I was waiting, along with 500 attorneys for the keynote speaker at an ABA Solo event(American Bar Association) in Boston, during lunch last year (September 2015), when we were told that he would be unable to make it due to a medical emergency the night before. He was in the hospital. They told us that they reached out to a Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center For Ethics, and he agreed last minute to fill in and speak with us. I thought then, “How good can this be, he’s filling in at keynote last minute…”. Pretty lofty if you think about it, for even the best speakers, even if they do talk regularly in front of students every week. 500 lawyers. An educated room. Try engaging that group and keep their attention longer than 5 minutes. In my head I was thinking he had 3 minutes tops before half the room was looking up their email on their cell phones.
They announced him as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Ron Suskind. “Pulitzer Prize…that’s interesting, let’s see what he’s got, ” I thought. I consider myself as somewhat of a writer as well, no where in his sphere, but decent and work-able in my own interests…so I found some common ground to give him some, if not all of my attention, (at least until my phone sounds off letting me know I have email) for the sake of supporting a fellow writer. A small man in his fifties in a blue suit made it to the stage. First thing he did was curious, he took the mike off the podium and then he stepped to the side. He made some kind of joke about his stature and being hid by the podium. I had a feeling that he was going to be interesting, if not unconventional, right from the start.
Now, he gave us his background briefly; he attended University of Virginia, graduated and then a master’s degree at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, straight to the Wall Street Journal where he became senior national affairs reporter, wrote 4 books about presidential power (a few fun stories about the Clintons), and then won a Pulitzer Prize for two articles he wrote about Cedric Jennings a student at inner-city Ballou High School in Washington D.C. who wanted to attend MIT. Now, it’s here when he started talking about Cedric where he really grabbed the attention of the room. He talked about how he was able to gain the trust of this poor under-served teenager and to write about his journey. This is where the story of his life changed.
He started to talk about his autistic son, Owen. Here was a highly educated man, who communicated for a living both as a speaker and a writer…he never found it hard reaching an audience and communicating ideas. But he couldn’t reach his son. He couldn’t communicate to Owen. His wife, Cornelia, his oldest son, Walt, and himself, found themselves in a daily existence where words failed them. They sought out answers from all different sources, experts, and establishments designed to help families with autistic children. Nothing helped and they grew frustrated and desperate. Then one day, they had a breakthrough from a very unusual source. Through Disney animated movies. They found that Owen had a voice and that they could communicate through the dialogue of an animated film. You see, Owen’s past-time over the last several years was watching Disney movies. It’s the only thing they could do to keep him occupied. And by accident, they realized that they could actually talk to him and he would understand and talk back by using the voices and dialogue from the Disney films. Because he knew them by heart.
About here is when I realized that over an hour had gone by, probably closer to 2…and the room was still rapt. He had us completely enthralled by his story…his journey over the last 10 years with his family. No one had ever reached for a single phone… email, work and everything completely forgotten to hear a story about what mattered most to all of us; personal relationships and how we can go about communicating and finding common ground. His next book about this experience was called Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism. Now a New York Times Bestseller. He has since spoken to audiences at the United Nations; testified in front of the United States Congress; and appeared on numerous TV and radio shows, including ABC’s Good Morning America, NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams, CBS’s Sunday Morning, NPR and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
A documentary film has been produced and directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams and is already winning awards all across the country. Now, you have a list of to-do items; read the book, watch the documentary, communicate with your kids. Also, if you get a chance to see Ron Suskind speak…by all means and whatever it takes…DO IT! He’s amazing and well worth the few hours you spend with him and the 100’s of hours after that you will spend thinking about it later. I’m not one to usually ask for a picture with celebrities, politicians or influencers…but in this case, I couldn’t help myself, he was that good. I am privileged to have been in the room that day and encouraged to spread the word.