His Hands Were Quiet
By P.D. Workman
Content notes: suicide, abuse, murder, house fires, burn injuries, PTSD, Judge Rotenberg Center, ABA
This book review gets all the Autistic trigger warnings. It is a gripping thriller/suspense novel that could help people understand autism and Autistic people better, and it is raw and honest about what some of the most vulnerable Autistic people endure. It will be a tense read for everyone and could be especially triggering for many Autistic people, so proceed carefully with this review and remember that your self care is more important than anything.
Zachary Goldman is a private investigator with his own past history of trauma. He grew up in the foster care system and had a long and painful recovery from being badly burned in a house fire. He’s not in the greatest life situation when the novel opens—he’s sleeping on someone’s couch and not even doing that very well. Zachary suffers nightmares and insomnia from the stress of his current situation and the long-term effects of trauma.
When the mother of an Autistic boy living in a residential facility contacts him to investigate her son’s death—the institution and the coroner have decided that her son’s death was a suicide but she doesn’t feel that’s the truth—Zachary falls down a rabbit hole of autism therapies, electric shock, and adult Autistic protestors. Will Zachary uncover the truth about the boy’s death? Was it suicide? Murder? And why do the therapies used in the school make Zachary feel so uncomfortable? It looks to him like torture, but surely professionals know what’s right?
I have been a fan of P.D. Workman’s writing for years. She mainly writes YA and adult genre fiction and develops relatable underdog characters who move the story forward with their drive to understand and be understood. Workman’s characters seek and speak truth while others doubt their information and often their basic life competence.
Zachary Goldman is no exception to the theme. In fairness, his life is in shambles when the story opens, but people hover, untrusting. Both his ex and his friend who owns the couch Zachary is crashing on suspect he’s going off the deep end when he becomes obsessed with the school, the therapies, and the autistic children as he watches more and more troubling “therapeutic” situations—including a malfunction of a skin shock device, resulting in an electrical burn on an autistic girl’s skin.
As you may have already guessed by now, the school in the novel is modeled after the infamous Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC). When Zachary begins his investigation, he’s shown reward areas with cartoon characters, bright colors, a ball pit. He’s given the “glossy brochure” tour and might have walked away satisfied if it weren’t for all the protestors outside. The school’s director has Zachary enter and leave through a back door, hoping he would ignore the protestors, but Zachary ends up talking to a woman, an Autistic adult, who is with the protestors.
There are many moments in the novel that shine as not just scenes in a well-crafted story, but sensitive and insightful teaching moments. Zachary’s conversation with the protestor is one of those moments. As a longtime fan of Workman’s writing, I knew she was working on this novel and, along with many other Autistic activists and advocates, helped her connect with as much #ActuallyAutistic #OwnVoices as we could. Her research was tremendous and I felt a depth of understanding of Autistic issues throughout the novel. Some characters are ableist, some are grappling with entrenched ableism, but the bedrock of the novel is clearly respectful and Autistic-allied.
“Even without aversives, therapy can still cause PTSD or other anxiety or emotional problems.”
Zachary scratched the back of his neck. “Do you have proof of that?”
“I am proof of that.”
He looked at her, studying her face and her body language. “You did ABA?”
“Yes. I did.”
“What for? You aren’t autistic, are you?”
“Yes, I am.”
“You… must be very high-functioning. I wouldn’t have guessed it…”
“Do you think that’s a compliment?” she snapped.
Zachary fumbled for an answer. He had clearly said the wrong thing. He’d somehow insulted her. And he didn’t know what he’d done or how to undo it.
“You think I want to be like you?” Margaret persisted, her eyes flaming.
“Like me?” Zachary let out one bitter bark of laughter before he caught himself. “No, I don’t think you would want to be like me.”(From His Hands Were Quiet, location 1088, Kindle version)
Researching for the case, Zachary reads the ABA classic text, The Me Book by O. Ivar Lovaas. At points throughout the story, Zachary reflects on what he had read in The Me Book and how it relates to the aversive therapies he witnesses in the school.
And Lovaas… what had Lovaas said? He had said something along the lines of some children being rewarded by negativity and punishment, so that the parent or therapist had to be very angry and hard on them to get the proper results, and that weeks or months of such intense therapy could be taxing on the parent. Poor parents, having to be so hard on their kids. Zachary shook his head, thinking about the arrogance of such a statement.(Location 1995)
His Hands Were Quiet serves as an engaging fictionalized introduction to many crucial issues in the Autistics Rights movement. Many people who would be disinterested in reading non-fiction political writing will find themselves drawn into and caring about the human rights issues of the JRC, ABA therapies, the presumption of Autistic competence, and related issues through reading Workman’s mystery/suspense novel. His Hands Were Quiet is part of a series of novels about Zachary Goldman’s cases, but reads well as a stand-alone novel.
If there are people in your life who enjoy detective novels and would want to (or NEED to!) learn more about autism, here’s your Christmas present for them. Workman’s eye-opening story will lead to many fruitful discussions and much increased empathy for the struggles and needs of Autistic people.
Once more, I warn about the general content of the book, which can be intense at times, both in the ways that most mystery/suspense novels are but also for any Autistic who has experienced stressful therapies. With that caveat in mind, I loved this novel and recommend it to anyone who enjoys the genre.