When I Was Five I Killed Myself – Howard Buten

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When I Was Five I Killed Myself is a fantastic little book! It was first brought to my attention by Scott from Me and My Big Mouth and I’d like to thank him, as I don’t think I’d ever have discovered this little gem without him.

The book has a very interesting history. It was originally published in the US in 1981 under the title Burt, but sadly failed to take off there. It then became hugely popular in France and ended up becoming a classic in the country; it is claimed that 1 in 10 French people have read this book. It is a real shame that When I Was Five I Killed Myself is virtually unknown in the English speaking world, as it is wonderful and deserves to become a classic in all languages.

The book begins with Burt letting us know he is in a Children’s Trust Residence Centre for the terrible thing he did to a girl called Jessica. The centre appears to be a cross between a mental hospital and a children’s home, but it is never made clear exactly what kind of institution it is. The entire book is narrated by 8-year-old Burt, who is clearly troubled and suffering from Asperger’s syndrome (as with the central character in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.)  The crime Burt committed is revealed gradually, but we know from the beginning that it was serious enough to leave Jessica in hospital.  

I loved every page of this emotional novella. In many ways the book reminded me of Flowers For Algernon, questioning they way in which we treat those in society who behave differently to everyone else. The child’s point of view was realistic and disturbing. I really empathised with Burt and found his confusion at the outside world insightful and traumatizing.

Dr Nevele shook his head slow, like my dad once did when he had to put our dog to sleep. “Please don’t put me to sleep,” I whispered. I looked at the floor but there weren’t any more buildings on it, just carpet. Dr Nevele shook his head.”Are you talking to me now, Burton?” he said. And I said “I don’t know.” Then I started to cry.

I should mention now that my oldest son is suspected of having Asperger’s Syndrome, so this book had an added depth of meaning for me. I don’t think I have ever found so much emotion in such a short book.

The ending surprised me, but also left me begging for the sequel, which unfortunately doesn’t exist.

I highly recommend you find a copy of this little book.

I’m planning to read Marcelo in the Real World soon. Have you read any other books which contain a character with Asperger’s Syndrome?


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35 Comments

  1. Andy says:

    I found out about this too via Scott and also really enjoyed it. Burt’s voice is realistic and it offers a very informed view that is different to the societal norm. Recommend it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Andy, It is great that Scott persuaded several of us to read it. This book should really have a bigger following. I hope I can encourage a few more people to read a copy.

  2. Dot says:

    Great review, this sounds really interesting, I shall be getting a copy.

    1. Jackie says:

      Dot, I hope that you manage to find a copy as it is out of print. I think there are still a few cheap copies on Amazon Marketplace. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  3. Laura says:

    That sounds like an amazing book, Jackie. Thanks for your review, I’m adding it to my wishlist.

    1. Jackie says:

      Laura, It is a fantastic book. I hope that you enjoy it!

  4. Nadia says:

    Sounds like an interesting book. I’ll have to it to my list of books to buy. Thanks for the heads up on this! Cheers!

    1. Jackie says:

      Nadia, I hope you manage to find a copy to buy soon.

  5. LizF says:

    I will look out for this as I know a couple of people who have children with Aspergers – one boy and one girl, and my elder daughter is a support worker for a man in his 40’s who has not only Asperger’s but also schizophrenia.

    Up until now the only book I have read that deals with it is The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night although Jodi Picoult’s new novel, ‘House Rules’, due out in April in the UK, also features a boy with Asperger’s.

    1. Jackie says:

      LizF, I loved The Curious Incident, but haven’t read it for a long time – way before my son was born. I think I might re-read it now.

      Thanks for letting me know about Jodi Picoult – I’ll have to ensure I read that at some point too.

  6. Christina says:

    Interesting that it’s such a hit in France. I’ll have to check it out and see if I agree.

    1. Jackie says:

      Christina, The French have good taste – I hope you agree with them!

  7. This sounds fascinating and perhaps another book that you would kindly loan me to read at some point?

    How unfortunate that it is out-of-print and practically unheard of.

    The only novel that concerns Asperger’s that I recall reading is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time; I’m sorry I can’t help with further suggestions.

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, I’m happy to lend it to you. I’m sure you’ll love it!

  8. Aarti says:

    Wow, what an interesting story behind the story, too! A classic in France, but unknown in the English-speaking world? I’ll be looking into this one- thanks for such a great glimpse into it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Aarti, I do love a book with a good back story! I hope that you decide to read it and enjoy it as much as I did.

  9. Lynne says:

    I read Cowboy and Wills not too long ago. True story about a little boy with autism, not Asperger’s, but still it was enjoyable. Wills’ puppy “Cowboy” brought him out in a way I didn’t know was possible, both socially and emotionally.

    1. Jackie says:

      Lynne, I haven’t heard of that one before. I’ll see if I can get hold of a copy. Thanks for the recommendation!

  10. Frances says:

    Did you read The London Eye Mystery? Fantastic and a great favorite with my students.

    1. Jackie says:

      Frances, I haven’t heard of that one before – I’ve added it to the wishlist!

  11. Stujallen says:

    this seems like a great book ,would find it interesting as have worked with people with autism and ausbergers ,also attended courses on both

    1. Jackie says:

      Stujallen, Wish someone would send me on a course! Hopefully I’ll get one one day. In the meantime I’ll just have to read as many books as I can!

  12. Jeanne says:

    I also like the novel Eye Contact, by Cammie McGovern.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jeanne, I haven’t heard of that one either – thanks for the recommendation!

  13. Kathleen says:

    This books sounds fantastic. A woman in my book club has a son with Asperger’s and she just picked our next book which is called Look Into My Eyes by Dave Rowland. It is a non-fiction book about a man whose son has Asperger’s I think…in any case it has received quite a bit of press here in the States and is supposed to be very good.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathleen, I haven’t heard of Look Into My Eyes, but I like the idea of a non fiction book. I look forward to reading your thoughts on it and will see if I can get a copy. Thanks for letting me know about it.

  14. Violet says:

    I have heard of this book before but never really managed to find a copy. I think the title is very attractive. So glad you liked it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Violet, Sorry you weren’t able to find a copy. I think this is one case where you have to order it online to get hold of it.

  15. cbjames says:

    This looks very promising. Is it something 7th graders could read? Al Capone Does my Shirts is a YA book that’s very popular with middle school readers. The narrator’s sister has autism but it’s set in the 1930’s when diagnosis and treatment was much different than it is now. I’m not sure how she would be classified today.

    I’m looking forward to Marcelo in the Real World myself.

    1. Jackie says:

      cbjames, I would have thought it would be a good book for 7th graders (age 11?) Sex is mentioned, but the narrator doesn’t understand what is going on (no descriptions of it). As long as it is OK to explain that sex is happening then it would be fine for them.

      Thanks for mentioning the Al Capone book – I hadn’t heard of it before.

      I look forward to comparing notes on Marcelo!

  16. Jenners says:

    Leave it to us Americans to miss out on a good book!!!

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, LOL! Hopefully you’ll rediscover it soon!

  17. Jo says:

    Sounds really interesting. I read The Way Things Look to Me by Roopa Farooki recently, and that was a good insight into how everybody in a family deals with Asbergers. It was really good.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jo, Thanks for the recommendation – I’ve added it to my wishlist.

  18. Beth F says:

    I read Flowers for Algernon a million years ago, but I never read Curious Incident or this one. I have friend whose son has Asperger syndrome, so I may recommend the book to her.

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