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The US Review of Books


“Filling the bath with water, I swallowed every drug I had ever been prescribed and waited for my breathing to slow down.”

Jamiel is a Lebanese-Australian boy eager to enjoy life and learn all that society has to offer, but he has a hard time fitting in. Undiagnosed as an autistic, he goes through life struggling with human interactions and experiencing deep depression stemming from feelings of inadequacy brought on by teachers, peers, and family members. Struggling to find his place in the world, Jamiel tries living abroad, going to university, and attempting suicide as means to make sense of his life. Through the support of loved ones and an attitude that musters moments of understanding and fearlessness, he becomes a renowned DJ, a successful businessman, and even someone who champions justice and tries to make the world a better place.

With plenty of drama, tragedy, and innocence corrupted, the first part of Jamiel’s story is revealed in this book. The narrative of this story always has a surprise in store for the reader. As Jamiel grows up dealing with the self-destructive qualities of his mind, the book’s prologue tells us that better days are coming for the young man. When things are going well for him, we know that a greater tragedy is around the corner. The book opens with Jamiel helping a young woman he employs named Adrienne from dealing with an abusive home life with her mother. From this early chapter, we see that Jamiel grows up and despite some awkward mannerisms is able to run his own business and fend for himself. This gives the reader the knowledge that things will work out for Jamiel, but there are still plenty of surprises in store for the various challenges that he must deal with. With compassion and heart, this book addresses the realities of life with autism in a story that is both incredible and true.


Pacific Book Review

Speaking Human: The Tragedy of the Retarded Genius charts the bizarre path followed by Jamiel Levant as he struggled to find a way to communicate with the world around him. An autistic savant, Jamiel suffered years of abuse, and he attempted suicide on multiple occasions. In addition, while traveling in the Mideast, he is falsely accused of being a spy before returning home to become the head of a successful conglomerate. Written by Jamiel’s friend, Adrienne Fergessen, the text tries to put Jamiel’s trials into words in which those who already “speak human” will understand.

The book opens with Adrienne/Rennie meeting Jamiel when she began a low-level job at a car dealership. Rennie is taken with Jamiel’s looks upon first meeting him, but she is puzzled by his almost robotic way of expressing himself. Over time, she learns Jamiel isn’t just another employee; he is the owner of the company. He is an autistic savant, which explains why he speaks somewhat like an automaton and doesn’t appear to understand many social conventions. Rennie arrives at work one day to discover the cars are being hauled away and the dealership closed. Jamiel laments to Rennie that his “house of cards” is falling, and she reminds him that he has other businesses. After finding another job through a recommendation from Jamiel, Rennie is locked away at home by her mother. Jamiel has deduced that Rennie’s mother is controlling and verbally abusive toward Rennie, and he helps Rennie escape from her mother’s house. On the long drive to get out of the reach of Rennie’s mother, Jamiel recounts the story of his life to Rennie.

Speaking Human is difficult to read, both figuratively and literally. The accounts of the abuse Jamiel undergoes as a child are sad and his travels through the Mideast are harrowing. However, at times, it is hard to decipher exactly what’s happening because of the awkward sentence structure which frequently do not make sense. The style may be the author’s way of showing the reader the challenges Jamiel faces when communicating; or it may be that the text was dictated by Jamiel to Ms. Fergessen. Still, even the prologue – which appears to be in Rennie’s voice – poses some interesting grammatical choices. After Jamiel picks Rennie up and they head for a safe spot outside the clutches of Rennie’s mother, the story is told mainly from Jamiel’s point of view; although intermittently, other characters pop up and give additional insights into Jamiel’s misadventures.

Some readers may be puzzled or offended by the use of the word retarded, which seems to be a way of referring to Jamiel’s autism. In the prologue, Rennie points out that autism isn’t retardation but even that may not make readers comfortable with the prominent place the word receives in the title. Still, it could be argued that Jamiel has the right to choose how he will be defined.

Rennie, the author of Speaking Human, and Jamiel want to help readers understand the trials Jamiel must overcome as he tries to integrate himself into the world around him. The story of Jamiel’s journey is told in much the same way that Jamiel expresses himself. As a result, reading the book is challenging. However, committed readers may find the story will give them an idea of the stumbling blocks Jamiel has overcome in his quest to find his human voice.  I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the complexities of savant behavior and autism.