When the news media first began reporting on the Sandy Hook nightmare, it was frequently mentioned that the killer apparently had Asperger’s Syndrome. There was absolutely no context provided; no mention that Asperger’s is a mild form of autism; no mention that there are zero (literally, zero) ties between Asperger’s and violent behavior. No, the media repeatedly mentioned Asperger’s because the media is, quite often, lazy as all hell. When details are limited, too many reporters (and news outlets) will simply report what they know, sans follow-up or explanation or reason.
To be blunt, it pisses me off.
A couple of years ago, Reader’s Digest assigned me to write a piece about my brother David, who has Asperger’s. I asked David what he thought, and he, memorably replied, “If it can help people understand … I’ll do it.” This remains one of the two or three most meaningful stories I’ve ever reported, because it gave me a chance to speak with my big brother in a new, eye-opening light. Without exaggeration, I can tell you my brother is my hero. He’s a wonderful son to my parents; a wonderful uncle to my children; an absolutely great guy.
Because my assigning editor left Reader’s Digest midway through the project, it never ran. I called David this morning, asked if he’d be cool with my running it here. He gave his blessing. Hence, it’s my honor to tell you all about my brother …
My hero is sitting in front of me, wearing a red Hawaiian shirt, munching on a vegetarian burrito, taking slugs from a Corona. We haven’t been like this in … well, ever. Just two brothers, grabbing a bite to eat, shooting the breeze. There has always been a barrier, constructed not of brick or cement, but of an emotional barbed wire that neither of us can really cross. He is 39, I am 37, and in our lives we have never had a true, legitimate, heart-to-heart sit-down chat. Not once. Ever.
But here we are, in a Ft. Lauderdale Mexican restaurant, chatting. There is an uneasiness to it all, naturally, in that this—serious talk—just isn’t something we do. In fact, when I first told David that I wanted to write an article about his lifelong battle with Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that often shows itself through social awkwardness and physical clumsiness, his reaction was predictable. “I don’t know,” he said. “No, probably not.”
Throughout much of his life, David has exerted mounds upon mounds of effort to the singular task of making sure people didn’t know about his—for lack of a better word—difficulty. He went to therapy, took anti-depressants, avoided group settings. Mostly, he practiced and mimicked the social cues and nuances that most of us take for granted. The carefree laugh. The furrowed, I-feel-your-pain eyebrows. The head nod and the shoulder shrug and the pronounced anguished sigh. All repeatedly rehearsed as if he were auditioning for a Broadway play, all nearly pulled off.
That’s the thing about Asperger’s—the blessing and the curse. While it’s merely a mild form of autism (its bearers don’t lack intelligence, and usually blend into mainstream society), it can never be fully cloaked. At best, its sufferers are slightly quirky; awkward. They’re the people who make ill-advised comments that silence a dinner party. At worst, they are branded as outcasts. As freaks. “There’s a preference for objects over people,” says Candice Baugh, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based therapist who runs social skills groups for those with Asperger’s. “If you live in a world where quirkiness is common, like among artists or musicians, you can blend in. But that’s rare.”
So why is David here, amenable to speaking about what has long been the unspeakable? Why has he changed his mind? It’s certainly not for attention, which he has long shunned. Or for the money. He possesses no desire to be an Asperger’s spokesperson; the disorder’s mouthpiece.
So … why?
“I don’t know,” he says, staring off into the distance. The Asperger’s in him wants the thought to end there, but I continue to nudge. “The best thing I can be is myself,” he says. “A few years ago I stopped trying so hard to cover up. I am who I am.”
“This,” he says, “is me.”
David Wayne Pearlman was born on May 6, 1970 at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., a seemingly normal 6-pound, 8-ounce baby with no identifiable problems. “He was a good infant,” says Joan Pearlman, our mother. “Very loveable, very agreeable. If anything was wrong, your father and I didn’t notice.”
I came along two years later, and we were—by visual account—the prototypical American family. Our hometown, Mahopac, N.Y. was the type of place where neighbors watched out for one another; where Max, the golden retriever that lived across the street, would stop by for saltine crackers and a rub. The house we grew up in was a white colonial, with two floors, a red deck out back and a hammock hanging lazily in the front. In the early fall, green sour apples dropped—Plop! Plop! Plop!—from the trees, and come snowy winter days all the neighborhood kids—David and me, Richie, Gary and Jon Miller, Dennis and John Gargano, Robbo, Matty and Jean-Marie Walker—would attack Emerald Lane with our plastic sleds. There was night tag and tackle football; strolls through the woods and backyard camp-outs and bike rides into town to buy Big League Chew and Hostess Fruit Pies at Rodak’s Deli.
One could not have asked for a more Rockwellian place to spend a boyhood, and yet—as he grew—my brother began to show signs of … something. The initial difficulty came in nursery school, when a teacher pointed out that David wasn’t interacting with the other children. When one of their friends made a similar observation, my folks were, understandably, offended. Kids, after all, develop at their own speeds. David was shy. Quiet. Guarded. Sure, he could be a tad ornery. But who among us isn’t?
As my brother progressed to Lakeview Elementary School, however, his differences became increasingly obvious—and painful. “He didn’t make friends,” says Stan Pearlman, my father. “He was often by himself.” Like many with Asperger’s, David was obsessed with trains, both model and real. David would watch his own miniature Lionel go round and round in the corner of his room, and my father would take him to the nearby Croton-Harmon station, where the two would sit and stare longingly at the sleek silver locomotives whisking off toward New York City.
Because our birthdays were separated by only 15 days, my mom held single parties for both of us. If 10 kids attended, nine were my buddies, and the other was usually someone from my brother’s grade; some poor schlub Mom had seen talking to David and whom she hoped he might be close with.
By the time my brother entered junior high school, he was unambiguously miserable. Because Asperger’s had yet to be a classified diagnosis, David—like most others of his ilk—was shuffled from one therapist to another in search of an answer. A psychiatrist said it was a maturation lag. A social worker said it was a learning disability. My parents tried their best, fighting against an invisible enemy. They signed David up for youth soccer, then watched in horror as his coach only played him for the minimal amount of time, when the game was out of hand. They sent him off to sleep-away camp, fearful that, come visiting day, he would tearfully beg for a return to the safety of home, where he never had to worry about striking a kickball.
David was an easy target, and kids zeroed in. He was nicknamed “E.T.” by some, “Mascot” by others. I still recall a gaggle of girls taunting him with shouts of “Rain Man!” outside the cafeteria. When David responded with his clumsy version of a karate kick, the mocking only intensified. (Recently, I reconnected with one of the girls via Facebook. When I reminded her of the way she treated my brother, she wrote, “I was hoping you didn’t remember that. I was a terrible person, and I’ve felt guilty for years. I am so sorry for being that sort of person.”) On multiple occasions, I recall him wailing, “I’m retarded. I know I’m retarded.” David was trapped—something was clearly off, only the answer, at that time, did not exist.
My mother insists that I was good to my brother, but I have hard time remembering it that way. Mostly, I observed as others taunted. Once, toward the end of a particularly bad day at school, David and I were sitting in the den, watching the movie “Tough Guys” on cable. I was razzing him about something—maybe his grades, maybe his clothes. David got up, walked into the kitchen, grabbed a knife and yelled, “I can stab myself with this right now! I can kill myself right now!” I was 13-years old and sick of the drama. Why wasn’t my brother like everyone else? Why wasn’t he normal? Why did my parents and grandparents treat him differently than me? “Go ahead and do it!” I screamed. “I dare you!”
He put the knife down. Years later, when I recalled the exchange for a therapist, she said, “This has been eating you up, hasn’t it?” Tears streamed down my cheeks. Indeed, it had.
Now, as we sit here in the restaurant, talking, I ask David whether he considered me to be mean. “No,” he says. “You weren’t.” I suspect he’s merely trying to avoid a touchy subject. Even if I didn’t directly harm my brother, I took pleasure in outdoing him. I was faster, stronger, more popular, a better student. My brother’s teenage acne was worse than mine. He failed his driving test, I didn’t. One New Year’s Eve, we went to Times Square together to watch the ball drop. We were both interviewed by the local TV station, but my mom later told us neither had made the telecast. When David was out of earshot, she whispered, “You were on, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him he wasn’t.” My reaction? Elation.
For years, I have hated myself for this. Hated myself. My brother was alone and in need of a friend, and he should have had one in his little brother. When I confided in a therapist on the matter, she asked whether I felt haunted.
“Haunted?” I said.
“You were never able to be the little brother,” she noted. “Whether you were aware of it or not, you probably felt like you always had to be better than David. That, compared to him, you had to be perfect. That’s a heavy weight to carry around.” She was dead-on. To this date, it’s the least-favorite of my myriad character flaws. Around my wife and kids, I always have to know the answers—to everything. If I don’t, I’ve failed.
My folks—especially my mother—suffer from similar scars and feelings of remorse. Mom looks back and kicks herself for the missteps: Signing him up for soccer, sending him to camp, being unable to overlook his quirks and inappropriate utterings. It’s a horrible thing to watch, your mother condemning herself, especially when she tried her absolute best. “I’m not mad at Mom,” David says. “She didn’t know. She wanted me to be happy.”
This is my brother—never one to hold a grudge, no matter how severe. He does, however, recall one incident that, 20 years later, still seems to touch a nerve. During his senior year at Mahopac High School, David approached a classmate, gritted his teeth and asked her to the prom. Knowing my brother’s social shortcomings, this had to have been one of the most difficult things he ever did.
The girl’s response?
“Are you kidding me?”
In 1944, an Austrian pediatrician named Hans Asperger first described children in his practice who lacked nonverbal communication skills, demonstrated limited empathy with their peers and were physically clumsy. A whopping 50 years later—by the time surely hundreds of thousands of people had struggled with a mysterious disorder—Asperger Syndrome was standardized as a diagnosis.
In between the pediatrician’s heyday and the official labeling of the disorder, my brother—God bless him—uncovered an antidote of his own: Caldor.
In 1986, at age 16, David took a 10-hour-per-week job working in the photo department at Caldor, the discount department store located five miles from our house. “We were worried,” says my dad, “because he was struggling in school, and we didn’t know how he’d manage.” Against all logic, my brother’s grades improved dramatically. He upped his hours to 20 per week, and the grades got even better. Than 30 per week—even better. David would go straight from school to Caldor, work until 10 pm, then wake up at 5 the next morning to do his homework. Order and structure, two keys to coping with Asperger’s, were suddenly part of his life. “It gave me responsibility,” David says. “I learned how to work with people.” Best of all, David was, for the first time in his life, successful. There was nothing athletic to selling cameras, and nothing especially social. He would proudly don his brown-and-yellow smock, leave the house with his head held high and drive off to a place where he was accepted. Even admired. David was a wizard at the cash register, kept his department clean and knew the merchandise inside and out. “That’s the best thing that ever happened to David,” says my mom. “I think it showed him that he was capable and smart.” In December 1987, my brother telephoned our home from the Caldor Christmas party. He had had too much to drink, and he needed someone to pick him up. Normally, parents hearing from their drunk 17-year-old is hardly a cause for celebration. This, however, was different. I still remember David stumbling into the house, goofily talking nonsense, my folks and I elated.
“He was accepted at Caldor,” says Dad. “He needed that.”
In the Hollywood adaptation of the David Pearlman Story, everything from this point works out. Asperger’s, however, rarely lends itself to clichés. Upon graduating from high school, my brother attended Western New England College in Springfield, Mass. From afar, my parents were encouraged—he was president of the honor society, seemed to have friends, etc … etc. Yet life was never easy. “I was made fun of a lot,” he says. “It wasn’t quite like high school, but there were mean people.”
Over the last 16 years, my brother’s journey has been a rocky—but ultimately triumphant—one. He spent his early years after college bouncing from job to job, never quite discovering a good fit. He lasted two weeks peddling frozen foods (“It was a scam,” he says), then sold copy machines out of his trunk for three months. “Face-to-face sales are tough for me,” he says. “I couldn’t take no for an answer, and people got annoyed by me.” David eventually became a stockbroker in New York City, a 7 ½-year venture that interspersed occasional highs with monumental lows. He was always worried about losing job, and admits to having contemplated suicide on multiple occasions (This is not unusual among the Asperger’s population). He blind dated sporadically, but found the required aimless banter to be difficult and annoying. Every so often we’d hear about a second or third date, then—nothing.
A decade ago, David relocated to Ft. Lauderdale and, in 2004 he took a position selling cruise packages for Carnival. It’s a job he’s now held for five years, and one he is apparently good at. “It’s over the phone, which works for me,” he says. “I’ve got it down pretty good.”
More important, six years ago, while meeting with his, oh, 15th therapist, David was asked whether he’d ever heard of something called Asperger Syndrome.
“I had no idea what that was,” he says. “But it made sense.” The social clumsiness? Check. The athletic difficulties? Check. The absentminded faux pas—dried toothpaste on his bottom lip; a upturned collar on his otherwise neatly pressed suit; nervously tapping his nose with the knuckle of his thumb? Check. My parents had recently been told of Asperger’s, but didn’t feel comfortable broaching the subject. “I wasn’t sure how he would react,” my mom says. “It’s touchy.” To David, though, it was an enormous relief. For the first time, David knew he wasn’t retarded or dumb or even weird. He simply had a disorder; one that, while burdensome, wasn’t the world’s demise. After accepting Asperger’s, David made a conscious decision to end the acting and pretending; to stop trying to be like everyone else. Now, he tells people the truth without a hint of embarrassment. Knowledge has brought power. And understanding. David is no longer the inexplicably quirky guy. He’s the guy with Asperger’s—big whoops.
Not all that long ago our family gatherings were dreaded step-by-step odes to dysfunction. Step 1: My brother would inevitably make inappropriate comments and gestures. Step 2: My father would pretend not to hear him. Step 3: My mom would berate my brother and insist that he “act like an adult.” Step 4: My dad would tell my mom to control herself. Step 4: My uncle and cousin would look to hide under the table. Step 5: I’d join them. But over the past few years, much has changed. Though David only comes to New York two or three times per year (usually for Thanksgiving, Passover and Chanukah), he seems to enjoy the family banter that once caused him great dread. He’s amazing with my kids (“Uncle David, what did you bring us this time?” is a familiar refrain from my daughter, Casey), and no longer looks to irk Mom.
Back in Florida, he has a handful of close friends (made at work), goes out to bars and clubs a couple of times per month, relishes his alone time, which we used to erroneously view as a negative. “I’m comfortable being by myself,” he says. “I often prefer it.”
I think about what my brother has given me. There’s a sensitivity to others that comes with watching a sibling go through hell; an understanding and embracing of those born with difficulties. Because of David, I’ve long made a concerted effort to stop and talk to the so-called “outcasts” of my environs; to hear their stories and grasp their lives. Although my daughter is only 6, I have told her repeatedly about the way David was treated. “Be the kind of person who tries to understand,” I tell her. “It’s easy to pick on the weak link. It’s hard—but right—to befriend people who need friends.”
Toward the end of our dinner, as the conversation begins to wane, I ask my brother whether he knows how proud I am. The sentiment confuses him—“Why?” he asks, genuinely perplexed.
“Because you always had it harder than I did, and you fought like hell,” I say. “You’re a terrific person, and you’ve made it on your own.”
There’s more I need to say. I want to tell him that I’m sorry about not standing up for him. That he deserved better. That he’s my hero. That I wish I were half the man he is. That I love him.
But, alas, we are two brothers, sitting in a Mexican restaurant, having a discussion that, once upon a time, I never thought possible.
I prefer to cherish the moment.