The Million-Dollar Sure Thing


Last week’s New York Times arts section had a story about a travel writer with an autistic son whose “wild temper tantrums” abated only when he was riding a horse.

The travel writer had a bent for nonWestern medical traditions, so he and his wife took their son to Mongolia where shamans and horses helped the boy achieve “an amazing ‘recovery’ and ‘healing,’ ” or so the Times quotes the dad. He also said his son’s temper tantrums “all but disappeared” after the trip.

The story is meant to be inspiring, and it is, except for the many business deals that seem to trump and the son’s role in it all. For example:

1) the travel writer dad is well connected in NY, so before the trip he got a $1-million-plus advance from Little, Brown based on a 37-page proposal about the “prospective adventure.”

2) Dad also took a filmmaker along to create a documentary.

3) He made YouTube video of himself and his son riding a horse that “stoked interest” in the book’s auction.

4) He optioned the feature film rights to the producers who made “Lord of the Rings” and “Golden Compass” — with himself as scriptwriter.

5) He says part of the advance is going to a ranch he’s founded to treat autistic kids who like horses.


I’m sure this travel writer dad started out with the idea of helping his son, and hey, maybe he needed to finance the trip so he started pulling deals together. It’s just worrisome to see every related industry kick in to make this a million-dollar sure thing with the boy as a much-scrutinized cog. Perhaps Dad realized he needed the PR value of creating the charity ranch in case somebody accuses him of exploiting both his son and autism.

At the same time, the NYT article is written as a kind of a model scenario for writers. It says, This Is The Way the Big Boys Do It. Don’t wait until you write the book or even know how your story ends. Build your power base now. Start the marketing process now. Remember Elizabeth Gilbert? She was writing magazine articles about exotic spas for the rich before jotting down a similar of “prospective adventure” submission, which earned her a sizeable advance that paid for an all-expenses trip around the world and resulted in “Eat Pray Love.”


Let’s just hope the little boy appreciates all this and doesn’t, you know, mess things up. Remember the Rachel Griffiths character and her brother in the HBO series, “Six Feet Under” a while back? As the story unfolds, we learn that these two were the subject of a best-selling book by their psychologist parents who apparently told the world about every single foible, fear and dysfunction their children experienced from birth.

Now in their 30s when we meet them, the adult children not only have serious psychological problems, they can’t take a step without somebody recognizing their name and exclaiming, “Oh, it’s you! Did you ever get over that case of genital warts (or gambling addiction or dyslexia or whatever it was -pardon paraphrasing)?”Because of their parents’ book, their privacy has long been destroyed, and as a result they have no sense of identity, are filled with resentment and could blow up at any time (as the brother does). Meanwhile their parents have made a pile of money, enjoy immense fame and sympathy and blame the kids for not moving past the attention from the book that “spoiled” them in the first place.


I’m not saying the travel writer is using his son in the same way, but who knows what the long-term effect of this well-oiled marketing/publishing/documentary/YouTube/movie/charity ranch operation will be? He’s autistic, for heaven’s sake. He’s already isolated from our reality and not very trusting of adults, and who can blame him? I can’t bring myself to mention his name for fear of contributing even slightly to a system that is grounding his experience into marketable hairballs that he’ll be pressured to cough up for the rest of his life.

And it’s not as though dad and mom can take him to a place free commercial pressures or fans: Foreign rights alone have already been sold in 17 countries (and counting).

This is hardly the first time that merger mania of parent corporations ends up promoting this bandwagon approach to packaging a saleable product and/or book. What I will never understand is how slavishly everybody working for those corporations mouths all the tidy platitudes that cover their bets.

Here for example is the head of Little, Brown explaining why his publishing house made the “rare” move of spending $1 million before the book was written and ordering an even rarer first printing of 150,000 copies:

“It just touched so many points of interest – helping to heal an autistic child, traveling under difficult circumstances…(and) the chances you’ll take for love.”

Translation: “It just touched so many points of interest -YouTube, Hollywood, the documentary, the charity ranch, soaring rates of autism….and the love of any book publisher for all the green-lighted systems that will do the work for us.”


Then there’s the humor part. Little, Brown, sent out a brochure to booksellers describing “The Horse Boy” as combining “the adventure and optimism of ‘Three Cups of Tea’ with the powerful connection between man and animal that readers loved in ‘Marley and Me.’ ”

“Marley and Me”? Wait a minute. I was sure the brochure was going to refer to Temple Grandin’s “Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior.” I mean, that’s really thoughtful and documented and moving — but no. Let’s not throw the wrench of something too complicated into this giant machine with its simple and simplistic “high concept” story.

“Marley and Me,” after all, was a huge bestseller and a huge movie – another example of How the Big Boys Do It – and it concerned an enormously popular subject (dogs) that might, in the right context, slop over some of its fad appeal to the growing interest in alternative treatments of autism.

Room for Love?

I’m not saying the shaman approach is wrong. In fact, I’m hoping the documentary-maker and the YouTube video director and the Hollywood dealmakers all took a step back so this little boy could connect with somebody real – not only a shaman whose prayers might truly have a healing influence but someone [a parent?] who loved him unconditionally and stayed with him after the spotlight was removed.

If the boy was jerked away from the shaman to be photographed on a horse with his dad in a mawkish picture (below) suitable in someone’s eyes for a jacket illustration, and then hustled off to the van so the travel party could get to the next shaman and the next horse and the next photo op, well, let’s hope the boy was truly on his way to “recovery” as his dad told the NY Times.

We learn that the author has recently carted his son, now 7, off to Namibia to meet with more shamans, so who knows? Maybe there’ll be a sequel.

I think what grates me the most is that New York Times article taking its place right on schedule by giving this multi-tentacled project its blessing. You want to know why newspapers are dying? Well, they aren’t trustworthy. They sound like Entertainment Tonight. They don’t probe enough.

True, some evidence of journalistic principle does emerge. A mother and doctor/author (of “Autism’s False Prophets”) say they are skeptical of anecdotal evidence and warn that the son’s behavioral changes could be temporary. But overall, the tone of the piece is congratulatory, even cloying. Other doctors “who have worked with autistic patients say a child can make big leaps in development,” the article goes on vaguely, “and that stories like [this one] can provide inspiration to families.” Might as well have come off a press release.

Even the title of the book, “The Horse Boy,” has a phony ring to it. Remember the last time a brief submission earned the author a $3.5 million advance from a publisher? Why, of course, that was “The Horse Whisperer,” and what a winning combo-title it was! Now “The Horse Boy” is here to ride on those very coat tails. They say publishing’s a crap shoot? They mean childhood, don’t they?