Monday, December 5, 2016

Audiobook Review: The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue




I'm behind on these. There's a whole list of wonderful books that I've been meaning to roll out reviews for. Unfortunately, NaNoWriMo got in the way. 

But now it's December and I can get back to what I love writing: snarky reviews. I could have kicked off the next series of Diverse Reads reviews with a nice review. But I'm in a bad mood. Have been since November 8th. Actually, I've been in a bad mood since 2016 started with a slew of celebrity deaths and terrible news. 

So a negative review it is. Spoilers below. I could not give less of a fuck whether or not I spoil this horrible book. Actually, since the whole point of this is to convince you NOT to read it, I'm going to try to spoil as much as I possibly can.

Brace yourself. This is going to be a long one. 

Summary

After the swimming accident that nearly claimed the lives of him and his friend, Jack Peter has been severely agoraphobic. What his parents don't seem to understand is how scary he finds the world outside. So he starts drawing monsters in order to show them. Unfortunately, his drawings start coming to life. Soon his whole family and his best friend Nick are haunted -- and hunted -- by the creatures of Jack's imagination. 


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Review: Fuck This Book. I Wish I Had Never Seen It. I Regret Spending Time Finishing It. Good Thing I Got it At the Library. Maybe I Should Just Throw It In the Trash and Pay the Reimbursement Cost. That Way The Library Could Buy A Better Book.

One star. One single, solitary, star that stands for the single, solitary finger I'd like to raise to this book. 

Not only is this one of the most offensive books I've ever read, it has no redeeming qualities. The plot is a meandering mess. The characters are annoying. AND THE MONSTERS AREN'T SCARY.  

It was a disappointment on every front. I'm not even going to find a one-star graphic for this post. That's how much I hated this book. 

The Shitty Concept

The Boy Who Drew Monsters tried to capitalize on the "creepy child" trope. Jack Peter is a quiet kid with a monster-drawing habit, making him great creepy child material. Jack Peter is also mentally ill, and neurodivergent. And we all know how horror loves to exploit mental illness for cheap shock value and ready-made villains.

While at first Jack is portrayed sympathetically, the tone shifts as the book goes on. Jack is described as cold, emotionless, and malignant towards his friends and family. We're also meant to associate these negative traits with his autism, which is hugely fucking problematic. Autistic people do not always "get" social cues, relate to others, or demonstrate affection the way neurotypical people do. That does not make them robots devoid of empathy. Even if it was, disorders which are characterized by lack of empathy don't necessarily translate to always being violent or malicious.


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Creepy children of movies.
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For something billed as a psychological thriller, the treatment of Jack Peter's mental state is circumspect bordering on lazy. Although he is a viewpoint character, the majority of the book is written from the POV of his parents and his best friend. The Boy Who Drew Monsters flip-flops on just how much agency Jack has; does he really control his creations? Does he know or care about the harm he's doing?

The Shitty Monsters

The unknown is scarier than the known. The monsters and apparitions lost much of their power when they were described too early, in too much detail. The book also waffles back and forth on how real and dangerous they are. The half-assed worldbuilding that went into the horror elements was truly yawn-worthy. 

In one scene, Nick sees an apparition of his dead parents, only to have it disappear as soon as he calls his parents to look at it. However, we learn later that Jack Peter can alter reality with his drawings. In fact, he's been keeping Nick alive since the day they almost drowned by making daily drawings of him. (Spoiler.) So, by that logic, shouldn't Nick's parents really have died? The supernatural elements have no internal consistency. 

Some of the monsters are just babies. Scary babies running around in a scary baby horde making scary baby sounds. All they did was crawl and look weird. It had me cracking up laughing. I wasn't going to put it in this review, but I feel I had to just because it was so hilariously bad. (And this is coming from someone who LOVES corny, campy horror.) 

In another scene, Jack's father Tim runs out in pursuit of a monster he sees on the beach. The monster knocks him down and...gives him three shallow scratches across his throat. Yet we're supposed to be terrified of the monster at the climax? 

We never get a sense of how strong the monster is or what it can do. It spends a lot of time running around knocking on the walls and did I mention that it can be destroyed if you just rip up the paper it was drawn on?

The climax of the book is literally Jack's parents throwing his drawings in the fire. 

Such scare. So monster. Very horror. Wow. 


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Jack's "Condition"

Jack has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of Autism Spectrum Disorder. In addition, he also developed agoraphobia and PTSD from his near-death experience at the age of seven. 

Now ten years old, he's improved somewhat -- but not nearly enough for his parents. Their constant hand-wringing, impatience, and borderline abusive behavior -- dragging him, shaking him, grabbing him, yelling at him, emotionally abusing him and telling him to get over it or "give it a rest, for once" when he's in the throes of a panic attack -- is cringe-worthy. 

Holly's mother constantly thinks about what Jack was like as a baby before he was diagnosed with his "condition," the euphemism they use most often to describe autism. She misses hugging him and being physically affectionate. This is understandable. But she also tries to touch and hug him non-consensually -- and then acts like it's his fault when he gets upset.

Touch aversion and nightmares are common symptoms of PTSD. The book's inciting incident comes when Holly touches Jack's forehead in order to wake him up from a nightmare. Surprised and scared, he lashes out and punches her. She takes this as evidence that her son is "getting worse" and that he's going to get too big for her to "handle," grow into a violent adult, and ought to be sent away to a home. To avoid being sent away, Jack Peter -- who was asleep when he unknowingly hit his mother after she touched him without his consent -- creates these monsters. 


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I need to drop another Doge or this review will be too depressing to finish. Sorry.

Over the course of the book, the monsters are revealed as manifestations of Jack's anger and resentment. The novel takes it a step further, describing them as manifestations of his autism in terms like creatures from his "tortured" mind, imaginings of a "broken" mind, and Jack creating the world inside his own head where he's "trapped." 

Fuck This Book. Fuck It Right In Its Book-Hole.

You know what? I'd be fine with an early offensive portrayal of ASD...if Jack's parents eventually learned to accept him for who he is and stop wishing for the "normal" son they never had. Raising a kid with special needs is tough, since there's a social stigma around it and not much in the way of resources to help parents. But it's not the kid's fault. 

The Boy Who Drew Monsters goes so far as to describe Jack's manner as though a "demon" had taken over his body and that the "normal" baby he once was had become a distant stranger. The father thinks Jack is "broken" and can be "restored," even wishing that he'd married a different woman and had a different kid. Both parents blame Jack for the breakdown of their life plans and the crumbling of their marriage. Both wish his best friend Nick was their son instead. 


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Holly's fatalism that Jack can never be "normal" and will always be a helpless invalid is one kind of problematic: the kind that infantalizes autistic people and refuses to see them as anything other than their diagnosis. Jack is only ten -- but she believes autism will keep Jack from ever being happy, just because she's not happy having to raise a kid on the spectrum.

Tim, the dad, is problematic in another way: his insistence that Jack Peter can be cured, fixed, restored, or otherwise transformed reveals a deep prejudice against autistic people. Jack is not valid in his eyes unless he is "restored." But there's no "cure" for autism. Hell, here's nothing wrong with people who are neurodivergent -- they just experience and process sensations and interactions differently. His belief that Jack can one day "return to normal" leads him to speak out against treatments that would help him, including medications, doctors, psychiatrists, even support groups with kids from different places on the autism spectrum.

All Jack needs to do, Tim thinks, is change his fucking brain by fucking power of will alone. I am not fucking making this shit up. FUCK. 

Both their prejudices converge on one point: the idea that autistic people cannot lead happy, fulfilling lives. Holly looks at her ten-year-old son -- a traumatized boy who nevertheless has his whole life ahead of him -- and sees an Asperger's diagnosis as an insurmountable obstacle to that life. Tim looks at his autistic son and sees a cure or restoration as his son's path to happiness -- the only way Jack can live a full life is if his autism is eliminated. 

I'm honestly getting incensed just writing this. The amount of self-righteous hand-wringing, the oh poor me I'm so put-upon, I have to raise an autistic child, boo-fucking-hoo I can't hug my child without their consent, wahhhh children have bodily autonomy and I don't like it, wahhh why couldn't I have a normal kid?? is nauseating. Keith Donohue could have just replaced this book with a link to Autism Speaks. (link explains why Autism Speaks sucks.)

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Hahaha did you think I was done? Oh, no. Oh dear, no. I hate this book with the fire of several thousand words. 

The outpouring of resentment and negativity towards Jack even starts to come from Nick, his best friend. The narrative drops no hints of Nick's animosity towards Jack until it needs Jack to be creepy. Suddenly, Nick is scared of his "creepy" autistic friend, he resents rather than enjoys coming over to play, and decides he hates Jack Peter and wishes they never met. The abrupt switches are jarring. 

Holly seeks advice from a priest and his old Japanese housekeeper. Miss Tiramacu, in a refreshing breath of air that doesn't stink of prejudice, is the only non-white character in the book. She's also autistic. 

Her depiction does play to some racial stereotypes: she is the resident dispensary of supernatural knowledge and visions, she hangs around educating the white people, she knows magical Eastern healing medicine techniques, and the characters often think of her as "The Japanese woman," "the housekeeper," "the Japanese housekeeper," or in one case, "that voodoo woman" and similar magical monikers. 

But she's a positive character in an overwhelmingly negative novel. She is autistic and she's lived a full and happy life, despite growing up in a time when people were even less understanding of ASD. She offers to talk to Jack, and their conversation goes well. Jack finally seems to have a true ally. 

But, of fucking course, Tim calls her a freak and a witch because she has a cloudy eye. This wreck of a book's hostility towards disability of any kind is the only consistent thing about it. 

This COULD have been an opportunity for someone to stand up to Jack. When Holly comes over to talk to the priest, she confesses that she was disappointed in having a son with Asperger's and wishes she could have had a normal child. She also confesses that, on the day the two boys nearly drowned, she briefly hoped that the hand of God had taken her son away so she didn't have to deal with him anymore. 

Out of all the messages Donohue could have sent with that scene -- for instance, having the autistic person in the room defend Jack, or give Holly hope that Jack could grow up happy, or point out that there's nothing wrong with being autistic and that maybe Holly should adapt more to Jack rather than expecting he, a ten-year-old child, do all the changing to be "normal" -- the author had the priest say that God gives us burdens to test our faith.


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I wish that I could say this isn't a common narrative about mental illness, disability, and neurodivergence among religious people. I wish I could say that the author was portraying an ignorant view of Catholicism. But the author went to a Catholic college, and in my own experience, explaining any perceived "abnormality" as God "testing" or "burdening" parents is common among religious people.

In fact, this was so similar to the kind of shit people told my mother about my brother growing up that I wanted to vomit. Or smash something. 

Holly confronts him about calling Jack a burden -- but it's not to defend Jack. It's to complain that people try to "ennoble his condition" by pretending like it's a test from God, when really Asperger's is this horrible condition and he suffers so much poor me poor Jack etc etc etc. The autistic person present actually speaks up in the priest's defense.

Now, to be clear: children are a burden. That's why you (ideally) don't have kids until you're OK with making all the lifestyle changes that involves. But the resentment against Jack and autistic people for even daring to exist is woven through this book in a toxic narrative that stretches from its offensive concept to its final page. For fuck's sake, Jack's own mother WISHES HE HAD DROWNED.

I don't mean to minimize the struggle of living in a world designed for the neurotypical, or of experiencing more negative things like self-harming stimming, panic attacks, social exhaustion, and meltdowns. I absolutely DO mean to minimize the "struggle" of parents who bitch and moan and abuse their child because he doesn't fit their dream of a white picket fence family. 

I'm Almost Done, I Swear...


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*breathing calmly* OK...

In the very end of The Boy Who Drew Monsters, we learn Jack Peter's motivations for drawing monsters. Sort of. He's been drawing his friend Nick every day since they almost drowned, because Nick's heart stopped and he needed to keep him alive. He got tired of doing the drawings. That...still doesn't actually explain why he starts drawing monsters to torment Nick and his family, or wrap up the half-assed ghost plot, or also what about the fact that the two kids were trying to kill each other on the beach that day, which wasn't brought up as a factor in their "best friendship" until about 2/3 of the way in and...You know what? Fuck it, I'm done expecting anything out of this book. 

Long story short, Nick will die or remain comatose in the hospital if Jack Peter doesn't draw him again. 

This could be a moment for Jack to work through his feelings about Nick holding his head under three years ago. He could wonder whether perhaps he should let nature take its course. He did say earlier that he didn't blame Nick anymore, but that's different from wanting to save his life. This was a moment for character development and agency: is he going to forgive his friend and use his supernatural powers to save him? Is this book finally going to redeem Jack from the constant resentment and creepiness?


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Inspiring thematically appropriate image!
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No. Of course not! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAA HAVE YOU BEEN READING THIS REVIEW????

Holly seizes his shoulders, walks him forcibly to his desk, forces him to sit down, thrusts a pencil in his hand and bodily curls his fingers around it and presses it to the page, ordering him to draw. And yes, the book does describe her actions with verbs like "forced."

No one ever hits Jack in The Boy Who Drew Monsters. But the amount of manhandling that takes place -- the total disregard for the problems that come with ignoring bodily autonomy of a touch-averse person with Asperger's and PTSD -- is deeply disturbing. Holly, who kicked off this whole mess when she touched Jack without his consent, ends the novel doing the same thing even more forcibly. So much for character development.

And just for the icing on the cake...


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The very angry cake.
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Tim is an aggressive caricature of an atheist who scoffs at and insults the priest, Miss Tiramacu, and all religion. He even shames his wife for wanting to talk to a priest and tries to control her -- telling her that she doesn't have his "permission" to go to church. So not only is he an atheist, he's a religion-hating atheist who doesn't want to live in an interfaith marriage with a woman who has a Catholic background, and he wants to control what she believes as well. 

Again, I'm super not surprised that a religious man wrote this.

Also They Nicknamed Their Child A RACIAL SLUR

I almost forgot another reason I hated this book. I was going to add it to the audiobook review, but it's not the reader's fault. Edited to add:

Jack Peter's nickname is "J.P." However, no one calls him J.P. His mom calls him Jack, his friend Nick calls him Jack Peter, and his dad...calls him "Jip." Which, since I was listening to the audiobook rather than reading the way it was spelled, sounded EXTREMELY UNFORTUNATE. Well, it is extremely unfortunate, because "Jip" still sounds EXACTLY LIKE said racial slur. 

I'm also not entirely sure this was an accident. Or even if it was, the context gives it an even more troubling layer of meaning. The phrase "to gyp" someone means to cheat or swindle them, with "Gyp" being either a derogatory term for a Roma person or a label for a cheater or swindler. Throughout the book, Jack's parents constantly express the sentiment that they've been cheated out of the perfect life they wanted by Jack, or "Jip."

Audiobook Review: Bronson Pinchot

It was adequate. The voices of the younger characters were too deep; they sounded much older. I know the reader could have gone higher, since he did the women's voices perfectly well. At that age, the voice of a ten-year-old boy would be higher than that of an adult woman. Someone should have reminded the producer when boys hit puberty.

Also, Holly's voice and tone took on a plaintive, whining quality after a while. Which made sense, since she whines about Jack all. the. time. but still got annoying. I thought some emotional variation introduced into her long monologues about her life -- anger, exasperation, hopefulness, fear, a speculative tone -- anything in addition to her typical mopey voice -- would have livened her up a bit.

If you'd like to read better books about protagonists with autism and PTSD, I recommend this one or that one. Just stay the hell away from The Boy Who Drew Monsters. 

2 comments:

  1. Oh my Lord. This book sounds awful. The dumpster fire which spouted it needs to be put out with a fireman's hose.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for stopping by.
      It's truly awful, oh my goodness. I take comfort in the knowledge that not all Christians feel this way about disability, sickness, and mental illness. Roll out the hoses!

      Delete

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