research[edit]

Newman has raised eyebrows for the multiple times she clearly knows nothing about what she's talking about. A quick internet search could have corrected many of her misconceptions.

  • She claims it's politically correct to use person-first language for autistic people.[2] It's not. Autistic people overwhelmingly prefer identity-first language.[5][6]
  • She parrots dubious science from Simon Baron-Cohen,[7][8] such as the idea that autistics universally lack theory of mind (they don't[9][10]), and that humans are on an empathizing-systemizing continuum sorted by gender that makes autistics extremely male (which is pseudoscience[11][12]).
  • She seems to believe in an autism epidemic, which has been debunked.[8]
  • She doesn't seem to understand the genetic nature of autism,[8][13] and believes it is a type of brain damage.[14]
  • Despite having an autistic child, she doesn't understand the basics of autistic body language,[14] including the fact that autistics tend not to make eye contact while listening.[15][16]
  • She thinks autistic people are likely to become criminals,[17] despite research showing that autistics are less violent than average.[18][19] This misconception only stigmatizes autistic people.[20]
  • She describes being embarrassed by her teenage son, and claims he can't understand the concept of embarrassment.[21]
  • She lists Autism Speaks and the Autism Research Institute as resources, despite their pseudoscientific backgrounds.[22]
  • She believes that some autistic people are so "high-functioning" that they can totally take care of themselves,[23] ignoring the fact that many intelligent autistic adults face serious struggles that impact their quality of life; intelligence is not linked to adaptive skills.[24][25]

She also frequently assumes that her son Gus is extremely unintelligent,[1] and questions whether he thinks at all.[26] "I know who doesn't have theory of mind here, it's certainly not Gus," says Kaelan Rhywiol.[21]

Lack of empathy and downright cruelty[edit]

I mean... I know I'm autistic, but is it NORMAL for [non-autistic] parents to put so much fear into a kid about potty training that the other sibling would lie to protect them?
—Kaelan Rhywiol[27]

Newman shows little respect for her son's property. From throwing his favorite toy in the garbage when he didn't do what she wanted (when he was 7 months old)[27] to pressuring him to give up his treasured collection of trains,[17] she seems happy to make him lose things he cares about.

She also tends to make his feelings about her. "Every time Gus hides in the closet during a thunderstorm, I think, If only I had taken pregnancy yoga," she comments in chapter 2.[8] This ignores that (1) yoga doesn't prevent autism, and (2) her son hides because he is frightened and possibly in pain due to sensory sensitivity.[28] Rather than showing care for his feelings when he's having a hard time, she wishes for a non-autistic kid.[1]

Newman also writes about how she has no interest in connecting with her son. For example, he tries to tell her that escalators are "beautiful." An ordinary parent might see this as an opportunity to connect with their child and share their interests, but she snarks "Maybe it requires magic mushrooms to see it the way he does."[29]

The name-calling ("batsh*t crazy," "tiny mutant") is concerning,[3] as is her casually making and breaking promises to Gus when he tries to become more independent.[30] Worst of all, she claims that no girl could ever truly love Gus.[31] (What if Gus reads that? Worse, what if he believes it?)

One autistic person speculates that his "embarrassing" behavior may be a passive-aggressive way of acting out after being infantilized all the time.[21] Newman writes "It was only when I realized that there was something consistently wrong with his spatial perception—it wasn’t a matter of chance; he would put his shirt and pants on backward 100 percent of the time—" to which Kaelan Rhywiol responds "Gus? You are freaking brilliant. Keep on keeping on."[30]

Invasion of privacy[edit]

You [Judith Newman] publicly talked about what kind of porn your son watches. In a New York Times "bestseller." I am so, so horrified, angry, and betrayed on behalf of your son.
—Lydia X. Z. Brown[31]

Newman did not consult Gus on the things she wrote about him.[7] She writes about his bathing habits (and her refusal to help him),[29] medical details,[32] his pornography preferences, and other private things that no ordinary teenager would want strangers to know.

Newman includes text conversations from Gus in her book, without asking his permission to share. (She did, however, get Henry's permission to include his texts.)[33]

If anyone wants privacy, it's a teenager. Yet Newman shows no regard for how Gus might feel about her sharing this information.

She also disregards the privacy of other people, describing Gus' new relationship with a girl in detail[34] and describing a serious bullying incident and giving both the first and last names of the kids involved.[27]

Sterilization[edit]

The solipsism that is so much at the heart of autism makes him unable to understand that someone's needs and desires could ever be separate from his own, let alone more important... How do you say “I’m sterilizing my son” without sounding like a eugenicist?"
—Judith Newman,[32] deciding that her 13-year-old son, and all autistic people ever, can't be good parents

Newman wants to sterilize her son because, according to her, "he can never be a real father."[35]

In addition to being awful, it's not based in factual evidence. Autistic people tend to be late bloomers,[36] and her son isn't even an adult yet, so there's no telling how mature and capable he could become. Many autistic adults are capable of being wonderful parents.[37][38][39] They can also exhibit deep kindness.[31]

And if you've ever met a 13-year-old boy, you'll notice that they don't seem capable of fatherhood... A little thing called growing up tends to happen first.

Despite claiming that she wants to not sound like a eugenicist, she cracks jokes about the disabled people murdered under Hitler.[32]

Anti-LGBT sentiment[edit]

Newman has plenty of opinions on nonbinary people, none of them respectful. Newman describes nonbinary autistic adult Amythest Schaber as a "manic pixie dream girl." When told that this was impolite, Newman made excuses and repeatedly referred to Schaber as "her" (despite Schaber not being female).[22] Which is not surprising, considering that Newman's book says they/them pronouns are a "crime against the English language."[2]

She stereotypes the LGBT people whose identities she does believe in, claiming that she hopes Gus is gay because "what gay man doesn't adore his mother?"[1] (Gay men with bad mothers certainly don't.) Loving your parents is less about your orientation and more about how they've treated you. Publishing a book violating Gus' privacy is probably not the best way to ensure his lifelong devotion.

One ray of hope[edit]

Godspeed Gus and Henry, I wish you all the love and light in the world. When you're ready, the autistic community will welcome you. Hell, you guys want to write a rebuttal to this travesty in your PoVs I'll edit it for free.
—Kaelan Rhywiol[30]

The twin brothers seem to have a good relationship. Henry stands up for Gus, saying that Gus would be a good uncle someday,[32] and challenging the mother's ideas that Gus is incompetent.

Reception[edit]

Support[edit]

Non-autistic writers, for the most part, showered the book in praise. Words like "heartfelt," "honest," and "loving" were thrown around. The book even became a bestseller.

Autism Speaks supporter Jon Stewart endorsed the book, calling it "beautifully honest and illuminating".[40]

Horrified backlash[edit]

Take a second and think back to your early teen years. Think carefully about the bullying situation at your school... Now, picture what would happen if someone distributed a sheet of paper with private information about you on it. Your porn habits. Discussion of bathroom habits. There's even a statement about the Benny Hill song playing during you having sex - but only IF you have sex, that is - the paper also mentions that no one will ever be interested in you, in that way. This paper makes the rounds of your class, grade, school, and teachers.

Once you have a good, clear picture of this scenario, change that sheet of paper to a book. Not any book, but one that's a NYT best seller. It's ALL about you, and is getting media attention. The scope of readers is far beyond your school now. Instead of your best friend, the person who printed such intimate details about you - without your permission - for the world to see? That was your mom. You're now 15 years old. Picture that.
—Marie Porter[41]

Understandably, not everyone was pleased with the book.[42] They wondered what Newman was thinking, and why she would write something like that for everyone to see.[43]

Autistic people and those who cared about them used the hashtag #BoycottToSiri to express themselves. They have expressed worries about what happens when Gus reads what his mother wrote about them.[44][45]

The book also prompted a video by Amythest Schaber.

Newman's response[edit]

For the most part, Newman has dismissed her autistic critics, claiming that their horror is just because they can't understand that her book is funny.[46] Newman also dismisses criticism from autistic people by saying the book "really wasn’t written for an autistic audience,"[47] a statement which opens a whole new can of worms. It's effectively an admission that the book is written by and for people who resent the fact that they're expected to show love for their own child despite hating them for their disability. Newman has characterized criticism coming from autistic adults as "screaming".[47]

She has stated that she no longer plans to sterilize Gus.[48]

Screenshots show her encouraging people to report negative reviews of her book so that they would be taken down.[49]

External links[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Twitter thread on chapter 7 - Kaelan Rhywiol
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Twitter thread on the author's note - Kaelan Rhywiol
  3. 3.0 3.1 Why I Believe 'To Siri With Love' By Judith Newman Is A Book That Does Incredible Damage To The Autistic Community - Kaelan Rhywiol
  4. book analysis: To Siri with love by Judith Newman
  5. Identity-First Language - ASAN
  6. 11,521 people answered this autism survey. Warning: the results may challenge you. - Autistic not weird
  7. 7.0 7.1 Twitter thread on chapter 8 - Kaelan Rhywiol
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Twitter thread on chapter 1 - Kaelan Rhywiol
  9. Do I Lack Theory of Mind? - Autistic Dreams
  10. The Right Incentive Can Erase an Autism Deficit - Scientific American
  11. "The Extreme Male Brain?" Incrementum and the Rhetorical Gendering of Autism - Disability Studies Quarterly
  12. Don't Believe The Hype Around Autistic Women Having A Male Brain - Emily Willingham
  13. Link Between Genetics and Autism - Very Well Health
  14. 14.0 14.1 Twitter thread on chapter 4 - Kaelan Rhywiol
  15. How to Interpret Autistic Body Language - wikiHow
  16. Should We Insist on Eye Contact with People who have Autism Spectrum Disorders -Indiana Resource Center for Autism (Spoiler alert: no, we should not)
  17. 17.0 17.1 Twitter thread on chapter 5 - Kaelan Rhywiol
  18. Autism Is Not Psychosis - The Atlantic
  19. Aggression in children with autism spectrum disorders and a clinic-referred comparison group - NCBI
  20. The influence of media suggestions about links between criminality and autism spectrum disorder - Autism
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Twitter thread on chapter 6 - Kaelan Rhywiol
  22. 22.0 22.1 Twitter thread on #BoycottToSiri - Amythest Schaber, @neurowonderful
  23. Twitter thread on chapter 11 - Kaelan Rhywiol
  24. New Study Agrees Harmful Autism 'Functioning' Labels Are Harmful
  25. Where the Vocabulary of Autism is Failing - The Atlantic
  26. Autistic Moments: Autistics Should Be Sterilized - Some Girl with a Braid
  27. 27.0 27.1 27.2 Twitter thread on chapter 1 - Kaelan Rhywiol
  28. Fireworks Can Hurt Autistic People - Autistic Dreams
  29. 29.0 29.1 Twitter thread on chapter 3 - Kaelan Rhywiol
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 Twitter thread on chapter 15 - Kaelan Rhywiol
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 Why we must #BoycottToSiri / An open letter to Judith Newman - Lydia X. Z. Brown
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 32.3 Twitter thread on chapter 8 - Kaelan Rhywiol
  33. Twitter thread on chapter 12 - Kaelan Rhywiol
  34. https://twitter.com/KaelanRhy/status/936856137021800448 Twitter thread on chapter 13] - Kaelan Rhywiol
  35. TO SIRI WITH LOVE: The Oppression of Neurodivergent and Marginalized Points of View - Elizabeth Roderick
  36. Autism and False Prophecies of Doom - Autistic Dreams
  37. The Joys and Challenges of Being a Parent With Autism - The Atlantic
  38. Mothers with autism: 'I mothered my children in a very different way' - The Grauniad
  39. 4 Moms Share What It's Like to Be an Autistic Parent - Parents
  40. Harper Collins: To Siri With Love
  41. Tweets by Marie Porter
  42. 'To Siri With Love' and the Problem With Neurodiversity Lite - Rewire
  43. Thoughts on To Siri With Love - John Elder Robison
  44. #BoycottToSiri Needed To Happen Because Ableist Autism Parenting Memoirs Need to Stop Happening - Shannon Des Roches Rosa
  45. Autistic readers boycott To Siri, With Love, autism mom's 'love letter' to her son - Culturess
  46. Why To Siri With Love Is a Wrecking Ball of a Book - Thinking Person's Guide to Autism
  47. 47.0 47.1 ‘To Siri With Love’ Author Fires Back: Book ‘Wasn’t Written for Autistic Audience’. Observer.
  48. 'To Siri With Love' Author Fires Back: Book 'Wasn't Written for Autistic Audience'
  49. #Autistics and #autisticculture mocked by Judith Newman & friends _ International Badass Activists