There is a scene in Stanley Kubrick’s film of Stephen King’s “The Shining” when two radically different characters realize that they have understood each other immediately, with unusual clarity and concentration. They share a psychic connection far beyond mere affinity, something that the older man calls a “shining.”
I have been lucky enough to experience a similar instant communion with several friends, and never more intensely than with the pianist Glenn Gould. We “met” over the phone in 1980, when I was an unknown freelancer for a Manhattan weekly called the SoHo News and he was ... well, Glenn Gould, the mysterious recluse of the north, the brooding musical titan who had simply walked away from live performance at the height of his career 16 years before.
It was supposed to be a brief interview; instead, it went on for four hours and the next day my subject (who, to my amazement, had insisted that I call him “Glenn”) rang again, and we picked up where we left off. Thereafter, we were friends, our bond surviving the SoHo News’s unfortunate decision to call him a “pianist and crank” in a headline when it published my cover story. Over the next 22 months, we spoke several times a week, always at Gould’s instigation (callers who tried to reach him were immediately transferred to an answering service), and more often than not for hours at a time.
Our only in-person meeting took place in the summer of 1982, when Gould took some thoughts I had offered about his new recording of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations and worked them into a one-hour radio drama, in which I would play a character named Tim Page and he would play a scripted version of Glenn Gould. I was not yet more than an occasional journalist – indeed, my principal occupation at the time was that of an afternoon music host on WNYC-FM – and so I had no ethical problem trying my hand at acting. (My wretched attempts can be heard on a three-disc set of the “Gouldbergs” entitled “A State of Wonder.”) I flew to Toronto, and stayed for two days at the now-demolished Inn on the Park, on whose premises Gould kept a studio. He proffered a gentle, squeamish handshake when we met, and rarely looked at me thereafter; still, when we weren’t recording, we spent most of our time in hearty and contented laughter. That understanding, you see.
Six weeks later, at the age of 50, Gould died from a stroke. Several memorial volumes were issued, including a collection of his essays and radio scripts that I edited, and an idiosyncratic filmic biography, “32 Short Films about Glenn Gould,” became a cult hit in 1993. His recordings continued to sell, and he became one of those rare artists, with James Dean and Maria Callas, whose influence continued to take on posthumous stature with the general public.
In 2000, S. Timothy Maloney, the director of the music division of the National Library of Canada, wrote an article entitled “Glenn Gould: Autistic Savant” (later collected in a volume called “Sounding Off: Theorizing Disability in Music”). Maloney examined Glenn’s oblivious rocking and humming at the keyboard, his preference for solitude, his pronounced discomfort with physical touch, his extraordinary sense of focus and many other qualities. He concluded that the pianist was likely affected by Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism that was only formally identified in 1994, 12 years after Gould’s death. (The attribution to Asperger is now outgrown and the condition is classified as part of the autistic spectrum.)
“Besides neglecting his grooming and wardrobe, his surroundings and personal possessions were also in a permanent state of disarray,” Maloney observed. “He had difficulty making eye contact with people, and much preferred the telephone to face-to-face communication. He was unable to handle confrontation and emotional situations, and relied on handfuls of tranquilizers in his pockets to get him through the stressful occasions he could not avoid.”
I am well aware that armchair psychology is a dubious practice; psychology is, moreover, a field in which I have neither training nor, most of the time, much interest. So let me speak only as a close observer, as a person with autism myself (also diagnosed in 2000) and as one of Glenn’s closer friends when I say that I agree completely with Maloney’s hypothesis. Indeed, Gould seems to me a textbook case – his welling anxieties, his quirky but limited sense of humor, his need for unbroken routines and familiar surroundings, his terror of overstimulation, his fascination with a few subjects to the exclusion of most of the world. And, without suggesting that there is unanimity of opinion here, it has been my experience that many of those who knew Glenn best, including his boyhood friend, the writer and broadcaster Robert Fulford, and his devoted longtime assistant, Ray Roberts, concur with Maloney.
Asperger’s syndrome cannot explain Glenn’s genius, of course – the stark originality of his conceptions, the way each of his ten fingers took on magnificent little lives of their own. Yet Maloney argues that “fine motor control, mental imaging, feats of memory, structural perceptions, omni-attentiveness, ability to think ‘outside the box’” – all attributes associated with the Asperger’s place on the autistic spectrum – “contributed enormously to his many achievements.”
I think so, too. Asperger’s syndrome is difficult for anybody to bear: we are predestined individualists to
the point of isolation, grateful for any mutual understanding that comes our way. As I grow older, I
am increasingly cognizant of Glenn’s loneliness and apprehension – and yet I am even more admiring of
what he managed to do, despite and perhaps partially because of his condition. Neither of us knew anything about an obscure Viennese pediatrician named Hans Asperger as we chatted happily over the course of those long-ago midnights. And yet it is probable that Asperger’s syndrome helped illuminate our shining and make us friends.
Tim Page won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1997 for his writings about music. Professor Emeritus of Musicology at the University of Southern California, he is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Parallel Play and Dawn Powell: A Biography. His memoir, Parallel Play, is a lucid and engaging account of growing up with Asperger's.