Dummy: A Memoir
From his birth in 1954, David Patten was unbearably sensitive to the world around him. Unable to concentrate or learn the basics of reading and writing, he was punished and pathologized, labeled lazy, stupid, and a troublemaker. David was finally diagnosed with dyslexia, among other elements in the autism spectrum. But at a time when these disorders were little understood, David was unable to get the help he needed, and he gradually fell into the dark underbelly of American life. David's struggle to survive and find a life worth living included time in a mental institution for attempted suicide at fourteen, and life as a drug dealer in Chicago's criminal underworld. Eventually, David's exceptional abilities in abstract and analytical thinking led him into the technology field, and a lucrative six-figure career as a crisis manager and trouble shooter. His story of gradually transforming disabilities into skills, hopelessness into freedom is a testament to the power of the human spirit.
When an autistic, dyslexic and functionally illiterate individual writes a book, it is surprising. When that book turns out to be the account of an odyssey from a troubled youth, including a suicide attempt and dealing drugs in the underbelly of Chicago, to a successful life as high tech entrepreneur with a warm and happy family, it is fascinating. When, however, the book reveals a spirit of such indomitable integrity that it will not be crushed, no matter how high the cards are stacked against him, it is truly awe-inspiring.
"Dummy" is a beautifully written and riveting read on many levels. It provides an articulate insider’s understanding of the subjective experience of autism and how, by dint of incredible dedication on the part of his mother, he was able to penetrate the usual autistic shell of isolation and forge meaningful, and indeed insightful human relationships. It provides sobering testimony to the failure of the school system to understand and cater to his cognitive challenges, making drug dealing a default choice of livelihood.
It is an interesting commentary on society that David couldn’t adjust to its social norms of bullying, lies and duplicity, whereas with thugs and criminals he was better able to cope, because at least they said what they meant and he knew where he stood. In the end, what gave David the biggest push toward changing his life was the power of love, but not in any clichéd sense of the word. In a dynamic reminiscent of the Prayer of St. Francis, at age 14 he found a young woman even more broken than he was.
Throughout the book there an innocence and sweetness of character that keep shining through the dark events of his youth. After years of incredible trials and despair after his girlfriend’s near overdose, he had a spiritual epiphany that changed his life:
“Now I realized that it wasn’t about becoming more than I was, but about accepting who I am. I wondered to what degree the life I was living and the world I was living in were of my own making. Were they the result of what I believed the world to be? … if the world was a place of meaning and my life had a greater purpose than mere survival, then my choices and actions had profound significance. They shaped and defined who I was.”
David’s story and message are a gift to us all, and I would not be surprised if this book rises to the plane of spiritual classic.