by Cynthia Lord

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Language/Communication/Words 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.

However, through her project of creating word cards for Jason, Catherine actually finds the words to identify her own emotions. After being forced to babysit yet again, she writes “yeah, right” and “whatever,” and after the incident with Ryan and Kristi, she writes “unfair,” “cruel,” and “hate.” By sharing these words with Jason, Catherine takes the first step toward honest communication with the people around her.

Along with the theme of communication comes the idea of mis communication. For example, Jason’s speech therapist always yells at him, assuming that because he cannot talk, a louder voice will somehow help him understand. This causes Jason to resent the therapist—as he tells Catherine, “I. Can’t. Talk. But. I. Hear. Fine.” More significantly, miscommunication occurs between Jason and Catherine, most notably when Catherine tells Jason she cannot attend the dance with him. She reverts to her old habit of using rules to communicate, telling Jason that she is so bad at dancing, she...

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has a rule against it. Jason, however, demands honesty, responding that her rule is a “Stupid. Excuse.” Although Catherine initially finds herself unable to respond, later, his truthfulness forces her to communicate in an equally honest, open way. First, in order to get a ride to the dance, Catherine finally tells her dad that she and her brother “matter” as much as his work. Then, at the dance itself, Catherine finally communicates honestly with Jason about her own fears of what others will think of them. By introducing Jason to Kristi and Ryan, she also takes the first step to overcoming these fears and living and expressing herself freely.

Split/Fractured Identity Many characters in the novel feel that their identity is divided and disconnected in some way. Catherine feels that she is one person when she is with her friends, and another person when she is with her brother; Kristi feels that her parents’ separation has also forced her to separate herself; and Jason feels incomplete because of his inability to communicate verbally and participate in physical activities in the same way as others. However, by sharing their sense of fracture with each other—another form of communication as well—Jason and Catherine begin to overcome their feelings of incompleteness and disconnection.

When Jason confides to Catherine that sometimes he wishes to die, Catherine asks why, and he answers that he has “No. Word.” to explain himself fully. The closest he can come is “I. Am. Incomplete.” He then shares his dream of running with Catherine, and Catherine helps him experience the feeling of running by pushing him in his wheelchair. After the experience, Jason is so inspired that he gets a motorized wheelchair, which allows him to control his own movements in a way he couldn’t before. By opening up both Jason’s range of verbal communication—by creating word cards—and his physical range of motion, Catherine helps him overcome his sense of incompleteness. Most importantly, she simply listens and cares about him, affirming his value and strength as a person despite his limitations.

As for Catherine herself, she tells Jason that she often feels like she is  “ripping in half.” Part of her wants to be a “regular” person with her friends, while the other part feels responsible for David. Throughout most of the novel, Catherine refuses to entertain the idea that “regular” friendships and a relationship with her brother might not be mutually exclusive. When she is around “regular” people, she constantly tries to hide David’s existence and, failing that, control his “abnormal” behavior. Catherine’s relationship with Jason, however, forces her to bring the two sides of her life together. At the dance, Catherine openly displays her friendship with Jason, a boy who, like David, is considered “handicapped” or “abnormal” in some way by most people. Catherine finds that despite her friendship with Jason, people like Kristi and Ryan do not reject her. As a result, she realizes the two sides of herself no longer need to fight against each other, but rather can come together to form a whole.