House Rules, Jodi Picoult
Washington Square Press, 2010, $16.00, 532 pages
It’s a bit like the story of the Prodigal Son. The whole time you think the story is about one brother, but really, it all hinges on the other one. It’s Jacob who’s on trial for murder. It’s his fate that hangs in the balance, that’s decided by twelve strangers behind closed doors. But it’s Theo, his younger brother, who has the most to learn. It’s Theo who’s changed the most by the end of the book. Being locked up for first-degree murder is not his imminent fear, but his own guilty conscience locks him up in his own personal prison until he learns which rules matter most, rules his brother has been following all along.
House Rules opens up the life of a family affected by Asperger’s syndrome to the scrutiny of people who don’t understand. When Emma Hunt describes her eighteen-year-old son’s Asperger’s-related behavior to the judge – behavior that includes “when he decides to do something, he needs to do it immediately,” “he hardly ever shows emotion,” “if his routine gets disrupted, he becomes extremely anxious,” and “when things are really overwhelming, he’ll go somewhere to hide” – the judge replies, “So your son is moody, literal, and wants things his own way and on his own timetable. That sounds very much like a teenager.” The judge, like most other characters in the story, has not known anyone with Asperger’s syndrome and is unable to put herself in Jacob’s shoes.
Jacob, though, is also unable to sympathize with the judge. One of the traits common to Asperger’s is an inability to feel empathy for other people, or to recognize their emotions. Oliver, Jacob’s lawyer, uses this inability as the cornerstone of his case. Jacob can only experience the world through his own skin, never imagining what others might feel or think. Therefore, his crime, if he in fact committed it, occurred in a moment of insanity, legally defined as lacking the capacity to understand right from wrong because of a mental defect or disease. He killed Jess Ogilvy, if he did kill her, because it was in his own best interest. He is cognitively unable to consider how it would affect her, her parents, her boyfriend, or the world at large.
Against all this is the argument that Jacob is also religiously devoted to the rules. He knows that killing is against the rules, so how could he have done it? He knows that lying is wrong, yet he maintains that he did not kill the victim although all the evidence screams his name. He follows his own rules, such as wearing clothes and eating food of only a particular color on each day of the week, absolutely to the letter. But he has to be taught social rules that others would pick up naturally. He has learned, for example, that people don’t always mean what they say. “Get a grip,” for instance, doesn’t mean hold onto something. It means “calm down.” Not everyone, he’s also learned, likes to hear the list of things you’ve memorized about apples just because you notice that they’re selecting apples in the produce section. He sees, as most of us secretly do, that smalltalk is inane and often untruthful (am I really “fine” most of the time?) but he’s learned that it’s a necessary part of communication with people you don’t know very well. If he’s so devoted to following rules, then wouldn’t he know that committing murder would get him in trouble? If he knew it was wrong, how can he be considered legally insane?
Theo is three years younger than Jacob, yet he often finds himself in the role of older brother, defending Jacob from taunts and even punches from other kids. “If anyone’s going to beat up my brother,” he says after a pummeling friend who’s tackled Jacob for interrupting a Frisbee game, “it’s going to be me.” Theo doesn’t care much about following the rules and secretly longs for a life without an Aspie brother. He’ll sneak a frozen and decidedly non-green pizza on Green Monday, and cut class to roam the neighborhood. But Theo knows and accepts that he may someday be Jacob’s caretaker and remains devoted to his brother despite the ways Jacob has deprived him of a normal teenage life. For him, following the rules consists primarily of being as “normal” as possible and avoiding the label “retard’s brother.”
Both brothers are thrust into a life-altering murder trial when Jacob’s tutor turns up dead. Although Theo knows that his own secret might bring clarity to the murder trial, he sits on the truth, fearing the fallout it would bring on him. Jacob hides part of the truth he knows too, but not for the same reason. Only the combined secrets of Jacob and Theo can acquit Jacob. And neither brother seems willing to reveal what he knows.
Picoult reminds readers that nobody’s normal and that although the legal system has instituted laws to protect the people, there are exceptions to every rule. Because Jacob is easily overstimulated by the sounds and sights of the courtroom, he is allowed to request a recess whenever he wants, a concession not normally allowed to defendants. He’s also allowed to remain at home, instead of in jail while awaiting his trial because having his routine upset by being in a different location could be mentally catastrophic for him. As the rules are bent to accommodate the necessity of putting a man with Asperger’s on trial for murder, the reader must wonder: What rules would I want bent if in that situation? Am I so different from Jacob? We’ve all broken the rules at some point. And we all have guilt we’d like to keep hidden. But at the end of the day it’s not the rules you break that set you apart. It’s the rules you adhere to that define you.