An Open Letter to HarperCollins about TO SIRI WITH LOVE
I hope that, by now, you have become aware of the outcry in the autistic community about the title To Siri With Love, which you have published this year and of which the autistic community is calling for a boycott. If not, perhaps a little bit of background is in order.
Author Judith Newman, who wrote for the New York Times (and believe me, I would love to write a letter to them next) about parenting an autistic child, parlayed that into a book that you accepted, edited, published, and publicized. In that book, she wrote some very questionable things; most notably, there has been a slew of quotes going around in which she discusses her child’s fitness for being a parent and how she wanted to retain power of attorney so she could sign him up for sterilization (after denigrating the idea that he could even have a romantic life). Here are the receipts on that.
I tried to be as dry and clinical as I could while writing the above paragraph, but I’m already almost crying.
Do you want to know why?
Because if I had been born a little bit earlier, or been a little bit more “classically” or stereotypically autistic, it’s very possible that I could have actually been forced to undergo something like forced sterilization. It’s not unheard of at all, and may even still be legal in some states, to sterilize people with disabilities. Targeting a population for sterilization is known as eugenics, as the author noted before going ahead and saying that she wanted to do it anyway, and it’s generally frowned upon these days. (Why, yes, that was use of understatement, a technique related to sarcasm that some autistic people can and do grasp.) More than that, it’s terrifying to me as an adult human in one of those populations that could be affected by forced sterilization if ignorance such as Ms. Newman’s is normalized.
I would be a damned good mother if I chose to have children. Lots of autistic people are good parents. That’s why it’s ignorant. Her own son is only about 16, how the hell does she know what kind of parent he’s going to be yet to be talking about getting him a vasectomy? Based on reading some of her writing, her self-awareness doesn’t seem good enough for her to be in charge of those types of decisions, frankly; even if she were, her son is still a person. Autistic people are still people. You published a book in which a person blithely talked about taking away the reproductive rights of another person.
A lot of autistic people are angry at Ms. Newman. I don’t have anger to waste on her. She’s one ignorant person and the ability to stamp out every individual’s ignorant ideas is beyond the scope of activism. Here’s what angers me: that this book went through however many revisions, however many edits, passed through however many sets of hands at your organization, and not one person seems to have said, “Hey, do you think we should consider not publishing a book that talks about forcibly sterilizing a person with a developmental disability?” or “Hey, do you think the way that she talks about her autistic son is dehumanizing to autistic people, an already-vulnerable population?” or “Hey, do you think this will spread ignorant ideas that could harm autistic people, an already-vulnerable population?”
Maybe someone did say that, and everyone else shrugged because autism is a hot issue right now and there’s money to be made from it. If you aren’t keeping score, ignoring a known issue in favor of profit is worse than being ignorant of the issue.
Autistic people are angry about this book because we are people. We are not chattel; we are not required to submit to inspections before being deemed worthy of breeding. The bit about forced sterilization isn’t even the only ignorant thing she says in the book that dehumanizes autistic people, by the way, but it’s definitely an un-subtle, hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-sledgehammer thing that should have raised some flags in your organization. By allowing it to pass, you have helped normalize the idea that people like her son–and people like me, and people like, I dunno, Anthony Hopkins and Gary Numan and Daryl Hannah and Dan Harmon and every other autistic person out there–could and maybe should have our reproductive choices taken away from us. Because you vetted this book. You exchanged money for this book and legitimized it as something that you, a publisher, a gatekeeper, deemed worthy of being read by others.
“But just because we published it doesn’t mean we agree with it,” you might be saying, if you’re deigning to read this letter. And I think we both know that’s a cop-out. It’s a way of profiting off of harmful and dangerous ideas without taking responsibility for giving someone a platform to spread them. There’s no content warning at the front of this book indicating that the ideas inside might be harmful or dangerous; there’s nothing to keep people from picking up this book and thinking that, since you chose this manuscript to be put into the world and paid money for it, that the ideas inside must have some merit.
There’s no comfort to the autistic people out here reading this book and the fallout from the book (hi, hello, we are here and we can read and write and understand when we’re being talked about), tears pricking our eyes from fear and anger and the exhaustion that comes from fighting to be seen as just as human as you are, that you may not agree with it but thought it was okay to publish.
There’s no comfort to the autistic activist that Newman referenced in her book, saying that she looked like a “manic pixie dream girl”, which does not actually mean that one looks like a literal pixie and is deeply insulting to say to a woman because it’s a sexist trope. (Newman then followed this up with an exchange on Twitter in which the activist questioned why Newman commented on her appearance at all, and Newman replied that lipstick and blush don’t “magically appear” on the activist’s face instead of apologizing for the remark about the activist’s appearance. Classy.) This is another thing that your editors probably should have flagged, by the way.
There’s no comfort to Newman’s child. I hope that he isn’t going to find out about the vasectomy from Twitter.
Do better, HarperCollins. Publish more books by people who are actually autistic; hire autistic people to vet books that are written about autistic people by neurotypical people. The book that you published caused real harm to real autistic people. Do better.
Sincerely terrified by the possible repercussions of this book,
An Actually Autistic Woman