Claudia speaks: what I learned from Tom Cruise, Oliver Sacks, Temple Grandin and Albert Einstein

I learned from Einstein three things: one must not try to change one’s thinking process; one may use any external device to help the thinking process like music; and if one does use devices like music, it could help in “figuring out” the world.

by Claudia Mazzucco

“As long as our brain is a mystery, the universe, the reflection of the structure of the brain will also be a mystery.”  ~ Santiago Ramón y Cajal ~


One of my Hollywood heroes is Tom Cruise, the American actor and film producer, who played Charlie Babbitt, the selfish, avaricious, and manipulative brother of Raymond, a brittle autistic savant in Rain Man. When Charlie kidnaps Raymond from the institution where he lives, hoping to use his brother as leverage to claim half of his late father’s fortune, and sets off for Los Angeles, aiming to have himself declared Raymond’s legal guardian, they began a cross-country odyssey.

Raymond was an embodiment of primitive impulses – unable to understand or communicate meaningfully with his surroundings – hence his omnipotent internal control and unvarying sleeping and eating pattern. He has no power to summon up his feelings. Charlie shouts at Raymond in exasperation and desperation: “I think this autism is a bunch of shit! Because you can’t tell me that you’re not in there somewhere!” As Charlie attempts to supply the components of safety and security for Raymond, he finds that the ”singing Rain Man” he remembers from early childhood was in actuality Raymond, whose name he could not quite pronounce. With this emotional and positive link to the past, Charlie fully assumed the role of the caregiver.

This brotherly love (of sorts) takes us to another aspect of autism: the question of under what conditions a change of personality takes place. For Raymond remains pretty much the same exotic creature from the beginning to the end. His precarious world remains intact as the movie goes along. But, if we carry our analysis a step further, we shall find that, in Las Vegas, the mere observation of Raymond’s mathematical skills and ability to memorize could serve Charlie to win big at the gaming tables. This was not, however, a vile exploitation of his brother’s autism. On the contrary, he is praising his brilliance. And his praise gives their blood-tie a genuine content, because Charlie was able to direct in a productive way his brother’s natural talent that came to him whole and unimpaired. The encounter with this dimension of Savant Syndrome was perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of the movie. And it is what I meant by the expression “thinking with the mind of others.”

Is it possible that savant capabilities are also buried within us all, whereby we can suddenly develop art, music, or match skills sometimes at a prodigious level? According to Temple Grandin, it is “no mystery how the autistic savant depicted in the movie Rain Man beat the casinos in Las Vegas and counted cards in the game of twenty-one. It was simply intense visualization and concentration.” Something fundamental happens to both of them. Charlie teaches Raymond to dance, Raymond allows himself to be touched, and Charlie overtly expresses a desire for a hug, encouraging their emotional capacity to reach out the other. In the same way, too, I gave myself entirely to this one chosen writer who would be credited with triggering my mental processes.

The Great Turning

I also regard Tom Cruise as the man who provided the images for the reading of my first novel in English: Killing Floor (1997) The First Jack Reacher Novel. There were, then, two things which made it impossible to read fiction; firstly, the images in-sequence, which a given novelist could not hold steady in my mind for a long period of time; and secondly, the obvious lack of mental representation of his inner world. Grandin was not ashamed to confess that she had never been able to know what Romeo and Juliet “were up to.” One needn’t doubt her truthfulness to know the difficulty of discerning the tragedy of two feuding families in Verona whose adolescent children falls in love with each other.

Grandin’s confession stayed in my mind. When, in 2005, I took on the task of perfecting my command of the English language, I realized I must be able to read fiction, and keep reaching out to the world. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to report my own experiences. In December 2012, I had to choose either to see Jack Reacher the movie with Tom Cruise, or Sky Fall, the twenty-third adaptation of the Bond series on screen. I should confess that I’d chosen Jack Reacher merely because I had not yet accepted Daniel Craig as the new James Bond (at the time, no one engaged my imagination as Agent 007 but Pierce Brosnan). This choice against someone and the images of Jack Reacher the movie would enable my entrance into the world of literary fiction.

My experience of looking at the world through the eyes of another has opened new ways of interpreting reality and learning to see autism differently. When I read a Jack Reacher novel, and when I transfer Lee Child’s ideas into my mind, I fail to see that there is anything in the latter which is not in the former. This being so, Child’s ideas and the transference of his ideas are absolutely identical. My new-born ideas are especially prone to disappearance, since they are so fragile, so vulnerable, and so precariously constructed between the mysteries of thinking with the aid of other minds.

To Think By Pictures

What lessons can be learned from Albert Einstein? He is probably the most influential physicist of the 20th century. At the age of 16, he imagined himself riding a beam of white light, which became the basis of later theoretical formulations that led to the general relativity theory published in 1915. What struck me after reading my first biography of Einstein was the centrality of imagery in his mental process. He was a visual thinker. He was also retrospectively diagnosed with autism in the social media several times. However, as Walter Issacson said, “it is important to note that, despite his aloof and occasionally rebellious manner, he did have the ability to make close friends and to empathize both with colleagues and humanity in general.”

I found some of Einstein’s traits relevant to my own situation and therefore fit to be imitated. I learned from Einstein three things: one must not try to change one’s thinking process; one may use any external device to help the thinking process like music; and if one does use devices like music, it could help in “figuring out” the world. Einstein would take refuge in music, solving all his difficulties.

I am also moved by Temple Grandin and Dr. Oliver Sacks, both of whom understand autism in depth. Surely, in recent times the concept of autism has been broadened to such an extent that it ceased to have much meaning. A new paradigm is yet unknown. This conviction is a tribute to Grandin. Through her I’ve experienced a new consciousness being born: the primary symbols of thinking are mental images, and thought has imagery as its base.

I’ve been lucky enough to adopt a thinking process which aligned very closely with the contemplation of images that exist in the mind in the absence of both spoken and written words. I very rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterwards. When I am unable to convert text to pictures, it is usually because the text has no reference to visual images. Seeing the world in this way, it is for me a hopeless enterprise to draw any conclusion from an “imageless thought.”

What is A Mindset?

The city of La Banda, where I spent my childhood and received an elementary education during the seventies, was the nearest city to the capital of Santiago del Estero in Argentina. It certainly is the place I associate with awakening to life. Very quickly I mastered the Spanish language at age three and I was sent to 446 School with my aunt Olga at age four. About the same time, my grandma Irma was very much grieved to discover that I had symptoms of autism, which continued to develop subsequently. Her backyard was often bustling with cousins and children. But I was inclined to separate myself from their noisy, energetic games and instead engage in quieter things. All the while, one corner of my mind remained open to the external world.

I’ve never lost a sense of awe and a need for solitude. But, when I was hugged I felt overwhelmed, overcome by sensation; I had a sense of terror and engulfment.
Throughout my life, I had a mild form of echolalia; I repeat phrases to myself, two or three times, especially if they amused me. Among the concepts that I memorized by thinking in pictures was the Pythagorean Theorem: “The sum of the areas of the two squares on the legs equals the area of the square on the hypotenuse.” At age twelve, I was thrilled to see that it was possible to think by internalizing images, without the help of any outside experience. There was this huge world which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle. As for school, far from being a failure, I was far above the teacher’s requirements. When I ask myself what it was that drove me so hard, it seemed to lie in three circumstances: my savant skills, which brought an extraordinary, photographical memory, and the sense of being part of a group.

How did I find out that I was a girl with autism? By other people narrating their own stories in autobiographical articles and TV interviews. At age fourteen, I found myself in the threshold of discovery. I was incapable of self-understanding and understanding others and therefore of authentic introspection and retrospection. There was no way to derive mental processes from the three elements that constitute its building blocks: sensations, images and feelings. My images must be symbols of thinking, yet I have the impression that several days ought to pass before I am capable of piecing together events. Perhaps it was because my brain is not causing the experience, neither responding to environment’s stimuli. For my being to be an effect of language, to be talked of and define itself within a language, the language of Shakespeare must supplant my beloved mother tongue. I innately knew the rules of grammar which I used so adroitly in my reading and writings. Likewise I could understand little of what was taught to me at English classes. It was hard for teachers to teach me. Yet, I instinctively had access to the “rules of English” which allow me to absorb the language by reading golf magazines.

Introspection will in practice always mean retrospection, since a mental process must occur before it can be reported. Sometimes, my mental process could be reported with a delay of several weeks. Only when I got around to finding myself in a written story did I begin the process of constructing what is inside my mind. This may perhaps sound strange but it is in keeping with the fact that I begin looking inward when I’ve adopted the mindset of whichever writer I’ve selected. It must be, of course, a writer very similar to me with whom I will get along well – really, really well.

When you don’t have a mindset, you are puzzled by the world more than usual, and when you are puzzled more than usual, your inner voice is less compromised by what has already been said and done. All your hope in life starts to depend on your ability to know without analytic reasoning which writer ought to be chosen. That is what my brain is made of: other people’s ideas. But an acceptance of dependency is no excuse for laziness. I do have to use their thoughts as far as they will carry me, yet acknowledge that they cannot carry me all the way.





Claudia Mazzucco is a savant on the autism spectrum.  She is a history teacher, journalist, and philosopher.

One reply on “Claudia speaks: what I learned from Tom Cruise, Oliver Sacks, Temple Grandin and Albert Einstein”
  1. Brava, Claudia!
    Even in my mother tongue I still often need weeks to understand things that happen or ways I FEEL. This poses hardships, but I have come to appreciate that my process, like yours, has its strengths.

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