The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music and Asperger’s Syndrome come together in critic Tim Page’s new memoir – but not quite close enough

November 17, 2009

By Jacob Stockinger

What did Mozart and Beethoven have in common besides Vienna, Franz Joseph Haydn and composing great music?

Both are suspected of having Asperger’s syndrome, a scientifically controversial and high-performing level of autism, according to a website for the disabled that speculates on what famous people had Asperger’s.

(Here’s a link:

But you wouldn’t know that to read the new memoir “Parallel Play: Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger’s” (Doubleday) by renowned music critic Tim Page (below), who himself spent most of his early and adult life as an undiagnosed sufferer of Asperger’s syndrome.

Page, who won a Pulitzer Prize while he was at The Washington Post but who also wrote for the New York Times and Newsday, who consulted with the St. Louis Symphony (a disaster by his own admission) and who now teaches journalism at the University of Southern California, is to be commended for his frankness.

The memoir is extremely readable, enjoyable and revealing.

Still, I find it not quite revealing enough.

Too much of it is devoted to trivial details and adventures of the young Tim Page, to his childhood and college days and to later adult living in Baltimore.

The real subject he set out to tackle, and readers want to learn about, is the relation between Asperger’s and creativity.  After all, other famous “Aspies,” according to the above web site, include Shakespeare and Viriginia Woolf; Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent Van Gogh; George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt; Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton; Bill Gates, Glenn Gould and Alfred Hitchcock.

Page, it turns out, is in some pretty good company – not that he offers many other examples.

So naturally I wanted to know more about Asperger’s – and about how it affected the adult Tim Page and his distinguished career in music criticism writing both journalism and books. You get some information about that, but not enough.

I might be mistaken but it seems to me I heard more about Asperger’s when Page recently spoke to NPR’s Terri Gross on her interview program “Fresh Air.”

Here is a link:

The memoir does answer some questions including the difficulty of maintaining a focus, the feeling of being an outsider, the difficult in expressing emotions and making social contacts, and the importance of repetition and routine.

But the memoir also left me with a lot of questions: What is like writing with Asperger’s? What led up this diagnosis? How has knowing about Asperger’s changed his view of himself and his career beyond the relief he discusses late in the book?

Still, there are some fine passages: “Every so often, someone asks me if I would undergo some yet-to-be-discovered treatment that might end my Asperger’s syndrome. Such questions have become politically fraught and my answer is a complicated one. I wouldn’t wish the condition on anybody – I’ve spent too much of my life isolated, unhappy and conflicted – yet I am also convinced that many of the things I’ve done were accomplished not despite my Asperger’s syndrome but because of it. I’m sure that it is responsible, at least in part, for my powers of concentration …  I’m also sure it’s one of the reasons I take my work so seriously … And I wouldn’t swap my sensory melding of music and words for anything for it continues to provide me with a privileged and other-worldly ecstasy into my sixth decade.” (Pages 178-79).

This is the kind of writing and analysis I wanted more of from the book. Does Page see some kind of affinity between himself and Glenn Gould, who became a friend and about whom he wrote a book? What does he think about Mozart and Beethoven as Aspies? Does he see its effect in their work?

I’d have liked a little more research, some history and medical background, and interviews with some experts? Is it genetic and did it run in his family? Is it underreported? Maybe over-reported and over-speculated about?

And what about some consumer information about advocacy groups for people who might wonder if they too have Asperger’s? Are there treatments, either medication or behavioral therapy, for Asperger’s?

Perhaps an editor should have kept him more on track (and corrected mistakes unworthy of a music critic such as misidentifying Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata being Op. 27, No. 1 – not No. 2.)

Still, this is a brave book. Page’s candor and directness has opened up a dialogue and will be interesting to see where it leads him, his readers and many other people with Asperberg’s syndrome.

In the end, he emerges not just as someone to read and respect, even admire. He comes across as a person you would like to meet and get to know and learn from.

Have you read Page’s criticism and this book?

Do you have thoughts about art and Asperger’s syndrome?

Do you have personal experience with Asperger’s and what do you make of it?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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