The different ways characters use language and words to communicate, as well as the barriers they face in communicating with others, form a central theme of Rules. Two of the main characters, Catherine’s brother David and her friend Jason Morehouse, have obvious problems with communication because of their mental disabilities. Due to his autism, David has trouble forming his own feelings and ideas into original statements. Rather, he relies on general statements he has memorized, such as the rules Catherine makes for him and lines from his favorite children’s books. When David says a line from a book to Catherine, he becomes very upset unless Catherine responds with the next line from the book. David constantly tries to communicate according to an unchanging, organized system he has developed. In this way, his use of language reflects his larger focus on sameness and absolutes, his fear of situations that might change and that are beyond his control, his inability to deal with statements like “maybe,” “it depends,” and “I don’t know.”

Jason Morehouse, in some ways, has even greater difficulty communicating than David: although he can understand other people perfectly, he can’t speak at all, and he can only communicate by pointing to the word cards he carries with him. Jason’s ability to express himself is limited to the words other people, like his mother and speech therapist, provide him with; when Catherine really considers his situation for the first time, she realizes how difficult it must be “to have to wait for someone to make a word before I could use it.” As a result, she offers to make new word cards for him, and by making words his mother and therapist wouldn’t think to include—“awesome,” “stinks a big one”—she begins to expand his range of communication.

However, while David and Jason have the most obvious difficulties communicating, Catherine herself is also limited by her willingness—or lack thereof—to use words to express herself. Catherine claims to invent and list rules for her brother, but really, the rules are just as much for Catherine herself—she is so afraid of being considered different or odd that she hides her true emotions behind strict rules of behavior. At one point, when Catherine is trying to strike up a friendship with her neighbor Kristi, she shuts her mouth tightly “to keep anything else dumb from escaping.” In general, Catherine has difficulty expressing her feelings, especially the negative ones: she cannot tell her mom how much she resents constantly babysitting David, or tell Kristi how much it hurts her when Kristi compares David to a “regular” brother and accepts Ryan’s mocking of David.


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