Noah’s wife has Asperger’s because walls and characters talk to me.
I once organized the painting of a 140 foot mural on the side of the Police Administration building in downtown Birmingham, AL. The mural design is a teenager’s winning interpretation of the Birmingham Pledge. In the wall’s previous lifetime, it was attached to an adjoining structure. When that section was ripped away, the repair left the outer wall smooth and white, pristine, a tabula rosa that shouted, “Paint me!” every time I walked by. A radio station host blasted citywide that I was unstable because I heard walls talking.
In spite of this, the mural remains on the building, and it is my fervent hope that it speaks to other people every day.
When I learned that the Bible gave only one brief mention of Noah’s wife, another tabula rosa opened before me. This unnamed woman had a story, a big story, and she was shouting “Write it!” As I started to explore the possibilities, a scene formed in my mind of a young girl in an ancient culture speaking with her grandmother about the role of women. As they talked (and I listened and typed), I realized Na’amah was special. “My name means pleasant or beautiful,” she announced. “I am not always pleasant, but I am beautiful.” This girl saw the world in a different, literal way. She spoke only truths because lying distressed her. I could see that this was going to get her into trouble in a culture that depended on the whims of the gods for survival.
I have had a long-time interest in autism, partly because it has affected my family and partly because it is a glimpse into the marvelous workings of our minds. In Noah’s Wife, Na’amah is an Asperger savant, a person with remarkable mental skills. The term “Asperger Syndrome” was, of course, unknown in ancient times, but there is no reason to believe that the condition did not exist. Most experts put it on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, although there is disagreement about whether it should even be classified as a “disorder.” Although every person on the spectrum is unique, persons with Asperger’s are usually highly intelligent. Some (about 10%) have extraordinary recall and obsessive knowledge about areas that capture their interest. Na’amah’s passion was the sheep she tended on the hills of ancient Turkey. She preferred their company and her skills of observation gave her a deep knowledge and understanding of their behavior.
Why did I gave the central character Asperger’s? The answer is multilayered. Brain developmental disorders and particularly the phenomenon of savants have always intrigued me. If it is possible for some brains to perceive the world differently and to have extraordinary skills, the potential must exist for all humans. In fact, there have been experiments where scientists have used magnetic pulses to temporally “shut off” a portion of the brain (anterior temporal lobe) in non-autistic persons, resulting in the temporary production of savant abilities. Fascinating stuff!
Also, I believe my own family has been affected by undiagnosed autism or Asperger’s. My uncle clearly had mental developmental issues and displayed several of the symptoms of Aspergers. Only after reading one of Dr. Temple Grandin’s books (as research for my novel) did it occur to me that my uncle might have a visual/audio processing issue as well. All my life I thought he hated me because he would not look at me or respond to me at all. After reading Grandin’s Animals in Translation, I visited my uncle in the hospital (dreading it) and asked him a question, knowing he would not answer me, but this time, as an experiment, I waited and didn’t say anything and, after what seemed a long while, he looked at me and responded as if we were having a normal conversation. It was quite a moment, and we were able to converse until he died some months later.
For my novel, I wanted to have a character who did not automatically accept all the precepts of her culture, but I had no conscious intention of giving her any kind of syndrome. As I wrote Noah’s Wife, however, the character of Na’amah began to take on a life of her own (one of the joys of writing). She surprised me with her unique perspectives, her obsession with sheep, her propensity to be literal and, by the end of the first chapter, I realized that she had Asperger’s. To be honest, I struggled with this for a while, but in the end, I conceded that it was more important to let Na’amah be who she wanted to be than to put her in the box of who I thought she should be.
I was in for an interesting journey with this story, a unique twist on the Biblical account based on evidence of a great Black Sea flood 6.5 thousand years ago, and I wanted to see what Na’amah would do and say and where she would take me. She often surprised me with her observations, the depth of her spirit, and how what seemed her handicaps became strengths. When the book was finished (four years later) I missed her.
Yes, my characters tell me things I don’t know, and walls talk to me. I admit it.
Aren’t I fortunate?
T.K. Thorne is a retired police captain (Birmingham, Alabama), director of City Action Partnership, and an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction.