- About Don Tillman
- Could Don Tillman be and do Better? The Portrayal of Autism as a Funny Deficit
- A Case for Don’s Character Strengths
- It’s Don’s Story, let him Tell it: The Importance of Perspective in Storytelling
- The Potential to Promote Understanding and Empathy: By and For Don
- Don’s Metamorphosis: An Endearing Lesson
- Summing Up…
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About Don Tillman
Don Tillman is an eminent geneticist but hopelessly out of his depth when it comes to regular social interactions, has exactly two friends, never went out on a second date, and ponders at night if he is capable of finding love. He is also the protagonist (and narrator) of author Graeme Simsion’s best-seller debut novel, The Rosie Project.
He is most likely on the spectrum (hinted to be Asperger’s) but is blissfully ignorant of the same. A good-hearted neighbour whom he strikes an unlikely yet genuine friendship with suggests that there is someone out there for everyone in this whole wide world. Failing to refute the probabilistic inevitability, Don embarks on a hilarious journey to solve the “Missing Wife” problem. Of course, he is equipped with a scientist’s best-known conversational stratagem – a detailed, well-thought-out, duly calibrated, peer-reviewed, 16-page questionnaire; hence begins “The Wife Project.”
As the search hobbles towards an anticipated forlorn conclusion taking us through some amusing encounters, enter Rosie Jarman – the troublemaker. Rosie, however, has her own troubles in life, out of which not knowing the identity of her real father is bugging her the most. She enlists Don’s help and expertise to get her out of this conundrum; after all, who better than a DNA expert? Like everything else in his life, Don plans and organises this into another project – “The Father Project”. There’s a catch here. He and Rosie become good friends during their experiments, and against Don’s worst nightmares, this blossoms into attraction, companionship, feelings, and love – territories previously uncharted for him.
Now that I have your full attention, whether Don and Rosie get their happy endings is something you can go and find out for yourself. I highly encourage it. My focus in this essay was always meant to be on Don, what popular (and unpopular) opinions construct Don’s character, and what it means to be Don and with Don.
Could Don Tillman be and do Better? The Portrayal of Autism as a Funny Deficit
Most readers tend to agree and cherish the charming, delightful read that Simsion has crafted; herein lies the book’s biggest criticism of not being serious enough and of Simsion choosing the quick comedy path rather than a full-blown-out drama.
People gawk at the missed opportunity about how this could have and should have been an excellent endorsement for autistic people, how Don should have told their side of the story as their much-loved flag-bearer. They wished for it to portray autistic people in a positive light, calling out the trials and tribulations they have to endure every day and making a case for showcasing their more emotional aspects.
There are multiple comparisons between The Rosie Project and As Good as it Gets , a movie that the book also references. Arguments are galore about how the film does a much better job of helping viewers nurture a more balanced and nuanced view of autism and how it helps us empathize with the main character and not just laugh at their social ineptitude. The book portrays that people with autism, even as high-functioning as Don, readily give up and agree that they don’t conform to socially accepted normal behavior. Readers may get understandably worried about how that might send the wrong message in today’s society because Don’s narration is anecdotal, observational, and humorous but distinctly lack substance, nuance, and gravity. You can understand the same from the excerpt here:
“You’re unbelievable,’ said Rosie. ‘Look at me when I’m talking.’
I kept looking out the window. I was already over-stimulated.
‘I know what you look like.”
A Case for Don’s Character Strengths
Don’s character, however, is written to represent much more. He is pretty close to what people would consider a complete package – a source of equal amounts of inspiration and jealousy in today’s dating scenes – who is dangerously handsome (think Gregory Peck circa Atticus Finch), highly intelligent, an aikido black belt holder, and an amazing cook. He is conscious about his health, has an excellent fitness routine, and is environment-friendly with his cycling and runs. He never shies away from learning and mastering new things, demonstrated through his adventures in cocktail mixology, ballroom dancing, and sexual positions. All of this points to him being responsible, self-sufficient, and having a growth mindset.
On the other hand, he gets stumped by people’s inflexible choices with ice creams, the restaurant’s stupid insistence on specific types of jackets (when clearly he has a superior one), and how the same view from the same balcony evokes different emotions on different days. For someone who has a standardized weekly meal plan (of ridiculously elaborate dishes) to save time and cognitive load, isn’t that understandable? Every single one of us has our own pet peeves, idiosyncrasy, and follies, and often these are also the parts that make us interesting.
It makes me wonder – Don is highly-organized, eccentric, and even pedantic. True. Would that make for a great date and a lovelier companion?
It’s Don’s Story, let him Tell it: The Importance of Perspective in Storytelling
Remember how I mentioned in the first sentence that Don is also the narrator? This is important to keep in mind.
We need to understand that the book, and everything that transpires within the pages, is documented from his unique POV, i.e. how a neurotypical person would transcribe the scenarios in their head does not apply to him. It’s not like autistic people cannot feel; it’s just that they struggle immensely to express and communicate themselves well. Don says:
“It seems hardly possible to analyse such a complex situation involving deceit and supposition of another person’s emotional response, and then prepare your own plausible lie, all while someone is waiting for you to reply to a question. Yet that is exactly what people expect you to be able to do.”
Don is “aware” of what’s happening, of what is “acceptable” v/s what is not, and he is “aware” of the “social implications”, but when he is to act, he is bound by logic and common sense above everything else. He calls them as he sees them, much like Rosie does. But Don gets labeled as difficult because his responses are measured, concise, and to the point, while Rosie is attractive and fierce because she is beautiful (as per fashion standards) and emotionally charged. A distinct lack of feeling in how he narrates things allows the reader’s imagination and discretion to feel for and fill in for him.
The Potential to Promote Understanding and Empathy: By and For Don
As to sending the right message, I fell in love with Don right from his first lecture in the book. When he was addressing kids having Aspergers and their parents. This is how he interpreted being on the spectrum:
“I formed a provisional conclusion that most of these were simply variations in human brain function that had been inappropriately medicalized because they did not fit social norms – constructed social norms – that reflected the most common human configuration rather than the full range.”
Such a well-adjusted and inclusive interpretation! He points out that being on the spectrum is different, not difficult. He clearly calls out how the norms used to label people are constructed by society at large. This was Graeme’s favorite passage in the book too, and he reinforces its importance in establishing character, situation, and tone.
Don also navigates Gene and Claudia’s marital conflict like an expert. He sensed the relationship reaching its boiling point and intervened with discretion, being firm with Gene and upstanding with Claudia. He convinced Gene of what the happier path was. He showed tremendous composure and presence of mind to conclude the Father project. Interactions with Isaac Esler, Margaret Case, and Phil Jarman were not easy for him but he endured, highlighting his maturity. He showed, by example, that we can do better with empathy and acceptance. The same message is conveyed through the central love story.
More often than not, the titular female characters in romantic comedies (especially with a male protagonist) reduce to the concept of a “manic pixie dream girl”; not Rosie though. She was not even the dream girl for Don. She has her own identity, her own problems, and her own story, and she is free and independent, just like her character. To quote Clementine (Kate Winslet) from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
“Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.“
Rosie, in my opinion, is agreeable, relatable, desirable, and authentic.
Don’s Metamorphosis: An Endearing Lesson
The pieces of criticism that still linger include:
(a) portraying all autistic individuals as savants is factually incorrect
(b) autism gets accepted only when individuals show a significant capacity to change and grow.
I would counter otherwise. Never was (a) claimed; merely that they can think rationally without getting emotionally involved or compromised.
As for (b), well, he found the right nurturing environment and motivation. He embraced it and matured. Granted that it wasn’t unconditional acceptance, his interactions with his tiny circle of friends, especially Rosie, were like a breath of fresh air. Away from judging eyes anticipating the next awkward mistake, Don found an environment in which he could express himself freely and gradually expand his horizons. He does not change for Rosie but for himself. This excerpt captures the spirit of love in this book:
“If you really love someone,’ Claudia continued, ‘you have to be prepared to accept them as they are. Maybe you hope that one day they get a wake-up call and make the changes for their own reasons.”
Everyone should have someone they’re unwilling to say goodbye to. Don found Rosie and refused to let her go, even when she completely flunked his checklist, despite his best knowledge that it was logically and scientifically not meant to be. Because she was the hurricane to his calculated drizzle and the spontaneous routine-breaker to his monotonous schedule, she made him feel liberated about breaking the rules and taking chances. He did it because she made him feel happy. That’s what we should take away, to cherish the people we hold dear, to let them know that we adore them, to remind them of their importance and gifts. As Marcel Proust writes:
“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”
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