REVIEW: Carry the Ocean by Heidi Cullinan
sometimes I feel like everyone else is carrying a bucket of water but I’m trying to carry an ocean.
I feel a little like I’m walking into a potential minefield with this review. Disability is something of a fraught subject in Romancelandia. I’m still learning myself on what to look out for but I am happy to see disability represented in romance and, even when it’s wrong, I think the conversation around how it’s wrong is valuable and leads to greater understanding. Or, at least it does for me. Maybe it’s only me, but there are things I just don’t see until they’re pointed out.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think the representation of disability here was “wrong”. It seems to me that you were careful, studied and sensitive in your portrayals of both Emmet and Jeremey and the other people at the Roosevelt. I follow you on Twitter and I gather from your tweets that you have some experience with aspects of Jeremey’s side of things (and I believe your husband blogs about having anxiety) and I think that probably helped. I don’t believe that one has to experience everything they write about but I do think there are certain advantages to be had by personal experience or by having access to a close relative with personal experience.
Trigger Warning: Suicidal ideation and
19 year old Emmet Washington has Autism Spectrum Disorder. He is very intelligent, particularly with maths and computer programming (he’s doing a double major in maths and computer science at college) and he’s very self-aware. He has worked, with a therapist and with the help of his loving and supportive parents, to understand what he needs and to make modifications so he can live fairly happily at home with his mother and father.
Emmet has a crush on a boy who lives across the railway tracks from his house. He hasn’t spoken to him but he’s seen him around the place and has watched him in a non-stalker-y way. Jeremey Sampson is a year younger than Emmet and Emmet thinks Jeremey looks sad. He makes a plan to speak to Jeremey at a neighbourhood picnic. He has a script worked out of conversational gambits and he has practiced with this flash cards about recognising social cues.
Jeremey is far more than “sad”. He has a major depressive disorder with anxiety. His parents don’t appear to understand the depth of his problem and continually push him to “get over it”. He has seen a therapist but his parents vetoed any anti-depressants and he is not getting any help. After a meltdown at school two weeks before graduation, he never went back. He did graduate but he didn’t attend the ceremony. His parents want him to go to college. Jeremey can think of few things he’d rather do less. He thinks about suicide often. He is severely ill but this does not appear to be recognised by his parents in any meaningful way.
When Emmet introduces himself, Jeremey thinks, at first, that Emmet is a little weird. Emmet doesn’t look him in the eye and his speech is stilted and appears rehearsed. But then Emmet does what just about no-one else in Jeremey’s life does – he notices Jeremey’s discomfort with the gathering and is sympathetic to it and suggests they sit a little ways apart. It is, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“How do you know so much about depression?” I asked instead.
“I read about it. I had a depressive episode when I was thirteen, so I researched my condition. Drugs aren’t advisable for teens except in severe circumstances, so I practiced mindful meditation and exercised. I also started homeschooling, which helped. Sometimes I have anxiety now, but most of the time I can make modifications to my daily life and avoid stressful situations.”
How was he rattling all this off like it was no big deal ? Both the technical mechanism of depression and how it took him out of school?
“Yes. I have a lot of modifications. I have a regular schedule and signs I use with my family to let them know I’m getting upset. At school it’s harder, but mostly I keep to myself and don’t talk to other people, and they leave me alone. Since I’m a genius, my professors like me and help if other students are mean. My peers call me names sometimes, but I put my earbuds in so I can’t hear them, and it’s fine.”
“Why… do they call you names?”
“Because I have autism.”
I don’t know what I’d expected him to say, but it wasn’t that. I’m pretty sure I stared, possibly with my mouth open. “You— you’re autistic?” I bit my tongue before I could add, you can’t be. Something was off about him, yes, but… autism? Weren’t autistics unable to speak, unable to touch people? Emmet kept staring at the tree.
“Yes. I have autism spectrum disorder. My brain is wired differently than most people’s. But it’s not like depression where they think it’s about monoamines. It manifests as social disorder and in how my body behaves, my mannerisms. I’m intelligent, more so than most people, but I have a hard time interacting with others. So most people act like there’s something wrong with me, that I’m stupid.”
Which is basically what I’d done. I felt awful. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay . They’re the ones missing out.” He paused again, but this time I was pretty sure he was working out what to say, not waiting because he felt he was supposed to. “I was hoping you’d want to be friends with me.”
In many ways, Emmet’s strengths complement Jeremey’s needs. For instance, the fact that Emmet doesn’t look Jeremey in the eye most of the time is a comfort to Jeremey. He doesn’t feel like he has to “perform” for someone. And Emmet is very happy to sit in companionable silence. Emmet is also very good at explaining to Jeremey what he thinks and what he wants and Jeremey learns that he need not be anxious about what Emmet may be thinking. There is no question too personal for Emmet and he will always tell Jeremey the truth without varnish.
It is not all one-sided. Jeremey is very sensitive to feelings – it’s his “superpower” and Emmet is often confused by social cues and facial expressions. They come to understand one another’s strengths and shortfalls and foibles and make allowances for it. Not so different from any other couple really, but the instances are perhaps more overt.
The young men become friends and, over time, reveal their mutual attraction. Jeremey’s mother, in particular, is resistant to Emmet’s relationship (of any sort) with Jeremey but she has reluctantly acquiesced to their association. She thinks Emmet is the “R word” and Jeremey should hang out with “normal” people (Emmet would say that there is no normal and that a better term would be “on the mean”). When she comes into Jeremey’s room one day and spies them kissing she hits 11 on her personal Richter scale and forbids further contact. This leads to a crisis for Jeremey but it has a happier outcome in that it means he finally, finally gets the help he needs. Jeremey spends some time in the hospital and has therapy and medication and learns about himself and how to modify his environment so that he can live comfortably. Going home is not an option and his mother is a major source of anxiety for him.
Emmet and Jeremey want to live together but how to do that is a challenge. They don’t have income of their own. They need a supported living environment. As it happens, The Roosevelt turns out to be perfect for them. How they get there and how they manage once they’re there is the subject of the rest of the story. I enjoyed the coming of age aspects of the story as much as the romance.
Emmet is lucky indeed to have such wonderful parents. Marietta Washington is a GP and works in a local clinic. Doug Washington is a research specialist for a big company. They have, the three of them, developed signs and signals to help everyone understand each other. Emmet wears a particular shirt when he is serious about something and needs to talk. Marietta uses a certain phrase when she needs a hug more than Emmet needs to not be touched. There are hand signals for when he has been rude and hurt Marietta’s feelings and a responding signal for him to apologise without the whole thing getting to WWIII. In some respects I found myself kind of wishing we had similar sorts of signals at my house growing up. Emmet needs clarity and structure and clear rules and guidelines. Nuance confuses him. He doesn’t play games (head games I mean – he loves computer games) and he has no time or patience for them. I am in sympathy with him there.
Emmet is also very close with his dad. Their relationship is so beautiful. They bond over The Blues Brothers and it is not a closed circle. Jeremey is invited into the club and later, other residents of the Roosevelt as well.
His parents are loving and supportive but not smothering or infantilising. Marietta doesn’t really want to hear about Emmet having sex with Jeremey (I hear you Marietta) and even when she has pangs about her little boy leaving home, she still works to find a solution that will meet his needs and give Emmet what he wants. When Marietta is tempted to cling, Doug gently intervenes to help her see another perspective.
In contrast, Jeremey’s parents are difficult. Mr. Sampson is a bit of a cipher. In fact, I tried to find his first name for the review and on (admittedly) quick scan I couldn’t find it. The driving force in that household is Gabrielle Sampson. She seems unhappy and very stuck on appearances. While I didn’t find her very nuanced, she wasn’t just evil either. It’s more that her way of trying to protect and look after her son was unhealthy for him. But, if there is a ‘villain’ in the story, it is her.
Emmet is so sweetly vulnerable to Jeremey. He knows he is not good at relationships and he has such hopes for his friendship with Jeremey.
As the fireworks exploded above us in the sky, the urge to tell him how I felt was huge inside me. I was scared to end my happy feelings if he didn’t feel like we were best friends too, and I worried my autism would wreck the moment. So though he sat right next to me, I texted him.
Jeremey, you’re my best friend. My chest got tight with nervousness. I hope that’s okay, I added, then hit send.
When Jeremey is feeling terribly vulnerable and exposed, Emmet’s matter-of-fact acceptance of all that is Jeremey is a blessing.
It took me a second to digest the fact that he’d spoken of his disability as casually as he might a paper cut. Plus he’d given me so much information about himself, helpful information. Intense and direct.
It was, honestly, refreshing. I wondered if I could dare to be the same.
“If I say the wrong thing, I’m sorry,” Emmet said. “If you tell me what was bad, I won’t say it anymore to you.”
I made myself look at his face while I answered. “It’s okay. I’m trying to find my answer is all. That’s one of the reasons it’s hard for me to talk to people. I worry about saying the wrong thing, and sometimes it means I can’t say anything. It takes me a long time to give an answer to a question.”
Emmet brightened . “This is why we can be good friends. If you say the wrong thing to me, I’ll tell you. Then you can stop, and it will all be fine.”
And Emmet is more than happy to suggest modifications for Jeremey to make things easier for them to communicate.
“Jeremey, we need a code. I can’t understand why you’re upset, but when you’re upset, you can’t tell me. Why are you upset right now?”
Why was I upset? God, where did I start? Even thinking it overwhelmed me. How was I supposed to say it out loud? Emmet opened a notepad app and handed me his phone. “Can you type it?”
Emmet has been successfully managing his autism for a long time. He does have challenges and sometimes things are too much for him but he nevertheless has much to impart to Jeremey. Even though their disabilities are different, there are many things they both have to deal with which are very much the same.
Jeremey, there is no such thing as normal. It’s wrong of your mother to say you have to be normal. I can’t be normal either. I have autism. My aunt has autism too. My dad has lactose intolerance. My mom’s feet are a whole size different from each other, and her sleeves are always too short. Everyone is different. Nothing in the world is the same as anything else, so how can anyone be normal?
From my inexpert perspective, the thrust of the book, the general narrative, seemed healthy to me. Adults with disabilities/medical conditions which limit them somehow need to be respected as adults and to be able to make decisions which affect their lives. They need to be supported, not infantilised. There are things they need to do themselves and things they need help with. Which is pretty much the same for everybody. Everyone needs help with something. It is the particular things they might need some help with which differ. But those particular things don’t make people less human, less valuable or just… less.
One of the things we call out in romance all the time is this idea of being magically cured by love. That does not happen here. In fact, Dr. North, their mutual therapist, specifically advises against it. Thank you Dr. North.
“When managing depression and anxiety, you must do the work, and you must do it yourself. It’s perfectly fine to feel stronger or better with Emmet or any friend or loved one. But you must never let them be the only way you’re stable. People are good medicine, but they can’t be your foundation of functionality. You must build that yourself.”
Emmet and Jeremey are better together because they make each other happier. But they have challenges, separately and together, they must deal with and sometimes it is very hard indeed.
I want to say I was charmed by Emmet and Jeremey and their relationship. I empathised with their difficulties and laughed at their jokes and celebrated their triumphs. I have some experience myself in celebrating the little successes and I know that some days the definition of success is getting to the letterbox and back. I wondered if using the word “charmed” was patronising in the circumstances. I’m going to give myself a pass here because I’ve used that description for other books with non-disabled characters who touched me much the same way Emmett and Jeremey did (particularly Emmet it must be said).
For those unfamiliar with the subject matter, I think both conditions are explained in a way which is accessible and not info-dumpy. I wonder if those who are familiar with the subject matter will share that view. I think there’s a chance that they might think it was too didactic in places. I think you also demonstrate and make room for the fact that what is portrayed is Emmet’s experience and Jeremey’s experience as individuals and that there is a broad range of experience and symptoms in both autism and depression/anxiety. You show them both clearly as not monoliths.
The story is told in the alternating first person (past tense) from each of the protagonists. I did feel that Emmet’s “voice” bled into Jeremey’s and by the end, I had to check sometimes to work out whose POV I was in. I think it could also be said that Emmet’s family might be a little too perfect (I couldn’t find it in my heart to be sad about this) and Jeremey’s is a little too imperfect (I also think “get over it” is pretty commonly found in society in relation to all manner of things) and I think it could also be said that the Roosevelt is idealised. I don’t know what facilities and supportive environments are generally available in the US but I think Emmet and Jeremey were both very lucky Bob Loris was rich and wanted to buy and repurpose the old elementary school (and that their own parents are prepared to support them). Apart from the occasional POV confusion, those things didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story, but I thought it was worth noting them in case they are things which might bother other readers.
I’m not an expert on disability by any means. If there are things I’ve missed or which bear further discussion, I’d be very happy to learn more about them in the comments. In my inexpert opinion, Carry the Ocean gives a sympathetic portrayal of two young men falling in love and dealing with the challenges life has thrown at them the best they know how. I recommend.