BOSTON — Ron Suskind has won the Pulitzer Prize for his journalism; his books on American presidents have made the best-seller lists. But in recent years, Suskind has begun sharing a far more personal, heartfelt story.
In 2014 the Jewish-American author and former Wall Street Journal reporter wrote “Life, Animated” about his autistic son, Owen Suskind, who was 20 years old at the time. It depicted how the Suskind family — including Ron, his wife Cornelia, and their older son Walter — used Disney movies to connect with Owen.
Last year, “Life, Animated” was adapted into a documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won Best Director of a US Documentary for director Roger Ross Williams. (In 2010, Williams became the first African-American to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary, Short Subject, for “Music by Prudence.”)
It was an emotional premiere.
“Roger says, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Owen Suskind!’” Suskind said at a March 29 screening of the film that opened the ReelAbilities Film Festival at the Museum of Science in Boston.
“Owen bends down. People cheered for five minutes. I never heard noise like this. They were cheering for all the left-behind people. Owen is just their vessel. They get to see it out,” Suskind said.
“I will never forget the sound if it’s the last thing I remember in my life. Roger introduces Walter. They’re still screaming. [Walter says] ‘Hey, buddy, take a bow.’ Owen has a thousand perfect bows [in his repertoire]. He does the Prince Charming bow, one foot back and one across. And everybody knows.”
From Prince Charming to Peter Pan, Mowgli to the Little Mermaid, Owen has loved watching Disney movies since childhood. But after he stopped talking at the age of three, animated films became an unexpectedly important way for the Suskind family to connect with him. The family even employed this mode of communication at his bar mitzvah — although in that case it was a Universal film, not a Disney one.
“Were there movies with Jewish themes that could provide handles, anything to work with, to draw him in?” Suskind wrote in the readers guide to his book. “We went with one indisputable favorite: ‘An American Tail,’ a 1986 Universal animated film about mice from Russia, with thick accents, who come to America because ‘the streets are paved with cheese.’ It’s Jews as mice, led by one of Owen’s most beloved characters, [Feivel] the young mouse who is separated from his family and wanders through the gritty circus of 1890s New York.”
The documentary interweaves old family videos with more recent footage and, fittingly, animated scenes. Suskind and baby Owen play at sword-fighting, and he and his wife Cornelia share poignant reactions upon learning that Owen has been diagnosed with autism.
Yet if “Life, Animated” exposes pain, it also illuminates breakthroughs — including when Suskind hears his son break his silence by saying “Juicer-voice” — a reference to the line “It won’t cost much — just your voice,” sung by Ursula, the villainous sea witch in “The Little Mermaid.”
“It was a huge moment for us,” Suskind said. “His first words after one year of silence. It was our Helen Keller moment – ‘water.’ It was a moment of catharsis for us. We were giddy.”
But the next day, Owen’s doctor, Alan Rosenblatt, said that this was actually a condition called echolalia.
“Cornelia said, ‘I hate that word’ — to echo, like a parrot,” Suskind recalled. “But I was in love. It was an amazing day.”
‘Why these three words, after 89 minutes of gibberish?’
“Why these three words, after 89 minutes of gibberish?” said Suskind. “We wrestled with echolalia. Why are certain particular [words] chosen? Is it for their musicality of speech? … It’s a selection. Why are certain words repeated more than others? There are patterns.”
“Owen, once he got speech, would say it over and over again, like a song. It made him feel centered. We would sing with him. He would say a certain line, ‘Knowledge and wisdom,’ from ‘The Sword in the Stone,'” Suskind said.
Imitating Merlin in the film, he said, “[Owen] would go ‘knowledge and wisdom, knowledge and wisdom’ on his way to school, after school, when he had to do homework, he would whisper at night. A selection. If you assume competence and capacity, I think often you get rewarded.”
In an interview with The Times of Israel, Suskind said the path forward, even after this breakthrough, was not immediate.
‘It was a progression. You knew he was feeling his way’
“It was a progression,” he said. “You knew he was feeling his way.”
The year after Owen’s “juicer-voice” breakthrough, he repeated a second phrase — “Beauty lies within,” from “Beauty and the Beast.”
As he started rediscovering his voice through Disney, he identified with sidekicks such as Iago, the Gilbert Gottfried-voiced parrot from “Aladdin,” and Sebastian, the talking crab of “The Little Mermaid.”
Suskind writes in the book that in “American Tail” Feivel “has lots of sidekicks helping him fulfill his destiny, most of them among a set of Jews/mice that pretty much match — mouse for Jew — my ancestors who came through Ellis Island. After several viewings, this offered a strong opening hand: ‘The Jews, Owen, have always been history’s sidekicks.’ That, he definitely got!”
“You can go online and watch Owen’s bar mitzvah speech,” Suskind said. “It’s a great one. He gives a great expression of faith, his role in it, and the way he shapes faith into the story. Faith is at the core of every story.”
In fact, Suskind told the audience, “Life, Animated” director Williams “did Owen’s bar mitzvah video, the greatest bar mitzvah video ever. The cuts were brilliant. Roger’s now an honorary Jew. It’s a nice thing — you get free dental.”
More seriously, he said, “We are Jews. The boys were raised as Jews. Both bar mitzvahs were crucial moments in their life. Cornelia was raised Catholic and never converted, but she faithfully raised the children in Jewish life. As they come into adulthood, they can decide for themselves.”
“As for the portion of the Torah that bar and bat mitzvah boys and girls read in mid-April, we got a lucky break: a passage from Leviticus where Moses receives the Ten Commandments,” Suskind wrote in the book. “There, too, was a convenient animated movie: ‘The Prince of Egypt,’ the 1998 DreamWorks rendition of the Exodus story. It was a movie he’d seen and didn’t like, because, he said, ‘There were no sidekicks for comic relief.’ But we forced mandatory viewings — our version of Hebrew school — and eventually talked through the commandments and issues of right and wrong.”
As Owen grew older, he had to deal with increasing hardships beyond his home life. The Lab School of Washington did not consider his progress fast enough, according to the film, and he could not continue. And in later years, he was bullied, taking his tormentors’ threats literally.
He began chronicling a “Land of Lost Sidekicks” — including Sebastian and Iago — who helped a hurting little boy. He also watched more violent films, such as “The Dark Knight,” as part of exposure response therapy, or ERP. And he found comfort in Danny DeVito’s tough-guy sidekick Phil in “Hercules.”
He also found more supportive peers at the Riverview School in East Sandwich, on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod. An independent coeducational boarding and day school, Riverview’s students range in age from 11 to 22, and “have complex language, learning and cognitive challenges,” including autism, according to the school website.
At Riverview, Owen founded a Disney Club — and also met his first love, Emily, a fellow student. There are sweet scenes of a shared kiss and a cookie-baking session when Owen moves into his new apartment after graduation. But the romance turns bittersweet when Emily breaks up with Owen, although they eventually become friends again.
‘First love, it’s so profound and universal. Everybody’s been through it. How can you live without it?’
“He does not have another girlfriend,” Suskind told the ReelAbilities audience. “I’m just going to send up another flare right now. If Owen was here, he’d do it himself – ‘someone kind and gentle and soft, who likes what I like, no piercings or tattoos.’”
“After the breakup, he was pretty banged-up. The first love, it’s so profound and universal. Everybody’s been through it. How can you live without this thing, this love? Who’s next? We’re working through the mysteries, the vagaries,” Suskind said.
In the meantime, the Suskind family keeps busy. Owen turned 26 on March 10 and left for a trip to California — including Disneyland. Older brother Walter works for the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau and addressed the UN on World Autism Awareness Day a few days later.
And, Suskind told the audience, “If there are any young ladies 20 to 30 who love Disney…”