Growing up in ’50s Chevy Chase, Judy Karasik spent hours upon hours creating imaginary adventures with her brother Paul. So it was no surprise that years later, when Judy began piecing together the family history, she should find a willing collaborator in her erstwhile playmate. And it was almost inevitable that the two should take as their central “character” their oldest brother, David, who has spent the past 54 years living in the walled city of autism.
The result of the Karasiks’ efforts is The Ride Together: A Brother and Sister’s Memoir of Autism in the Family. It’s a work notable for both its unsentimental tone and its unorthodox structure: Judy’s low-key expository prose alternates, chapter by chapter, with more fancifully constructed comics created by Paul, a graphic novelist who has published, among other things, an adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass. The rhythm seems uniquely suited to conveying the discordant realities of an autistic man and the family struggling to understand him.
Like the Dustin Hoffman character in Rain Man, David compulsively acts out bits of old television shows, re-creating dialogue, music, and gestures from Sgt. Bilko, The Adventures of Superman, Abbott and Costello, and the Three Stooges. He also resurrects decades-old episodes of Meet the Press, breathing new life into long-dead political figures. “The other day,” Judy says, “he presented Richard Nixon as the former vice president of the United States of America. He was doing a show that came from that period. He takes reality and he kind of messes with it, and I just love it.”
Though the book portrays David’s condition as simply one element in the Karasik family history—a dynamic that includes Paul’s adolescent antics, an invalid aunt and grandfather, and father Monroe’s final days—the authors are painfully honest about the difficulties of living with an autistic sibling. “We could only have friends who were very, very loyal,” Judy recalls in the book.
“Ultimately, this book is going to be most useful to siblings of autistic persons,” says Paul, who lives on Martha’s Vineyard. “But there’s lots of messages and lessons here
for any family on how to cope with the trials of being a family. Because every family has its David.”
One of the Karasik family’s biggest trials came when the facility that had been housing David for 14 years was shuttered amid allegations that residents—David possibly included—had been physically abused. Today, David lives in a group home in Glenmont and sees his mother and sister once a month or so. “We have him over,” says Judy, a former book editor who divides her time between Tuscany and Silver Spring. “He comes over at these appointed times. I always feel I’m not doing enough for him.”
And what does David think of his role in the book? The book’s final panels show him reacting to his own portrayal with a decided nonchalance before once again plunging into one of his alternative worlds. It’s a curiously comforting finish to a candid, funny, and nuanced portrait.
“The most powerful experience out of this whole thing for me is seeing my brother’s words on the page,” says Judy. “This guy who’s been particularly marginalized is speaking to the world….I just love the idea that all these people can meet him, and he doesn’t have to go through the hell of meeting all of them.” —Louis Bayard