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Pretending to Be Normal by Liane Holliday Willey - Book Review

Pretending to Be Normal by Liane Holliday Willey is a look at the life of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome and doesn’t know it. She only recognizes she is different from her peers and has never heard of Asperger’s. Like life, the story Willey tells is both humorous and sad, but also inspiring: Willey’s courage and determination come through on every page. Willey’s description of herself sums it up perfectly: “one of those people who never quite find their way, but never quite lose it either/”

Written after her own child’s Asperger’s diagnosis, it is a book about learning to blend in but on one’s own terms. Willey makes it part of her life to learn how to be like those around her the only way she knows how—by using mimicry and observation. She finds that by employing these tools she can pick up on social cues. For example, she notices that, when in a conversation, when one participant stands up that person is signaling they are done with the discussion. For someone with Asperger’s, this recognition doesn’t come easily.

Liane Holliday Wiley takes the reader through her childhood and adolescence, giving us a look at what she thought were just the personality traits of an independent child. It wasn’t until later in life that she understood these traits to be markers of what was to come: the life of an adult with Asperger’s. Willey shines a light on many situations from her early life that she can only now point to as Asperger’s behaviors, like how she never quite understood group dynamics—an important part of the process of learning how to be in the world. She demonstrates this with examples of her very literal thinking causing moments of confusion that are both humorous and touching.

It’s fascinating to read how her way of deviating from the norm unnerved adults. Willey goes into elaborate details about her quirks—how she hated scratchy things, tight-fitting clothing, and satiny material, for example—bringing the reader into the world of a child who liked things to be “just so.”  She really captures how it feels to only find comfort if things are just right. This attention to detail doesn’t just serve to tell her story; Willey is instructing readers what signs of Asperger’s in their own children might look like.  

She paints colorful images of how the world appealed to her senses, and how she was able to adapt accordingly, like her experiences as a teacher. Teaching seemed to be a good match for her—the daily structure, predictable routines, and the short term relationships with the students suited her Asperger’s perfectly.

Ultimately, all these details of her interacting with the world demonstrate how relationships can impact the lives of people on the spectrum. A negative relationship can amplify their confusion, while a good one can enforce the idea that they’re just fine the way they are. One of Willey’s saving graces was finding friends that could coach her and tell her when her behaviors did not fit the situation.

Pretending To Be Normal takes the reader on a journey through the life of someone living with Asperger’s Syndrome, from birth to adulthood. Willey highlights the situations that made her realize she was different and how isolating those moments could be. But it also celebrates the people who helped her to reconcile and live with her differences. In its own way, this book can help those on the spectrum do the same.