Monday, March 5, 2018

Book Review: The Love Letters of Abelard and Lily

[Image: Book cover: blue background
with rows of scribbled-out red hearts
interspersed with casual white lettering
reading "The Love Letters of Abelard
and Lily | Laura Creedle"] 
Kathryn Hedges

The greatest strengths of the YA book The Love Letters of Abelard and Lily by Laura Creedle were the realistic portrayals of two very different neurodivergent teens, and their gentle romance. It was wonderful for an autistic character (Abelard) to break so many negative stereotypes and for a non-autistic character (Lily) to accept his differences so enthusiastically. They are an adorable couple with great promise (except for conflicts over her tardiness and his need for promptness). I also empathized with Lily’s struggles with unsympathetic teachers and her own feelings of failure. However, I was angry and disappointed by the tragically ableist conclusion. (Spoilers ahead, in case it matters.)

I expected this to be a story about two neurodivergent characters who succeed while leveraging the strengths of their neurodivergences and working around their weaknesses, perhaps teaming up with complementary skills. Abelard’s story arc meets this expectation: he’s a robotics champion with disability accommodations whose parents send him to an elite college for Autistic geniuses. Lily, however, doesn’t get to overcome her obstacles of internalized ableism and lack of executive function scaffolding. Her unsupportive family and sadistic teachers trigger shame spirals about her executive dysfunction, worsening its effects, even though she has sympathetic allies outside the home suggesting the problem isn’t really her. Lily’s story arc is rejecting her "childish" impulses to escape her abusers and making the "mature, reasoned" choice to undergo experimental surgery to cure her ADHD and ensure a bright future where her genius is not frittered away by a lack of focus. Not only is this ableist, it’s bad writing.

The neurosurgeon minimized the potential risk and oversold the benefits, which I assumed was a sales pitch meant to entrap Lily. However, the author seemed to present it at face value. The only alternative portrayed was to leave town with Abelard in a realistically-teenage unrealistic plan. Just because this is a bad plan doesn’t mean surgery is the only alternative. The author completely ignored less-dramatic scenarios where Lily could have a better support system and less blame over her neurotype, such as staying with her best friend’s family. She wasn’t even given enough time to see if her new accommodations would make a difference at school because the needs of the plot couldn't wait.

Apparently, the author was setting Lily up as the person whose ADHD is so severe they need a cure, the equivalent of the "tragic" Autistics that autism curebies and Temple Grandin talk about. This is a very insidious case of “neurodiversity lite,” because the author's target audience includes teens with ADHD facing similar struggles with family, schoolwork, and expectations. Promoting a message of “you will be a failure because you need a surgery that doesn’t exist in the real world” is cruel and irresponsible. Likewise, those teens' school counselors and potential employers don’t need that message either because it can shape expectations—just as damage has been done by the false “Autistics lack empathy” trope. As Abelard has accommodations and an entire college designed for his neurotype, it isn’t just that the author is unaware of the social model of disability. She’s decided to throw it under the bus.

Whether the author has internalized ableism about her own ADHD or is just a big fan of Elizabeth Moon’s book Speed of Dark, I don’t know, but I don’t want to promote her underlying curebie message by recommending this book.