How Parenting an Autistic Child Helped an Israeli Novelist Write

After directing commercials and writing children's books, Yoram Ever Hadani has now published his first novel for adults – about a subject that is very close to home.

Yoram Ever Hadani.
David Bachar

A thick, dirty haze covers Jerusalem. It collects on the roofs of homes in the city’s upscale Beit Hakerem neighborhood, obscures the Chagall stained-glass windows of Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Karem, envelops cars that arrive for repair sat the garage in the Katamon neighborhood, stifles the breath and seeps into the lungs. “Haze” is also the title Yoram Ever Hadani has given his new book (published in Hebrew by Keter), which begins with the same sort of weather. But the haze in “Haze” is not only sticky dust and particles of sand borne on the wind from the deserts of Arabia. It’s also a metaphorical fog, an inability to observe and cope with reality.

The novel’s protagonist, Prof. Yoel Edut, an ambitious physician of 55, is the director of the gynecology department at Hadassah and an expert in fertilization. His son, Itamar, was a child prodigy and is now a gifted pianist who is fluent in several languages and suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. At the age of 19 he doesn’t have a friend in the world. His day consists of watching telenovelas and walking to the nearby commercial center, where he sits on a wall for hours staring into space, earphones on his head. To solve his son’s problem, Yoel finds Yaron Mugrabi, a young garage worker who is the same age, and pays him to befriend Itamar. But the big problem that Yoel has discerned is only a symptom, and the solution he finds leads to complications.

“Parenthood is rife with fears,” says Ever Hadani, 55, a large, bear-like person who gallantly gives up the chair next to the heating in the Tel Aviv café where we meet. “And when you’re connected to that distant entity – fear – you’re not here. You are not living the true reality. If you are possessed by fear and that is what dictates your actions, you are not connected to life. There’s a difference between fear of something – the Iranian bomb, say – and life, and this distances you because there is something that is seemingly bigger ...

“As a parent, too,” he continues, “if your fear is that your child will not make it to university or won’t have friends, and you really pressure him to have friends – you are not listening to him or empowering the process. You don’t have a minute to listen, because your behavior is driven by fear. The fear is so strong that first of all, you act. That’s what happens to Yoel.”

Fear creates a haze in the mind?

“Very much so. That’s why it’s haze and not fog. Fog is romantic, it’s Balzac, it’s the promise of rain. Haze is something else. We live in this sour and unpleasant dust. It’s not a cloud that’s descended; it’s something from the deserts of Saudi Arabia. Fears are haze that cause disorientation.”

Medicine vs. mechanics

“Haze” is Ever Hadani’s first novel for adults. He has published four children’s books and directed commercials for the likes of McDonald’s, Ahla hummus, the Tnuva food conglomerate and other companies. In the 1990s he was also a scriptwriter for the Israeli television show “The Comedy Store.”

“I worked in an ad agency and I would send a script by fax and see it a few days later on TV,” Ever Hadani recalls. “I wrote commercials and afterward did parodies of them.”

“Haze” is very much a Jerusalem-based novel, although the author grew up in Ashkelon. Both his parents, he explains with a smile, were born in Jerusalem. His father’s family, the Mugrabis, who changed their name to “Ever Hadani,” owned a grocery store in the city’s Mahane Yehuda produce market (it’s still owned by relatives). His mother, the late poet Daphna Ever Hadani, grew up in Beit Hakerem, in a family with an artistic background. She herself ran two art galleries, in Israel and in New York. The geographical and class disparities between her and her husband are reflected in their son’s book in the distance between Beit Hakerem and Katamon, between the professor of medicine and the garage.

Ever Hadani and his partner, scriptwriter and director Keren Margalit – creator of the Israeli television series “Yellow Peppers,” which was sold to the U.S. studio Lion’s Gate and to the BBC, which is airing its version, "The A Word," later this year – have three children: 15-year-old Michael, who is autistic, and 10-year-old twins, Naomi and Avigail.

“Yellow Peppers” is about the way an Israeli couple living in a rural area cope with their son’s autism. Itamar, in the novel, is not autistic but suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder that is situated on what is called the autism spectrum: It is characterized by high intellectual capabilities as well as by difficulties in forming social ties and understanding social codes and situations. Still, it’s clear that Ever Hadani chose to locate the novel “close to home.” This is particularly noticeable in the sections of “Haze” where he describes the recognition of the fact that something is wrong and the family’s response to it, which changes from suspicion and denial to an inability to repress the knowledge any longer. It’s here in particular that a humane truth and intense honesty shine through, along with literary prowess that forges credibility.

Did you have any hesitations about writing a book that is so close to your family?

Ever Hadani: “Absolutely not. None at all. I didn’t have even a moment’s hesitation, just as I did not hesitate to write about a relationship that also ostensibly exposes me and my life. Parenthood is parenthood. I feel that what’s exposed here is no different from other subjects, and I am fully satisfied with the result. I don’t feel that I am exposing Michael or my parenting, and I am not ashamed of anything.”

It’s interesting that both you and Keren channeled your parenting of Michael into creative work.

“We are separate parents of an autistic child, and together parents of an autistic child. Each of us lives his life and does what he does. We did much of our writing in parallel over many years. I started to write the first draft of ‘Haze,’ which was very different, eight or nine years ago. It’s close to home and close to our life, and it’s very logical that when you undergo such a powerful experience, you want to address it and its implications. We are both happy with what the other is doing. I think Keren did something amazing.”

Screenwriter and director Keren Margalit.
Noa Yaffe

Still, there’s this game that writers play, to distance themselves and also draw close to their own lives.

“There is a great deal of ‘distancing and drawing close’ here. Research shows that people with Asperger’s are a window to autism, because they have such developed abilities. It was also of interest to me to see how a person like Yoel reacts to a son like that. Yoel is very much not me. I wanted to investigate what happens when such a goal-oriented, assertive person discovers he is the father of a boy with Asperger’s. The whole issue of children’s loneliness and parents’ fear of that affects parents in general, not only parents of special children.”

But when the child is diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, everything is charged with special sensitivity.

“Asperger’s is a very borderline syndrome, which in a certain sense makes everything harder. When you have an autistic child you know where you’re at. Reality tells you that the child is different. But what’s very difficult, to my mind, is a child who’s an outstanding student, who is talented and possesses multiple abilities – a child who is in a regular class but is always the oddball of the class and the school, who is the butt of jokes and whom the teacher can’t figure out, either.”

At this point questions arise that involve being a parent to an adolescent like that. Questions of love, friendships, loneliness and sex.

“Yes. From my point of view there’s a question about the legitimacy of Yoel’s act of buying his son a friend: Is Itamar a whole person who has the right to decide about the course his life will take, about who will be his friend – or is he disabled, which makes it possible to undertake an act like this that is calculated to ease his situation? At older ages, there is a well-known phenomenon of sex being bought for people with Asperger’s. I know that there are also cases of the kind I describe, at younger ages.

“Yoel doesn’t tell his wife about the friend he bought for their son, because he thinks she will never agree to the idea. There’s an unclear combination here: Is this friendship or a form of treatment? It’s confusion that also affects parents of these children: Are you a parent or a therapist? Do you have to spend every minute teaching the child life skills or can you be just a dad? Many of us want to be in control all the time, and that’s a very big thing in the world of parents of special children.”

Understanding loneliness

“Haze” demonstrates a high level of credibility not only in its intimate handling of those sorts of questions. Peopled by fully developed characters who are caught up in convincing relationships, the novel raises questions about the choices people make, about learning from life’s experiences, about youth and maturity, and the desire to fall in love and experience emotion.

Ever Hadani is especially proud of the field research he did for the book, ranging from subjects like a car’s drainage system, which he learned about in a garage, to fertilization procedures, which he heard about at Hadassah, to Asperger’s. He spoke both with parents of children with the syndrome and with Dr. Roni Yoran-Hegesh, a pediatrician and psychiatrist who is a leading Israeli expert in Asperger's. “Through them,” he says, “I realized how lonely these children are, how much they want friends.”

But the book portrays an even more complex situation. Yoel, the distinguished professor, observes his son with a mixture of amazement and stress. Seemingly, the two are complete opposites, but Itamar’s character actually embodies certain traits of Yoel, taken to an extreme. In fact, it seems to this reader that the loneliness experienced by Yoel himself is more extreme than that of his son, and that the father’s social incompetence is a symptom diagnosed in Itamar.

“There’s something to that,” Ever Hadani, after reflecting briefly on my analysis. “Yoel denies the similarity between them. If you try to apply that to me and Michael, it’s completely different. Parents and children are always a system of mirrors and reflections. You look at your children and find yourself.

“I see myself connected to and watching over Michael today. Maybe at first, when the syndrome was diagnosed, it wasn’t like that, but today it’s different. At first the haze of the dissimilarity descends on you. You don’t give it a name and you feel a kind of discomfort about the dissimilarity between you and your child. The road I followed – I think and hope – is so long that I no longer see it like that.”