Unlike Venables’ other works, which centre on mountaineering, Ollie is a memoir about the short life of the writer’s son, Ollie (short for Oliver). Ollie was diagnosed with autism at the age of two, and would go on to develop leukaemia and a fatal brain tumour. Since I have autism, and a person very close to me is battling cancer, I guess it was inevitable I’d come across the book at some point. Ollie is a 391 page brick of a book that took me a few weeks to get through, although my busy work schedule had more to do with this than the quality of the writing. I found Ollie to be an enjoyable, and at times heart wrenching read, although it lagged slightly in the middle.
However, I must caution anyone who reads Ollie to ignore what Venables presents as the science behind autism. Ollie was born in 1990 and this book was published in 2006. Although cutting edge for its time, most of the information it contains regarding potential “causes” and “cures” for autism has now been disproven. For example: Venables links his son’s autism to an unhealthy diet and the MMR vaccine, neither of which could cause a neurotypical brain to become autistic. (I myself missed out on the MMR vaccine as a toddler but of course, I still have Asperger’s Syndrome).
On the acknowledgements page Venables suggests his son ‘became’ autistic. Indeed, the first two chapters seem to describe a typically developing child, who suddenly loses his speech/language and develops autistic behaviours (a familiar story for anyone who accesses resources on the internet for parents with autistic children). Venables is adamant that ‘Ollie had become autistic… This was something that had happened to him, not some innate quality he had been born with’ (Venables, p 46). We now know that autism cannot be suddenly acquired, the autistic brain probably starts developing during the second trimester of pregnancy, and remains autistic for life. Thus, autism is as much a part of a baby’s biological makeup as hair colour or skin tone, not an illness that can be caught or cured.
After reading Venable’s detailed account of Ollie’s childhood, I think it likely that Ollie had regressive autism. This term describes a child who is born with an autistic brain, yet is initially able to “mask” their autism and seems to be developing normally. This seemingly neurotypical development continues until the child becomes too overwhelmed by their social and sensory environment to continue masking, and regresses into an autistic state, often losing any speech they have learned. This tends to happen when the child is between 15 and 30 months old (around the same time as the MMR jab, hence the media’s conviction that there is a link between the two). This form of regressive autism is not uncommon. Ollie’s case seems more extreme than others because he never regained the speech he lost. However, there are other explanations for this, such as the stress of having Leukaemia at such a young age causing him to retreat further into his autistic world, or later on, the brain tumour that was pressing on his speech centre.
I don’t doubt that the research Ollie’s parents did into potential causes and cures for autism was done out of love for their child. It must have been a gruelling, exhausting process. But trying out a potential cure will never do for an autistic child what unconditional love and acceptance can. Approximately half way through the book Venables research peters out, and is replaced by a glowing love and passion for his son. This shift from searching for a cure to accepting a disabled child the way he is was truly a joy to behold.
The book’s cover contains a short paragraph depicting Ollie’s medical history:
‘When he was two he lost all his speech, as autism turned his life- and ours- into a baffling challenge. Then at four he had to face a new challenge when he almost died from leukaemia… So it was a huge shock, after several cancer free years, when a fatal brain tumour was discovered.’
The first page is a brief and beautifully written account of Ollie’s funeral, which is repeated and expanded upon in the final chapter. While it was these themes that initially attracted me to Ollie, I can’t help thinking I would have enjoyed the book more if I hadn’t known it’s full plot before even opening it. I’ve enjoyed novels with cancer patients, such as Jon Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Jodie Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper. In both stories a principal character is killed off, but it’s not who you’d expect, and their death comes as an abrupt shock, which is what makes books like the Fault in Our Stars so memorable. Although Ollie is not a novel, I can’t help thinking it would have been more memorable (and its final chapter packed more punch) if Ollie’s death had come as a surprise instead of being eluded to on the front page of the book.
Nonetheless, there were plenty of aspects of Ollie that I loved. The book begins with Ollie’s funeral, then jumps twelve years back in time to his conception. Although chronicling Ollie’s entire life, the narrative is built around three dramatic points: the diagnosis of autism, the diagnosis of leukaemia and the discovery of the brain tumour that eventually kills him. It’s clear why Venables chose to write a memoir about these twelve years of his life, since so many dramatic events (including a life threatening climbing accident for Venables and a near breakdown for his wife) occurred in such a short amount of time. Venables could be accused of attempting to profit from his son’s death, or at the very least, using his grief as a way to advertise the book. Yet throughout the memoir one thing shines through, and that is the authors unending love and patience for his autistic son.
The last two chapters, which describe Ollie’s rapid decline in health and eventual death, had me glued to my seat. The description in these chapters is sparse, focusing on what the doctors did to try and save Ollie rather than Ollie himself:
‘His face was growing pale and his lips blue. His whole vascular system seemed chronically impaired and whenever Ollie would allow it, the nurse was checking pulse, blood pressure and oxygenation.’ (Ollie, p. 353).
Venables gets the balance just right, never becoming too bleak in his presentation of a child’s death, or too clinical in his description of invasive medical procedures. At times he uses humour to lift the mood slightly, such as his admission that ‘so many problems had revolved, with such indignity, around [Ollie’s] erratic bowel. So much mopping up. So much protective scatological humour’ (Ollie, p 350). Indeed, there is one very memorable scene where an exhausted Venables, desperately trying to get to Ollie before his death, finally breaks down and takes his anger out on The World Tonight ‘“For God’s sake leave the poor bugger alone”, I shouted at the radio, “can’t you find anything better to talk about? Don’t you realise my son is mortally ill?”’ Such moments provided momentary relief from the tension of waiting for Ollie’s death, ensuring these final chapters were heart-breaking, but not too heart-breaking to read.
I could talk for hours about the beautiful way Venables describes Ollie’s funeral, and the feeling of serenity that washed over me when I had finished the book. But if you’re going to read it, I’ll let you experience those feelings for yourself.
I’d recommend Ollie to fans of other autism related memoirs, such as A Friend Like Henry or Carly’s Voice. But it should also appeal to fans of The Fault in Our Stars and My Sister’s Keeper. Ollie is a memoir, and naturally feels less plot driven and more longwinded than these novels, but it’s still a great read. Ignore the outdated science. Enjoy the story. Enjoy the gradual, almost imperceptible shift from a family trying to cure their autistic child to a family that loves that child the way he is, flaws and all. Enjoy the love and the passion that seeps through the darkest chapters of the book. Enjoy Ollie, the mysterious, elfin boy who’s uneasy with people and at ease surrounded by nature. Enjoy a younger brother’s patience and kindness towards his elder, disabled sibling. The book lags a little in the middle, and Venables’ detailed account of the search for a perfect special school can seem tedious and repetitive. But read on. Because those last two chapters, the ones depicting Ollie’s final days on this earth, will blow you away and break your heart. Ultimately, Ollie reminds us of three things: life is short, life is a struggle, and life is indescribably beautiful.