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Book Excerpt | Mind Your Business

Pathological Friendliness

Journalist Jennifer Latson spent three years following the life of a boy with a genetic disorder that makes him extremely gregarious and indiscriminately trusting

By Jennifer Latson

Journalist Jennifer Latson spent three years following the life of a boy with a genetic disorder that makes him extremely gregarious and indiscriminately trusting

The Boy Who Loved Too Much, by Jennifer Latson, an editor for Rice Business Wisdom, was published today by Simon & Schuster. 

How Nice Is Too Nice?

Eli D'Angelo has Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder sometimes called the opposite of autism: people who have it tend to be extremely outgoing, unconditionally loving and indiscriminately trusting. Journalist Jennifer Latson spent three years following the lives of Eli and his single mother, Gayle, to tell this narrative nonfiction story about what Williams can reveal about the genetic basis of behavior and the quirks of human nature.

In this excerpt, Gayle and Eli stop at a motel during a summer road trip, where Gayle tries to thwart Eli's attempts to befriend everyone he sees.

It was nearly midnight, and Eli was dozing, when Gayle finally found a motel with a vacancy: a low white-brick building near an oil refinery in Clearfield, Pennsylvania. But as soon as she pulled into the parking lot, she was tempted to turn around and keep driving. The warm air drifting through her open window carried the acrid smell of diesel fuel on a cloud of cigarette smoke. The parking lot was filled with work trucks around which men stood in groups dimly lit by streetlights. Tractor-trailers lined the edges of the parking lot, bordering the motel like a menacing metal hedgerow.

Gayle considered getting back on the highway. If she drove all night, they could be home by morning. But she knew she was too tired. They were stuck here at the Clearfield Budget Inn.

Eli woke up when the car rolled to a stop. He surveyed the landscape enthusiastically, oblivious to the seediness of the place.

“I’ve never been here in a long time!” he exclaimed, clapping his hands together.

Gayle stepped out of the car and into the July heat, and opened the back door to let him out. She could feel the eyes of the men on her, the only woman in their midst, and on Eli, who was now rocking back and forth on his heels with excitement. Both Gayle and Eli were rumpled from hours in the car. Gayle, a youthful forty-one-year-old, wore a purple camisole and capri-length cargo pants that revealed some of her tattoos. On her back, feathery wings spread outward from her spine. Her left shin was covered with a series of colorful images: on the back, a dragonfly; on the left, flaming dice; on the right, a serpent coiled around a sword; and on the front, a red heart with a banner that said “Eli.”

Her long black hair, usually wavy, had gone limp in the muggy heat. She had pulled it up into a clip, revealing the discs that had stretched dime-size holes in her earlobes.

Eli wore a black T-shirt and the baggy denim shorts that Gayle had bought at Kohl’s just before the road trip, hoping these wouldn’t split at the seams like his last pair. She described her son as “husky,” but it was his pear shape that made him hard to shop for. Boys’ clothes weren’t designed with this shape in mind.

She ran a protective hand through Eli’s dark curls. His features were those of a much younger child: chubby cheeks, an upturned nose, and a smile so wide it made his eyes crinkle. They were crinkling now. His face was bright with joy, and he tugged at Gayle’s arm, pulling her toward the light, the trucks, the men. She jerked him forcefully in the other direction.

In the sweltering front office, the motel’s owner, an Indian man with thinning white hair, slid open a thick glass window—Bulletproof, Gayle thought. He looked as tired as Gayle felt. She rummaged through her purse to find her wallet and handed him her credit card. Eli, meanwhile, bounced up from behind her, smiling broadly.

“I’m Eli! What’s your name?” he said, extending a hand to the motel owner. The counter was higher than Eli’s head, but he stood on his tiptoes and strained to reach. The man gave him a quizzical look. Without answering, he reached through the window and shook Eli’s hand.

Turning to Gayle, the motel owner nodded toward the parking lot. “Don’t worry about those guys,” he said. “They’re here for the summer, working construction. They just like to relax out there after work.”

Only slightly reassured, Gayle took the room key.

“He likes me,” Eli declared as they left the office, pointing his thumb toward his own chest.

“I’m sure he does,” Gayle agreed blankly. She was already scanning the row of doors for the number on her key. She slung Eli’s backpack over her shoulder, rolling her suitcase across the uneven pavement with one hand and holding Eli’s hand with the other.

Eli peered at the faces of the men in the parking lot, hopeful that someone would return his gaze, but they looked away when he caught their eyes. One man lit a cigarette; another stubbed one out on the pavement. One man mumbled something too quietly for Gayle to hear. The others laughed.

Apart from the rest of the group, one man sat alone on the sidewalk, his elbows propped on bent knees, his head drooping heavily in his hands. His eyes were closed. Gayle noticed his sinewy arms, his muddy work boots. Maybe he was just tired from a long day, but Gayle’s instincts told her he was more likely drunk or high. She looked for a way around him, but he was on the walkway just in front of her room. There was no other way to go.

She whispered to Eli through clenched teeth, “Do. Not. Say. Anything. To. Him.”

“Why?” Eli replied in an ordinary voice. They were ten feet from the man, and closing in.

Gayle raised a finger to her lips. “Because. He’s sleeping.”

Eli’s eyes never left the stranger. When they were less than an arm’s length from the man, Eli shouted, “Are you sleeping?”

Excerpt from THE BOY WHO LOVED TOO MUCH by Jennifer Latson

Copyright © 2017 by Jennifer Latson. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.

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