Life, Animated -An Interview With Ron & Cornelia Suskind
Life, Animated is the real-life story of Owen Suskind, the son of the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind and his wife, Cornelia. An autistic boy who couldn’t speak for years, Owen memorized dozens of Disney movies and turned them into a language to express love and loss, kinship, and brotherhood. The family was forced to become animated characters, communicating with him in Disney dialogue and song until they all emerge together, revealing how, in darkness, we all literally need stories to survive.
“It was like we were looking for clues for a kidnapping only in this kidnapping someone had kidnapped the soul of my son. The pediatrician had no idea what to do, where to begin or how to help and it was out of my league too… just walk like you used to walk…be how you used to be until suddenly one day it wasn’t. But no matter what I know that I am going to hold you so tight, love you so much that whatever’s going on is going to go away.”- Ron and Cornelia Suskind- Life, Animated
What would your world be like if one day you happened to be playing Peter Pan in the backyard with your two sons, listening to the laughter, staging sword fights, and acting out the battle of Peter and Captain Hook and suddenly, your bright, vivacious 3 years old suddenly just stopped talking; literally closing himself off to the world around him, stopping all communication with the people around him? What would you do? How would you react, but more importantly, how would you reach your son and what lengths would you go to in order to bring back the world to your son? No, this is not the plotline from the latest suspense thriller but the real-life story of Ron and Cornelia Suskind and their son Owen who at 3 years old, for reasons no one will ever know, suddenly retreated so far into himself, that the outside world ceased to exist, one he couldn’t live in anymore but even more, he no longer possessed the skills he needed to reach out and communicate with the world around him and the people that loved him the most. But it’s not just Owen’s story but also a world in which thousands of families and children live in each and every day as they discover that their child is one of the 1 in 68 children that are autistic.
Life, Animated is the touching documentary brought to life by Academy Award-winning director Roger Ross Williams based on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Ron Suskind’s memoir “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism” which shares the inspirational story of Owen Suskind, a young man who was unable to speak as a child until he and his family discovered a unique way to communicate by immersing themselves in the world of classic Disney animated films. I had the chance to sit down and spend the morning with Ron and Cornelia Suskind as well as Roger Ross Williams to talk to them about this emotional coming-of-age story that follows Owen as he graduates to adulthood and takes his first steps toward independence. The subject of his father’s New York Times bestseller, Owen was a thriving three-year-old who suddenly and inexplicably went silent – and for years after remained unable to connect with other people or to convey his thoughts, feelings, or desires.
Ron shared how the story began for them:
“Just shy of his third birthday, a seemingly typical, chatty child became mute. He suddenly didn’t sleep or eat and cried inconsolably. His only solace: the Disney animated movies he loved before the autism struck. But they had changed, too—they’d become gibberish because the boy’s ability to understand speech had also vanished. So he memorized them, dozens of them, based on sound alone. What followed was a series of startling breakthroughs, as, for years, the family began to communicate with Owen using the dialogue from Disney movies. We’d recite one line, he’d look you in the eye and recite the next. But was he understanding?”
How was the discovery made that using the lines from his beloved animated Disney movies allowed Owen to communicate?
“That big glimmer of hope emerged during, of all things, a family viewing of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, when Owen’s insistence on replaying a particular scene — and his repeated mutterings of what seemed at first like gibberish, then thought to be the word ‘Juice box’ and that Owen was asking for juice when the realization hit that Owen was reenacting the part of the movie where Ursula wanted Ariel’s voice — Owen was asking for his voice in the only way he knew how-though the dialogue of the films that were so much a part of his life. Seeing that this was a way to possibly reach Owen, Ron happened to see an Iago puppet one night as Owen was sitting on the bed reading.”
“So, I go up to his room. I see Owen on the bed flipping through a Disney book. And I see—sort of over to my left, I see Iago, the puppet. Now, Iago is the evil sidekick to the villain Jafar from Aladdin. Now, I know Owen loves this puppet and I grabbed the puppet, I pulled it up to my elbow, and I begin to crawl across the rug as quietly as I can. And Owen turns to the puppet as if he’s bumping into an old friend. And Iago says to him, ‘Owen, Owen, how does it feel to be you?’ to which Own replied ‘Not good, because I don’t have any friends.’ So by now, I’m under the bedspread, and I just bite down hard. I just say to myself, “Stay in character.” And I said, “OK, OK, Owen, when did you and I become such good friends?” And he said, “When I watched Aladdin, you made me laugh.” And then we talk Owen and Iago, for a minute, minute and a half. It’s the first conversation we’ve ever had. The light went on and from there we began to speak in Disney dialogue- it opened the window for us all.”
“When you grow up you lose all of your magical childhood times. Owen uses the movies to make sense of the world he’s living in. The thing about the movies is that it is constant; it never changes. When everything around Owen was constantly changing, he could count on them to never change.”
So just how did Roger Ross Williams come to be associated with the story?
” Ron Suskind and I have been friends for 15 years. He told me about the book when he was writing it, and so my producer Julie Goldman and I optioned it right away. The film is not just a retelling of the story in the book. It picks up where the book ends and follows Owen as he moves into adulthood. I always saw the film as a classic coming of age story with valuable life lessons for everyone. Rather than a story about a struggle of autism, it’s a story about the journey we all take at one time or another to find our place in the world.”
Aside from the personal relationship, what is it that attracts Williams to certain stories be it Life, Animated or his Academy Award Winning documentary Music By Prudence, based on the true story of Prudence Mabhena who leads a young group of disabled Africans who inspire others through their music, proving that disability does not mean inability?
“I’m definitely drawn to stories about outsiders. Feeling like that myself — I’m a gay black man — I often seek to give a voice to those in the world who don’t have one. I also strive to find ways we can live together and understand each other. Like Owen Suskind, the subject of Life, Animated, I felt disconnected as a kid and sat immersed in my own fantasies, creating stories in my own head — I had to find a way to connect with a greater world like he did, and like the subjects of all of my films have had to do in one way or another.”
As an educator, I wanted to really absorb and understand the world in which they and Owen and the thousands of other children on the autism spectrum faced on a daily basis, and sitting with the Suskinds it was like having an epiphany of my own where everything suddenly began to make sense and I could now begin to connect the dots and make sense of this world that I had tried to make sense of over the years, but until now, had never quite been able to really begin to comprehend fully.
“ Quite simply put, the world is too intense for the brains of the autistic child for whatever the reason. Imagine how difficult it would be to do the simplest things but with hearing a constant noise in your brain that you can never shut out and never turn off. This is the world of autism. Sadly the way people see people with autism is that they don’t want to be around other people and that is wrong. The truth is that they want what everyone wants but at times, they are misguided and simply don’t know how to connect with one another. “
When you watch Life, Animated, thanks in part to the home movies that are intertwined into the documentary, and the use of Owen’s own writings and drawings, which are an integral part of how he communities and beautifully brought to life through animation that this is not a story of sadness and tragedy but one full of hope and joy. Williams expounded on this by sharing his thoughts of just where that joy comes from.
“I think it’s definitely a testament to his family, and specifically his mother, Cornelia. She refused to listen to traditional medical experts, some of who advised that the family restrict Owen’s access to the things that made him the happiest, which were Disney animated movies. Cornelia knew that this would be like restricting Owen’s creativity. In general, Owen’s parents worked intuitively with him and protected him, giving him what he needed in order to blossom. There’s such incredible love in that family, and one of the main reasons Owen is so happy is because he’s surrounded by that love.”
Williams went on to say,
“My films have always been about championing the outsider – this is what makes filmmaking such an exciting adventure. With Life, Animated, I wanted to tell an incredible story but I also wanted to create a space that would offer insight into Owen Suskind and other people living with autism. Owen is a unique person for many reasons, chief among them is his emotional openness and scrupulous honesty. His vision of the world is extraordinary because he is unencumbered by many of the world’s social cues whose main purpose is to restrict behavior and curb spontaneity. And that’s very refreshing to me. It was important to me to get inside Owen’s head and tell his story from his point of view. Too often the world looks away from the people who are outside of society’s mainstream; this film is about looking at one of these outsiders in great detail, but from the inside, looking out at the world. It was surprisingly difficult to let go of my own preconceived notions of what it’s like to be a person with autism. I saw autism strictly as a limiting condition, but while making Life Animated, I found that every person with autism has something unique to contribute to society. There is a big difference between the notion of being disabled and the reality of being differently-abled. We just aren’t tapping into our true, full human potential if we ignore this distinction, and we’re losing out as a society if we leave them behind. Owen Suskind has taught me so much about life. Once I got past what I perceived as his disability, I was able to see that Owen had a great deal to say. I felt privileged to listen and participate in a dialogue that still goes on to this day.”
One of the things that really stood out for me in watching Life, Animated, was not just the story of Owen, but the story of his older brother Walt.
I asked Cornelia what that was like for her to watch the interviews with Walt and wanted to know from Roger if perhaps there was a new story to tell. For Cornelia and Ron too, hearing Walt talk about the difficulties faced in wanting to make everything alright for Owen, and hearing him talk about the realities of the situation that someday, the job of caring for Owen would fall to him and that he worried about whether he would be able to handle it opened the door for many more conversations to come because autism doesn’t just affect the person; it is something that the entire family lives with day in and day out. When you see the unconditional love and support that all of the Susskind’s have for one another, you see it is never a burden but rather that’s what being a part of a family is. For Williams, he too agreed with what I noticed, that there is a whole different story to tell in sharing the story of Walt and sometime, in the future, the time may be right for Ron or perhaps even Walt himself to write that story or maybe even Owen the once silent little boy who learned how to communicate through the love of Disney.
I think Owen himself said it best when he said:
“I was bullied in high school and the future seemed so scary and I was so certain that I didn’t want to grow up. And like in the movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he may not get the girl in the end but he did get the happily ever after when he is accepted into society after a long, hard journey. He’s no longer an outcast and that’s kind of what happened to me. Now when I look in the mirror I see a proud, autistic man strong and bright and ready to meet a future full of wonder. And the future, I’m still searching for it but my childhood days are over but now it doesn’t matter. We just have to find a way to animate our lives.”
Thank you Ron and Cornelia Suskind for sharing your story of Owen, Walt, and your entire family and for teaching us to live our most fervent dreams, whatever unexpected shape they take, and to Roger Ross Williams for your eloquent movie-making that opens worlds to us, that show us the possibilities in the world in a world full of seeming impossibilities. Thanks to all of you, all of our lives will be filled with a life that is animated.
To find out more about Owen, Owen’s YouTube channel is up and running! Here he will share his affinity for Disney with the world, showcase his original artwork, find amazing Disney collectibles on eBay for eager Disney fans and bidders, interview special guests from Disney movies, and more! Click here to check out Owen’s channel.
Bring home Ron Suskind’s beautiful story that opens the doors to the world of Owen in his book “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism” by visiting Amazon
Be sure to check your local listings to find out when Life, Animated the inspirational story of Owen Suskind, a young man who was unable to speak as a child until he and his family discovered a unique way to communicate by immersing themselves in the world of classic Disney animated films in his emotional coming-of-age story that follows Owen as he graduates to adulthood and takes his first steps toward independence comes to a theater near you.