By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 10 2014 01:00PM
Jane Austen and Disney: it’s a nightmarish pairing. An adorably anthropomorphic Pug steals fabric from Mrs. Norris’ poor box to trim Fanny’s ballgown? The animated Elizabeth Bennet belts out a power ballad entitled “The Shades of Pemberley” after vanquishing Lady Catherine? A comically spluttering parrot plays matchmaker for Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot? The brain reels.
Yet Jane Austen – or, more accurately, Jane Austen fans – came to mind this weekend as I read Ron Suskind’s deeply moving account of how Disney films helped his autistic son break through the enforced silence and isolation of his disability.
Through the stories of Mowgli and Peter Pan, Aladdin and the Little Mermaid, Owen Suskind found a way of building relationships and understanding his experience of struggle, rejection and love. The scripted interactions of Disney characters gave him a vocabulary for his own emotions and a way to make sense of the minds of others.
Most of us don’t face Owen’s challenges in navigating the world: as children, we effortlessly absorb the lessons he had to teach himself so laboriously, with the help of devoted parents and therapists.
If Owen’s struggles are distinctive, however, his reliance on stories to give shape to the world is far from unique. In my interviews with Janeites, I heard over and over again how fans turned to Austen’s novels seeking guidance and comfort, or discovered in her pages a version of their own developmental dramas.
And, of course, it’s hardly a new insight that the DNA of Austen’s stories carries traces of the folklore and fairy tales from which Disney’s animators also take their inspiration. Fanny Price may lack a pumpkin coach and a menagerie of cute animal friends, but she’s a Cinderella figure nonetheless. That story -- about cruelty and rejection, recognition and triumph -- is a very old one.
No wonder, then, that all of us, the Owen Suskinds no less than the neurotypical, turn to narratives old and new to make sense of our human condition. The stories we tell each other – “Beauty and the Beast” as much as Sense and Sensibility – are the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves.