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Excerpt from "Dummy: A Memoir"


by David Patten

I can’t read. I can’t write. But I’m great at what I do.

It is 2005. I poke one key on my keyboard, then another. With my mouse, I find some old emails saved in a special folder labeled “Pieces of Boss’s Emails.” I’m looking for an email, or a piece of one, my boss sent me about the cable company he wants me to use for a job. I’m not supposed to, but I have a personal program on my company computer.

It reads aloud to me in my headset when I move the cursor through a document. I try to hide how I work from my coworkers. It’s better if they just see the results. I open one email after another, looking for the word cable. I scan, looking for the letter c. Finding c, I look for c-a.

There it is. I copy and paste it into the email I’m piecing together for this project.

My office phone rings. “Hello. IT support; this is David Patten.”

It’s my boss, Kenji. “David, come to the main conference room.”

I’ve been dreading this call ever since my coworker, Kenji, got promoted and became one of my bosses. Things are changing in the company and in the telecom industry. My specialty is troubleshooting mainframe computers for large telephone systems.

Now the technology is changing. Systems are becoming Internet-based and no longer driven by room-sized onsite computers. In previ-ous jobs, I took my paperwork home. There I had special software to read to me, and my wife’s help on reports. I always got by. I’d been very successful in the telecom business for twenty-seven years; now I was working in the head office of a major phone provider. I’ve known this moment was coming. I thought I’d feel more prepared.

“I’ll be right there,” I say.

Kenji abruptly hangs up. I save my work and slowly head for the conference room. I enter the room and glance around at all the faces.

The head of Human Resources and her assistant both give me kind but cautious smiles. Kenji isn’t here, but his boss, Nancy, her manager, Rod, and his boss, Tony, the director of operations for the western region, are all seated around the conference table. Tony greets me with a somber look and waves me to my seat. I look around; no one makes eye contact with me. Tony announces that the head of HR for the western region is on the speakerphone and she’ll lead the meeting.

I’m handed my yearly review and told that we’ll be reviewing it item by item, to make sure I’m clear about my new job description and performance expectations.

The woman on the speakerphone reads out each item. Suddenly I’m on probation, and I’ll need to meet the following requirements: I can no longer take work home; all my communications to manage-ment and other employees will have to be through email or written documentation; I’m not allowed to get assistance from other people, software, or devices not supplied directly by my manager. I can no longer quote other people’s emails, and all my communications must be error-free. There’s also a list of new responsibilities, each one requiring reports and documentation, with the same restrictions.

I’m stunned. Suddenly I’m seven years old again, being told I’ll have to repeat second grade. Other memories wash over me: being trapped in a snow cave by my brother, being institutionalized in a mental hospital at fourteen after attempting suicide, and more.? I can’t believe this is happening. Once again I’m confronted by an irrefutable fact about myself: I’m functionally illiterate. I can barely read or write.

I listen and hold my tongue. Being defensive never did me any good. I think about my newly promoted boss who used to be a coworker and how I’ve never gotten one complaint about my work, only about how I do it. All my reviews have been excellent. I’ve always given them clean, quality work. They never knew I wrote my emails by patching together pieces of other people’s emails until Kenji read the handicap statement in my file that says I’m functionally illiterate and asked me, “If you have trouble reading, how do you write all your emails?” I had to tell him.

I feel the floor shifting under my feet as the woman on the speak-erphone asks if I have any questions. I begin, “You all knew about my disabilities when I was hired as a handicapped person. I was told my skills and certifications were invaluable, that the company would work with me to accommodate my liabilities, and I’d be given the necessary equipment to help me with my reading and writing.”

Tony responds, “Your work was excellent for the position you were in, but the job has changed. It’s now primarily IT, not telecom; it’s no longer about servicing equipment. Now we need a traceable path of accountability.”

It’s clear. If they want to get rid of me, they have an excuse. They can find someone “better qualified” to be on their team, someone who can read and write. The new job description gives them a loophole to evade the handicap discrimination issue when they replace me.

“This all seems disingenuous,” I say. “You’ve written this specifically so that I won’t be able to do the job. You could at least allow me to use the equipment necessary to do what’s required.”

The speaker on the phone breaks in. “No, we want you to be able to meet all the expectations laid out for you here, and we’ll do all we can to support you in that.”

When they first hired me, they provided a cheap software pro-gram that read aloud to me, but it didn’t work. When I asked if I could bring my own program to the office or take the work home, they said no. So I did it anyway and hid it from them.

I look right at Tony. “Tony, can you look me in the eye and tell me you want me to meet these expectations?”

He looks at me and says, “No, I don’t.”

The HR person on the speakerphone screams, “Yes, we do!” I say to Tony, “Thank you for your honesty.”

Then I turn to the phone as if it were a person in the room. “How can you say you want me to succeed when you won’t allow me to use the tools I need?”

“Speaking for the company, we want you to succeed,” she replies. “But without the tools?”


I’m desperate. I turn to the group. “I can’t do what you’re requiring. Can anyone help me find a way to get the job done or let me do part of it from home? I promise I’ll get it done right, as I always have, without putting anyone out.”

Tony jumps in. “No, it’s been decided.”

I face Tony again. “I know if you want to get rid of me, you’ll find a way. So just tell me you want to get rid of me one way or the other, and I’ll quit now.”

Tony says, “Yes, one way or the other.”

My thoughts swirl, looking for answers or an argument to make them understand. But they’re the same old thoughts that have never worked before. I’ve never been able to make someone else understand my situation. I say nothing. Everyone looks at me, wondering what I’ll do or say next. I feel immense pressure. I’m disoriented, in full-blown panic. My perceptions are distorted. My field of vision becomes fragmented, as if it’s breaking apart.

What am I going to do? What’s going to happen to me? What good am I?

The woman on the speakerphone breaks the terrible silence. “David, what do you say?”

My throat chokes, and my eyes tear up. I can’t speak. The ground of my existence opens up. I’m falling with no net and no idea where to or how far. What’s happening to me? Shit, I’m falling apart in front of everybody. I can’t let them see this.

Finally, I say, “What can I do?” Then I hear the words—with an unexpected crack in my voice—come from my mouth, “What’s going to happen to me?”

Realizing what I’ve said, I look around the room. The HR wom-an’s and Nancy’s eyes are filled with tears. This only makes it worse. I’m losing it. I can’t think. Struggling to come back strong, I say, “Then I quit.”

At age fifty-two, the life I’ve fought so hard to put together is falling apart. I’ve owned my own business. I’ve traveled all over the United States as a technical consultant in the telecommunications field. Corporations have flown me in as a highly paid specialist to


fix their phone systems when they crashed. I’ve made top money by taking over computer systems in crisis and handing them back in perfect shape, saving customers millions of dollars in lost revenue—and winning my company millions in new contracts. Earning an excellent reputation by helping people out in critical situations, being the coolest head in the room when everybody was freaking out, gave me immense satisfaction.

But I wasn’t the coolest head in the room now. I was the kid who couldn’t meet the world’s expectations, who couldn’t keep up with his peers, who couldn’t learn to read. I was the kid who got left behind. Old ghosts swept over me like a tsunami. I thought I had outrun that boy long ago.

I left the room in shock, unaware that a slide into deep depression had begun. The solid ground I’d stood on so sure-footedly all my adult life crumbled. The world seemed to have no place for me, all because

I couldn’t read and write. All the old questions, even the suicidal thoughts, that tormented me when I was growing up returned with a vengeance: Why is this happening to me? What am I going to do? What value do I have? How will I ever be happy? Why should I keep on living?

In the following weeks I turned these questions over and over in my mind, tormenting myself. In time, I noticed that these repetitive thoughts never led to anything new. They pointed to an unconscious pattern—a story—I’d been living out, over and over, unaware.

I didn’t set out to write a memoir. I just thought if I wrote down my thoughts, I might discover these repetitive patterns and uncover the meaning underneath—the real me. I soon realized that these thoughts were inseparable from the actions of my life. And I found myself beginning to write the story of my life. Ironically, it seemed my only hope of pulling out of my depression was doing the thing that seemed the most impossible for me—writing a book.

Aided by my specialized software programs, I began typing one letter at a time, trying my best to sound out the words. Spelling and grammar programs helped convert my often-unintelligible spelling into words and sentences. With the speech program reading it back to me, I was able to work with what I’d written.

As I struggled to tell my experiences as truthfully as possible, I realized that no matter how deeply I dug into my past or how good a job I did on the book, I could never capture who or what I truly am. The more I examined my patterns of thought, the more I saw them as just patterns. It seemed there was no “real me” at the bottom of it all—no objective entity that was truly “me.”

What was there, in every moment of my experience, was conscious Awareness, observing it all while being completely untouched by the experience. I couldn’t find myself in my story. I was the witness to my story. This witness, this Awareness, didn’t care if I could read or not; it was unaffected.

This awareness of Awareness changed me. I began to think this book might be useful to others. This isn’t the conventional story of a hero who triumphs over all obstacles. It’s the story of someone faced with constant rejection and failure who discovers his true self. My disabilities were extreme. And I know many people suffering similar problems are struggling to find their way in life. “Normal” people don’t understand that conventional solutions don’t work for nonconventional people. I was forced to find a radical solution. I hope my story will offer inspiration to those facing extreme hardships in their lives and serve to let them know that the strength they’re looking for is already there—if they just know where to look for it.

David Patten can not read or write. Born to well-educated parents in Chicago as an autism-spectrum child, David Patten was repetitively misdiagnosed in the 1950’s, a time when autism was little understood. After a youth of a severe disorientation and isolation, the seriously dyslexic Patten made a living dealing drugs and engaging in other street-level enterprises. In his twenties he discovered his native genius in abstract conceptual mathematics, which led him to a successful career as a businessman who worked debugging computer systems for major corporations and American military installations. David’s deep sensitivity and insight gave him the capacity not only to maintain meaningful and affectionate human relationships, but enabled him to observe that his desperation and limitations need not define who he was. It was this understanding that eventually allowed him to accept his life and move beyond his identification with his human personality. Today he is the father of two grown, productive and happy children. He lives with his wife of 30 years, a physician, in Hawaii.

Copyright © 2012 by David Patten.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author, David Patten, except for brief passages in connection with a review.

NOTE: This work is a memoir. It reflects the author’s present recollection of his experiences over a period of years. Certain names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed, and certain persons described are composites. Dialogue and events have been recreated from memory, and, in some cases, have been compressed to convey the substance of what was said or what occurred.

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