Ron Suskind has quite a resume--he is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist covering the financial world and three presidencies, a best-selling author of six books, and a lecturer on narrative and justice at Harvard University's ethics center.
But perhaps his most impressive achievement is his deep bond with, and advocacy for, his son Owen, who has autism. This relationship became well-known with the publication of his memoir, Life, Animated: A Story of Heroes, Sidekicks and Autism , which would later become an Oscar-nominated film.
Suskind will bring the passion that drives him both professionally and personally to the Chicago Jewish community on Feb. 6, when he will be the keynote speaker at JUF's Annual Agency Board Members & Non-Profit Professionals Dinner.
He plans to address how the Jewish community needs to evolve, as to how it gauges success. During the last 50 years, he said, American Jews have been prosperous, and have often measured success in traditional ways--earning academic achievements, finding a prestigious job, and creating a thriving family.
"It's widely well-known that Jews have done very well in terms of this yardstick of meritocracy, and when you have someone like Owen, who is just not going to register on that yardstick, in the traditional ways in which success gets measured, it's something that has helped us step back and see the many other ways in which the value of a life is measured," he said.
After one discouraging doctor's visit at which Owen endured stares and judgments from both professionals and passersby, Suskind felt that these people were failing to see that Owen can lead a life of value. Suskind recalls his wife Cornelia asking, "Who decides what 'a meaningful life' is? …because Owen has a life of meaning…"
Suskind and his wife are staunch advocates for neurodiversity--the concept that a wide range of neurological differences (like Autism Spectrum Disorder) are to be recognized as part of normal human variation. "I think many people look upon those who are neurodiverse as having less meaningful lives than those who live in the norm… I firmly and vigorously disagree with that," he said.
Through his journey of parenting Owen, Suskind has learned that "there's a deeper measure of the value of the Jewish ideal and the Jewish sensibility that has nothing to do with" the traditional yardstick of achievement.
There are many ways in which Suskind feels like Owen has a true gift, albeit one that is hard for some people to see. He began writing Life, Animated after a conversation when Owen said, "Dad, people see you for who you are, and Mom, they see you for who you are, and they don't see me for who I am. I am more than I appear. I am an unpolished gem, a diamond in the rough." The last line, a direct quote from the Disney movie Aladdin , echoes a childhood when Owen learned to speak and connect with the world by memorizing Disney movies.
It was in this moment that Suskind realized that he, as a journalist, had been asking his sources to disclose everything for many years, but he had yet to render his own life in full context. After the release of the book and then a documentary film in 2016, Suskind considers this work a mitzvah in a world where "different is dangerous."
Suskind recalled his own very different story of divergence, relating the time a coworker--his future wife--read his law school application, which she said was written poignantly, but that he didn't seem like he truly wanted to go to law school. So, he decided to deviate from the path set out by his father, who died when he was a child, and find his own way.
A book she lent him, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, inspired his essay to Columbia's journalism school. He draws deep meaning from one passage in this book that describes an apple orchard when all of the "perfect" apples are gone: "On the trees are only a few gnarled apples that the pickers have rejected… One nibbles at them and they are delicious. Into a little round place at the side of the apple has been gathered all of its sweetness… Only the few know the sweetness of the twisted apples."
Suskind compares the sweetness of those apples to his son. "Owen, so often cast into that category of twisted apples that are left behind, has taught us the deeper meaning of that passage," he said. "We all work furiously to show the world that we are perfect apples, but in fact, if we examine our lives truly, we all have twists and pockets of sweetness, and I think the examined life is found in recognizing that."
To register for the JUF's Annual Agency Board Members & Non-Profit Professionals Dinner, visit juf.org/BMNP. For more information, emailMindyBass@juf.orgor call (312) 444-2839.