Robert L. Seltzer
TCU Press, November 2022
Paperback, ISBN 978-0-87565-824-7, 264 pages
El Paso writer and journalist Robert Seltzer’s absorbing new memoir tackles a difficult topic, Asperger’s syndrome, in ways that can leave readers inspired both by his personal struggle and by his book’s bittersweet yet uplifting insights.
For three decades, Seltzer did not understand the unusual changes that kept happening to Christopher, his son. As a preteen, Chris had displayed maturity beyond his years, high intelligence, and reasonably good social skills. Yet, as he grew older, Chris became increasingly withdrawn and sullen, less able to make and keep friends, and frequently unresponsive to questions or not willing to talk about anything except an odd and narrow range of topics: opera, mythology, and comic books.
The author skillfully and unabashedly describes his confusion and anger at Chris’s behavior and explains how it left him frustrated, unsympathetic, feeling like a failed parent, and often in need of escape from the realities of his family. Meanwhile, Chris’s mother, Antonia, continued to keep faith that Chris someday would have a good future. Neither parent understood what was really happening to their son.
Tests finally revealed Chris had Asperger’s syndrome, a rare neurodevelopment disorder on the autism spectrum. People with Asperger’s typically exhibit normal or even superior intelligence yet have difficulties interacting and communicating with others. There are treatments to help manage the syndrome’s effects, but no cure.
Once Seltzer could view his son through this strange lens, he realized he had meted out undeserved punishments while Chris was younger and ultimately pushed him away. Seltzer also felt he really did not know Chris anymore and needed to reconnect. He looked back at his own childhood and reflected on what had made him happy. Then, keeping those images in mind, he sought ways to establish new bonds with Chris—as a friend, if not as his father.
Families dealing with someone who has Asperger’s may gain fresh perspectives from Seltzer’s well-written book. So may others who are trying to deal with tough or broken relationships. Another point also becomes clear: efforts to change someone else’s behavior or rebuild a shattered bond may require one to make significant changes, as well.
That’s how it happened for Seltzer. One December day in 2015, he invited Chris to meet him at a San Antonio mall, in the food court near a movie theater. Once they did meet, the author notes, “I was uncertain what the future might hold. What I did know—and what I am sure Chris knew as well—was that something had changed, something vague but real...There was none of the defensive postures, the guarded attitudes, which had darkened most of our discussions in the past. We were open and spontaneous. It was refreshing, and it happened in the unlikeliest of places. A mall, a crummy mall.”
They began a year-long, imperfect schedule of Thursday night meetings where they ate, talked, and then saw a movie. And Seltzer kept their focus on three topics he knew they could both discuss: books, music, and films. “We could discuss all three subjects for hours, one thought leapfrogging to another, the kind of spontaneous joy that should animate all conversations,” Seltzer writes. “The talks were so engaging, so delightful, that whenever the discussions shifted to topics that triggered his verbosity—yes, opera, mythology, and comic books—I did not mind.” Asperger’s remained, but the gulf between father and son became much smaller.
As a journalist, Seltzer has worked for several newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle, El Paso Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, and San Antonio Express-News. Thursday Night at the Mall is the El Paso native’s second memoir. His first, Amado Muro and Me: A Tale of Honesty and Deception, received a 2017 Southwest Book Award from the Border Regional Library Association.