For those struggling with Asperger’s, there are arguably few inspiring memoirs. Joe Biel’s new self-published book, Good Trouble: Building A Successful Life & Business With Asperger’s, promises an uplifting tale — and a way to turn your difficulties into superpowers — but it reads more like a laborious history of Biel’s publishing company, Microcosm.
Biel begins by describing his childhood as the son of second-generation immigrants who settled on the East side of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania during a time of rampant social and racial tension. Yet, while Biel writes, “The troubles started even before I born,” he later tells us that he “hardly knows anything about (his) parents.”
Without clarity about Biel’s early life, he then details his entrance into punk rock, shoplifting, avoiding people, and creating zines, which he never defines. When I researched the definition of a zine, I found the following:”A zine is most commonly a small-circulation, self-published work of original or appropriated texts and images usually reproduced via photocopier. A popular definition includes that circulation must be 1,000 or fewer, although in practice, the majority are produced in editions of fewer than 100, and profit is not the primary intent of publication. They are informed by anarchopunk and DIY ethos.”
Biel, however, does seem to recognize something of himself in zines. He writes, “Each zine offered what was uniquely missing in my immediate environment. A production that was proudly amateur, usually handmade, and always independent, espousing views that my middle finger alone couldn’t encapsulate and yet were rarely boring.” Again, although the world of zines seems fascinating, Biel fails to help us make the connection as to just what zines represent, or what those rarely boring views are.
Instead, Biel takes us on a history of developing his zine company, Microcosm Publishing, while struggling with Asperger’s, what appears to be severe drinking, and a less than palpable case of depression and loneliness. What we are left to wonder is not just how a zine publishing company works — Biel leaves out the details of how money is made — but who Joe Biel really is.
When Biel meets his future wife, Heather, we do begin to experience some of the relational difficulties those with Asperger’s often struggle with. When describing Heather, Biel writes, “She would insult me in front of them (my family) while also arguing with my friends. But she was also supportive of me in ways that my friends were not.” Later, Biel tells us that Heather breaks up with him, so he starts a new relationship with a co-worker and then writes a zine detailing his relationship with her. Biel’s continued hope that he and Heather will “rekindle (their) relationship” does help us understand possibly how frequently disconnected those with Asperger’s may feel, although Biel never makes this connection.
Disconnection arises again when Biel describes the success of his company. Biel says the success “was so extreme,” he begins to “feel guilty and even bad about it,” but then tells us that, “coming to work each day was always unique and exciting.” We are left to wonder how Biel really feels, and how much of his story is attributable to Asperger’s, because he quickly shifts back into an insentient history of Microcosm.
Later, when Biel is accused of sexual impropriety and seeks the help of a therapist, he seems to come to terms with some difficult lessons. “Boundaries,” he writes, “cannot protect you from everything.” And yet here again, as Biel details signing on with Independent Publishers Group and distributing his books to a larger audience, it is unclear just how Biel dealt with a seemingly false accusation while managing a large public company or while coping with Asperger’s.
Finally, upon bringing Microcosm to a healthy place and developing what appears to be a healthy relationship with a woman named Elly, Biel offers a revelation: “No amount of cognitive retraining can make me neurotypical. I still make mistakes and do or say things that come across as callous, but now I can avoid having a meltdown 95% of the time when someone questions my habits.”
While Good Trouble does explore Biel’s life, the dogged determination of a DIY self-publishing company, and the punk culture of zines, we are left to find our own insights and lessons about how to cope with the difficulties of living and working with Asperger’s.
Good Trouble: Building A Successful Life & Business With Asperger’s
Microcosm Publishing, March 2016
Paperback, 221 Pages