When I was twelve and my parents’ marriage was falling apart, my dad explained to me that he never actually wanted to get married and have kids. The only reason he did it, he said, was because it would make him less likely to be drafted into the Vietnam War. It never occurred to him that telling me this might hurt me. He was a successful musician and an esteemed jazz scholar, but he had virtually no ability to sense another person’s feelings. If he were growing up today, his diagnosis would have been obvious: Asperger’s syndrome.
I shrugged this moment off as another instance of my dad’s profound insensitivity, which was so much a part of my foundational world that it didn’t feel shocking. I knew he was clueless about the emotional bonds that connected us, but they were real to me anyway, and reacting would have been pointless. I had watched my mother pour her heart out to him, and he never once heard her. She could never make him understand how the things he did affected her—his charts analyzing how much money she spent on different categories of groceries at the Safeway, his refusal to break his routine when she needed to talk. “Make an appointment,” he told her, and the emotional response that followed didn’t even pass his notice. He didn’t get that channel.