“Empathy is the most mysterious transaction that the human soul can have, and it's accessible to all of us, but we have to give ourselves the opportunity to identify, to plunge ourselves … where we see the world from the bottom up or through another's eyes or heart.” ~ Sue Monk Kidd
Jesse McKinnon can hardly believe it when he stands in the room of a young boy named Stevie Liston. Jesse is receptive enough to have “heard” Stevie call to him in a dream six years ago. Not that Jesse ever truly doubted he was communicating with Stevie; but standing in his room, looking at pictures Stevie has been drawing of Jesse for six years, without ever having met him in person, is enough to dispel any lingering doubts. As far-fetched as it may seem, Stevie is a true Empath. He feels other people's emotions as if they were his own. Stevie can literally put himself in someone else's shoes. Jesse hopes he's up for the task before him.
Not understanding his empathy, Stevie was diagnosed with autism. Since he's been treated as an autistic child, he has many of their traits. His are even more exaggerated because, at the same time, he is feeling every emotion, mood, change in temperament, etc. which people near him are feeling. This would be difficult for anyone, but for Stevie, who has neither the knowledge nor ability to manage it, it's a complete nightmare. Stevie's best self-defense is to totally withdraw. Jesse has communicated with Stevie for six years in their “special place in the forest”, where Jesse is called Bear. Stevie would not have been able to do that unless he was an Empath, able to project his feelings to Jesse. Now that Jesse is with him, they work to bring Stevie out of the “forest” and into the real world. Stevie begins to learn how to build a shield against the constant cacophony of emotions swirling around him; first out of toy blocks and later with imaginary blocks in Stevie's mind. Stevie's progress amazes the people who have worked with him for years; they are exceedingly grateful to Jesse and his dedication to Stevie, particularly Drew, who quickly becomes Jesse's friend. Jesse and Stevie form an unbreakable bond of love and trust.
Unfortunately, not everyone admires Jesse. One employee, Chuck, has always been a troublemaker. Chuck is jealous of Jesse and goes out of his way to make Jesse miserable. A serious incident occurs involving Chuck and he is finally fired, but Chuck leaves with the ominous warning: “This isn't over, Messiah.” This sets off a chain of events leading to false but very serious accusations about Jesse's relationship with Stevie. The whole ordeal—the trumped-up evidence, having everything Jesse did for Stevie taken out of context, the constant hounding by the paparazzi, etc.—is damaging for everyone involved, especially Stevie. As bad as it gets, Jesse is determined to go to court and fight to prove his innocence. He knows if he doesn't, he will lose everything, including Stevie.
This is a wonderful, intense book about a serious, vitally important topic. Autism is widely misunderstood and anything raising awareness of this subject is infinitely helpful. I've earned a greater respect for those who work with autistic children and more compassion for the children who must deal with it every day. I wasn't bothered by the lack of romance in this story, but I was a little frustrated by how long it took for Drew and Jesse to get together. I originally requested the book because I was fascinated with the idea that one of the main characters was an Empath. I was a bit disappointed when it wasn't mentioned as much as I hoped. I recommend this book to those interested in learning about Autism, how easy it is to be unfairly discredited, friends who stick with you regardless of the situation, and truth prevailing. Thank you, Brynn, for the informative and touching story.