Don Tillman is getting married. He just doesn’t know who to yet.
But he has designed the Wife Project, using a sixteen-page questionnaire to help him find the perfect partner. She will most definitely not be a barmaid, a smoker, a drinker, or a late-arriver.
Rosie Jarman is all these things. She is also fiery and intelligent and beautiful. And on a quest of her own to find her biological father—a search that Don, a professor of genetics, might just be able to help her with.
The Wife Project teaches Don some unexpected things. Why earlobe length is an inadequate predictor of sexual attraction. Why quick-dry clothes aren’t appropriate attire in New York. Why he’s never been on a second date. And why, despite your best scientific efforts, you don’t find love: love finds you.
I may have found a solution to the Wife Problem. As with so many scientific breakthroughs, the answer was obvious in retrospect. But had it not been for a series of unscheduled events, it is unlikely I would have discovered it.
The sequence was initiated by Gene insisting I give a lecture on Asperger’s syndrome that he had previously agreed to deliver himself. The timing was extremely annoying. The preparation could be time-shared with lunch consumption, but on the designated evening I had scheduled ninety-four minutes to clean my bathroom. I was faced with a choice of three options, none of them satisfactory.
1. Cleaning the bathroom after the lecture, resulting in loss of sleep with a consequent reduction in mental and physical performance.
2. Rescheduling the cleaning until the following Tuesday, resulting in an eight-day period of compromised bathroom hygiene and consequent risk of disease.
3. Refusing to deliver the lecture, resulting in damage to my friendship with Gene.
I presented the dilemma to Gene, who, as usual, had an alternative solution. ‘Don, I’ll pay for someone to clean your bathroom.’
I explained to Gene—again—that all cleaners, with the possible exception of the Hungarian woman with the short skirt, made errors. Short-skirt Woman, who had been Gene’s cleaner, had disappeared following some problem with Gene and Claudia.
‘I’ll give you Eva’s mobile number. Just don’t mention me.’
‘What if she asks? How can I answer without mentioning you?’
‘Just say you’re contacting her because she’s the only cleaner who does it properly. And if she mentions me, say nothing.’
This was an excellent outcome, and an illustration of Gene’s ability to find solutions to social problems. Eva would enjoy having her competence recognised and might even be suitable for a permanent role, which would free up an average of three hundred and sixteen minutes per week in my schedule.
Gene’s lecture problem had arisen because he had an opportunity to have sex with a Chilean academic who was attending a conference in Melbourne. Gene has a project to have sex with women of as many different nationalities as possible. As a professor of psychology, he is extremely interested in human sexual attraction, which he believes is largely genetically determined.
This belief is consistent with Gene’s background as a geneticist. Sixty-eight days after Gene hired me as a post-doctoral researcher, he was promoted to head of the Psychology Department, a highly controversial appointment that was intended to establish the university as a leader in evolutionary psychology and increase its public profile.
During the time we worked concurrently in the Genetics Department, we had numerous interesting discussions which continued after his change of position. I would have been satisfied with our relationship for this reason alone, but Gene also invited me to dinner at his house and performed other friendship rituals, resulting in a social relationship. His wife Claudia, who is a clinical psychologist, is now also a friend. Making a total of two.
Gene and Claudia tried for a while to assist me with the Wife Problem. Unfortunately, their approach was based on the traditional dating paradigm, which I had previously abandoned on the basis that the probability of success did not justify the effort and negative experiences. I am thirty-nine years old, tall, fit and intelligent, with a relatively high status and above-average income as an associate professor. Logically, I should be attractive to a wide range of women. In the animal kingdom, I would succeed in reproducing.
However, there is something about me that women find unappealing. I have never found it easy to make friends, and it seems that the deficiencies that caused this problem have also affected my attempts at romantic relationships. The Apricot Ice-cream Disaster is a good example.
Claudia had introduced me to one of her many friends. Elizabeth was a highly intelligent computer scientist, with a vision problem that had been corrected with glasses. I mention the glasses because Claudia showed me a photograph, and asked me if I was okay with them. An incredible question! From a psychologist! In evaluating Elizabeth’s suitability as a potential partner—someone to provide intellectual stimulation, to share activities with, perhaps even to breed with—Claudia’s first concern was my reaction to her choice of glasses frames, which was probably not even her own but the result of advice from an optometrist. This is the world I have to live in. Then Claudia told me, as though it was a problem: ‘She has very firm ideas.’
‘Are they evidence-based?’
‘I guess so,’ Claudia said.
Perfect. She could have been describing me.
We met at a Thai restaurant. Restaurants are minefields for the socially inept, and I was nervous as always in these situations. But we got off to an excellent start when we both arrived at exactly 7.00 p.m. as arranged. Poor synchronisation is a huge waste of time.
We survived the meal without her criticising me for any social errors. It is difficult to conduct a conversation while wondering whether you are looking at the correct body part but I locked on to her bespectacled eyes, as recommended by Gene. This resulted in some inaccuracy in the eating process, which she did not seem to notice. On the contrary, we had a highly productive discussion about simulation algorithms. She was so interesting! I could already see the possibility of a permanent relationship.
The waiter brought the dessert menus and Elizabeth said, ‘I don’t like Asian desserts.’
This was almost certainly an unsound generalisation, based on limited experience, and perhaps I should have recognised it as a warning sign. But it provided me with an opportunity for a creative suggestion.
‘We could get an ice-cream across the road.’
‘Great idea. As long as they’ve got apricot.’
I assessed that I was progressing well at this point, and did not think the apricot preference would be a problem. I was wrong. The ice-cream parlour had a vast selection of flavours, but they had exhausted their supply of apricot. I ordered a chocolate chilli and liquorice double cone for myself and asked Elizabeth to nominate her second preference.
‘If they haven’t got apricot, I’ll pass.’
I couldn’t believe it. All ice-cream tastes essentially the same, due to chilling of the tastebuds. This is especially true of fruit flavours. I suggested mango.
‘No thanks, I’m fine.’
I explained the physiology of tastebud chilling in some detail. I predicted that if I purchased a mango and a peach ice-cream she would be incapable of differentiating. And, by extension, either would be equivalent to apricot.
‘They’re completely different,’ she said. ‘If you can’t tell mango from peach, that’s your problem.’
Now we had a simple objective disagreement that could readily be resolved experimentally. I ordered a minimum-size ice-cream in each of the two flavours. But by the time the serving person had prepared them, and I turned to ask Elizabeth to close her eyes for the experiment, she had gone. So much for ‘evidence-based’. And for computer ‘scientist’.
Afterwards, Claudia advised me that I should have abandoned the experiment prior to Elizabeth leaving. Obviously. But at what point? Where was the signal? These are the subtleties I fail to see. But I also fail to see why heightened sensitivity to obscure cues about ice-cream flavours should be a prerequisite for being someone’s partner. It seems reasonable to assume that some women do not require this. Unfortunately, the process of finding them is impossibly inefficient. The Apricot Ice-cream Disaster had cost a whole evening of my life, compensated for only by the information about simulation algorithms.
Two lunchtimes were sufficient to research and prepare my lecture on Asperger’s syndrome, without sacrificing nourishment, thanks to the provision of Wi-Fi in the medical library café. I had no previous knowledge of autism spectrum disorders, as they were outside my specialty. The subject was fascinating. It seemed appropriate to focus on the genetic aspects of the syndrome, which might be unfamiliar to
my audience. Most diseases have some basis in our DNA, though in many cases we have yet to discover it. My own work focuses on genetic predisposition to cirrhosis of the liver. Much of my working time is devoted to getting mice drunk.
Naturally, the books and research papers described the symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, and I formed a provisional conclusion that most of these were simply variations in human brain function that had been inappropriately medicalised because they did not fit social norms—constructed social norms—that reflected the most common human configurations rather than the full range.
The lecture was scheduled for 7.00 p.m. at an inner-suburban school. I estimated the cycle ride at twelve minutes, and allowed three minutes to boot my computer and connect it to the projector.
I arrived on schedule at 6.57 p.m., having let Eva, the short-skirted cleaner, into my apartment twenty-seven minutes earlier. There were approximately twenty-five people milling around the door and the front of the classroom, but I immediately recognised Julie, the convenor, from Gene’s description: ‘blonde with big tits’. In fact, her breasts were probably no more than one and a half standard deviations from the mean size for her body weight, and hardly a remarkable identifying feature. It was more a question of elevation and exposure, as a result of her choice of costume, which seemed perfectly practical for a hot January evening.
I may have spent too long verifying her identity, as she looked at me strangely.
‘You must be Julie,’ I said.
‘Can I help you?’
Good. A practical person. ‘Yes, direct me to the VGA cable. Please.’
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘You must be Professor Tillman. I’m so glad you could make it.’
She extended her hand but I waved it away. ‘The VGA cable, please. It’s 6.58.’
‘Relax,’ she said. ‘We never start before 7.15. Would you like a coffee?’
Why do people value others’ time so little? Now we would have the inevitable small talk. I could have spent fifteen minutes at home practising aikido.
I had been focusing on Julie and the screen at the front of the room. Now I looked around and realised that I had failed to observe nineteen people. They were children, predominantly male, sitting at desks. Presumably these were the victims of Asperger’s syndrome. Almost all of the literature focuses on children.
Despite their affliction, they were making better use of their time than their parents, who were chattering aimlessly. Most were operating portable computing devices. I guessed their ages as between eight and thirteen. I hoped they had been paying attention in their science classes, as my material assumed a working knowledge of organic chemistry and the structure of DNA.
I realised that I had failed to reply to the coffee question.
Unfortunately, because of the delay, Julie had forgotten the question. ‘No coffee,’ I explained. ‘I never drink coffee after 3.48 p.m. It interferes with sleep. Caffeine has a half-life of three to four hours, so it’s irresponsible serving coffee at 7.00 p.m. unless people are planning to stay awake until after midnight. Which doesn’t allow adequate sleep if they have a conventional job.’ I was trying to make use of the waiting time by offering practical advice, but it seemed that she preferred to discuss trivia.
‘Is Gene all right?’ she asked. It was obviously a variant on that most common of formulaic interactions, ‘How are you?’
‘He’s fine, thank you,’ I said, adapting the conventional reply to the third-person form.
‘Oh. I thought he was ill.’
‘Gene is in excellent health except for being six kilograms overweight. We went for a run this morning. He has a date tonight, and he wouldn’t be able to go out if he was ill.’
Julie seemed unimpressed and, in reviewing the interaction later, I realised that Gene must have lied to her about his reason for not being present. This was presumably to protect Julie from feeling that her lecture was unimportant to Gene and to provide a justification for a less prestigious speaker being sent as a substitute. It seems hardly possible to analyse such a complex situation involving deceit and supposition of another person’s emotional response, and then prepare your own plausible lie, all while someone is waiting for you to reply to a question. Yet that is exactly what people expect you to be able to do.
Eventually, I set up my computer and we got started, eighteen minutes late. I would need to speak forty-three per cent faster to finish on schedule at 8.00 p.m.—a virtually impossible performance goal. We were going to finish late, and my schedule for the rest of the night would be thrown out.
I had titled my talk Genetic Precursors to Autism Spectrum Disorders and sourced some excellent diagrams of DNA structures. I had only been speaking for nine minutes, a little faster than usual to recover time, when Julie interrupted.
‘Professor Tillman. Most of us here are not scientists, so you may need to be a little less technical.’ This sort of thing is incredibly annoying. People can tell you the supposed characteristics of a Gemini or a Taurus and will spend five days watching a cricket match, but cannot find the interest or the time to learn the basics of what they, as humans, are made up of.
I continued with my presentation as I had prepared it. It was too late to change and surely some of the audience were informed enough to understand.
I was right. A hand went up, a male of about twelve.
‘You are saying that it is unlikely that there is a single genetic marker, but rather that several genes are implicated and the aggregate expression depends on the specific combination. Affirmative?’
Exactly! ‘Plus environmental factors. The situation is analogous to bipolar disorder, which—’
Julie interrupted again. ‘So, for us non-geniuses, I think Professor Tillman is reminding us that Asperger’s is something you’re born with. It’s nobody’s fault.’
I was horrified by the use of the word ‘fault’, with its negative connotations, especially as it was being employed by someone in authority. I abandoned my decision not to deviate from the genetic issues. The matter had doubtless been brewing in my subconscious, and the volume of my voice may have increased as a result.
‘Fault! Asperger’s isn’t a fault. It’s a variant. It’s potentially a major advantage. Asperger’s syndrome is associated with organisation, focus, innovative thinking and rational detachment.’
A woman at the rear of the room raised her hand. I was focused on the argument now, and made a minor social error, which I quickly corrected.
‘The fat woman—overweight woman—at the back?’
She paused and looked around the room, but then continued,
‘Rational detachment: is that a euphemism for lack of emotion?’
‘Synonym,’ I replied. ‘Emotions can cause major problems.’
I decided it would be helpful to provide an example, drawing on a story in which emotional behaviour would have led to disastrous consequences.
‘Imagine,’ I said. ‘You’re hiding in a basement. The enemy is searching for you and your friends. Everyone has to keep totally quiet, but your baby is crying.’ I did an impression, as Gene would, to make the story more convincing: ‘Waaaaa.’ I paused dramatically. ‘You have a gun.’
Hands went up everywhere.
Julie jumped to her feet as I continued. ‘With a silencer. They’re coming closer. They’re going to kill you all. What do you do? The baby’s screaming—’
The kids couldn’t wait to share their answer. One called out, ‘Shoot the baby,’ and soon they were all shouting, ‘Shoot the baby, shoot the baby.’
The boy who had asked the genetics question called out, ‘Shoot the enemy,’ and then another said, ‘Ambush them.’
The suggestions were coming rapidly.
‘Use the baby as bait.’
‘How many guns do we have?’
‘Cover its mouth.’
‘How long can it live without air?’
As I had expected, all the ideas came from the Asperger’s ‘sufferers’. The parents made no constructive suggestions; some even tried to suppress their children’s creativity.
I raised my hands. ‘Time’s up. Excellent work. All the rational solutions came from the aspies. Everyone else was incapacitated by emotion.’
One boy called out, ‘Aspies rule!’ I had noted this abbreviation in the literature, but it appeared to be new to the children. They seemed to like it, and soon were standing on the chairs and then the desks, punching the air and chanting ‘Aspies rule!’ in chorus. According to my reading, children with Asperger’s syndrome frequently lack self-confidence in social situations. Their success in problem-solving seemed to have provided a temporary cure for this, but again their parents were failing to provide positive feedback, shouting at them and in some cases attempting to pull them down from the desks. Apparently they were more concerned with adherence to social convention than the progress their children were making.
I felt I had made my point effectively, and Julie did not think we needed to continue with the genetics. The parents appeared to be reflecting on what their children had learned and left without interacting with me further. It was only 7.43 p.m. An excellent outcome.
As I packed up my laptop, Julie burst out laughing.
‘Oh my God,’ she said. ‘I need a drink.’
I was not sure why she was sharing this information with someone she had known for only forty-six minutes. I planned to consume some alcohol myself when I arrived home but saw no reason to inform Julie. She continued, ‘You know, we never use that word. Aspies. We don’t want them thinking it’s some sort of club.’ More negative implications from someone who was presumably paid to assist and encourage.
‘Like homosexuality?’ I said.
‘Touché,’ said Julie. ‘But it’s different. If they don’t change, they’re not going to have real relationships—they’ll never have partners.’ This was a reasonable argument, and one that I could understand, given my own difficulties in that sphere. But Julie changed the subject. ‘But you’re saying there are things—useful things—they can do better than…non-aspies? Besides killing babies.’
‘Of course.’ I wondered why someone involved in the education of people with uncommon attributes was not aware of the value of and market for such attributes. ‘There’s a company in Denmark that recruits aspies for computer applications testing.’
‘I didn’t know that,’ said Julie. ‘You’re really giving me a different perspective.’ She looked at me for a few moments. ‘Do you have time for a drink?’ And then she put her hand on my shoulder.
I flinched automatically. Definitely inappropriate contact. If I had done that to a woman there would almost certainly have been a problem, possibly a sexual harassment complaint to the Dean, which could have consequences for my career. Of course, no one was going to criticise her for it.
‘Unfortunately, I have other activities scheduled.’
‘Definitely not.’ Having succeeded in recovering lost time, I was not about to throw my life into chaos again.
Before I met Gene and Claudia I had two other friends. The first was my older sister. Although she was a mathematics teacher, she had little interest in advances in the field. However, she lived nearby and would visit twice weekly and sometimes randomly. We would eat together and discuss trivia, such as events in the lives of our relatives and social interactions with our colleagues. Once a month, we drove to Shepparton for Sunday dinner with our parents and brother. She was single, probably as a result of being shy and not conventionally attractive. Due to gross and inexcusable medical incompetence, she is now dead.
The second friend was Daphne, whose friendship period also overlapped with Gene and Claudia’s. She moved into the apartment above mine after her husband entered a nursing home, as a result of dementia. Due to knee failure, exacerbated by obesity, she was unable to walk more than a few steps, but she was highly intelligent and I began to visit her regularly. She had no formal qualifications, having performed a traditional female homemaker role. I considered this to be an extreme waste of talent—particularly as her descendants did not return the care. She was curious about my work, and we initiated the Teach Daphne Genetics Project, which was fascinating for both of us.
She began eating her dinner in my apartment on a regular basis, as there are massive economies of scale in cooking one meal for two people, rather than two separate meals. Each Sunday at 3.00 p.m. we would visit her husband at the nursing home, which was 7.3 kilometres away. I was able to combine a 14.6-kilometre walk pushing a wheelchair with interesting conversation about genetics. I would read while she spoke to
her husband, whose level of comprehension was difficult to determine but definitely low.
Daphne had been named after the plant that was flowering at the time of her birth, on the twenty-eighth of August. On each birthday, her husband would give her daphne flowers, and she considered this a highly romantic action. She complained that her approaching birthday would be the first occasion in fifty-six years on which this symbolic act would not be performed. The solution was obvious, and when I wheeled her to my apartment for dinner on her seventy-eighth birthday, I had purchased a quantity of the flowers to give her.
She recognised the smell immediately and began crying. I thought I had made a terrible error, but she explained that her tears were a symptom of happiness. She was also impressed by the chocolate cake that I had made, but not to the same extent.
During the meal, she made an incredible statement: ‘Don, you would make someone a wonderful husband.’
This was so contrary to my experiences of being rejected by women that I was temporarily stunned. Then I presented her with the facts—the history of my attempts to find a partner, beginning with my assumption as a child that I would grow up and get married and finishing with my abandonment of the idea as the evidence grew that I was unsuitable.
Her argument was simple: there’s someone for everyone. Statistically, she was almost certainly correct. Unfortunately, the probability that I would find such a person was vanishingly small. But it created a disturbance in my brain, like a mathematical problem that we know must have a solution.
For her next two birthdays, we repeated the flower ritual. The results were not as dramatic as the first time, but I also purchased gifts for her—books on genetics—and she seemed very happy. She told me that her birthday had always been her favourite day of the year. I understood that this view was common in children, due to the gifts, but had not expected it in an adult.
Ninety-three days after the third birthday dinner, we were travelling to the nursing home, discussing a genetics paper that Daphne had read the previous day, when it became apparent that she had forgotten some significant points. It was not the first time in recent weeks that her memory had been faulty, and I immediately organised an assessment of her cognitive functioning. The diagnosis was Alzheimer’s
Daphne’s intellectual capability deteriorated rapidly, and we were soon unable to have our discussions about genetics. But we continued our meals and walks to the nursing home. Daphne now spoke primarily about her past, focusing on her husband and family, and I was able to form a generalised view of what married life could be like. She continued to insist that I could find a compatible partner and enjoy the high level of happiness that she had experienced in her own life. Supplementary research confirmed that Daphne’s arguments were supported by evidence: married men are happier and live longer.
One day Daphne asked, ‘When will it be my birthday again?’ and I realised that she had lost track of dates. I decided that it would be acceptable to lie in order to maximise her happiness. The problem was to source some daphne out of season, but I had unexpected success. I was aware of a geneticist who was working on altering and extending the flowering of plants for commercial reasons. He was able to supply my flower vendor with some daphne, and we had a simulated birthday dinner. I repeated the procedure each time Daphne asked about her birthday.
Eventually, it was necessary for Daphne to join her husband at the nursing home, and, as her memory failed, we celebrated her birthdays more often, until I was visiting her daily. The flower vendor gave me a special loyalty card. I calculated that Daphne had reached the age of two hundred and seven, according to the number of birthdays, when she stopped recognising me, and three hundred and nineteen when she no longer responded to the daphne and I abandoned the visits.
I did not expect to hear from Julie again. As usual, my assumptions about human behaviour were wrong. Two days after the lecture, at 3.37 p.m., my phone rang with an unfamiliar number. Julie left a message asking me to call back, and I deduced that I must have left something behind.
I was wrong again. She wanted to continue our discussion of Asperger’s syndrome. I was pleased that my input had been so influential. She suggested we meet over dinner, which was not the ideal location for productive discussion, but, as I usually eat dinner alone, it would be easy to schedule. Background research was another matter.
‘What specific topics are you interested in?’
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I thought we could just talk generally…get to know each other a bit.’
This sounded unfocused. ‘I need at least a broad indication of the subject domain. What did I say that particularly interested you?’
‘Oh…I guess the stuff about the computer testers in Denmark.’
‘Computer applications testers.’ I would definitely need to do some research. ‘What would you like to know?’
‘I was wondering how they found them. Most adults with Asperger’s syndrome don’t know they have it.’
It was a good point. Interviewing random applicants would be a highly inefficient way to detect a syndrome that has an estimated prevalence of less than 0.3 per cent.
I ventured a guess. ‘I presume they use a questionnaire as a preliminary filter.’ I had not even finished the sentence when a light went on in my head—not literally, of course.
A questionnaire! Such an obvious solution. A purposebuilt, scientifically valid instrument incorporating current best practice to filter out the time wasters, the disorganised, the ice-cream discriminators, the visual-harassment complainers, the crystal gazers, the horoscope readers, the fashion obsessives, the religious fanatics, the vegans, the sports watchers, the creationists, the smokers, the scientifically illiterate, the homeopaths, leaving, ideally, the perfect partner, or, realistically, a manageable shortlist of candidates.
‘Don?’ It was Julie, still on the line. ‘When do you want to get together?’
Things had changed. Priorities had shifted.
‘It’s not possible,’ I said. ‘My schedule is full.’
I was going to need all available time for the new project.
The Wife Project.