Reading guide for Eye Contact by Cammie McGovern

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Eye Contact

By Cammie McGovern

Eye Contact
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  • Hardcover: Jun 2006,
    304 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2007,
    320 pages.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Introduction

When Cara is called in to her nine-year-old son Adam's school one afternoon, she tries not to expect the worst. Because Adam is autistic, Cara—a single mother—has spent many hours with his teachers, principals, and guidance counselors discussing her son's development, and it isn't unusual for Adam to throw a tantrum at school that would necessitate her presence.

But today is different. Adam is missing, and he hasn't been found in any of his usual hiding places. He broke a rule (which he never does) and disappeared during recess, presumably having left school grounds. When the police find him later that afternoon, Cara is stunned to find out that Adam—who has no friends at school to speak of—was in the woods behind the school with a fellow student. Her name was Amelia Best, and she was found dead, stabbed in the chest.

The community is thrown into crisis, with parents fearing for their children's safety and teachers at the local schools doing their best to help their young students cope with this tragedy. Cara is convinced that Adam can help the police solve this murder, but he has retreated back inside himself after the incident, despite recent signs of improvement. Though Detective Matt Lincoln is skeptical about Adam's ability to aid the investigation—child witnesses are difficult enough, but what can he do with one who won't even speak?—Cara refuses to give up on her son, who has become her entire life since the death of her parents in a car accident. She tries in vain to get him to participate in his usual communication games and finds it difficult just to get him to look at her. Willing to take a risk in order to bring Adam around, she agrees with a local schoolteacher that an older boy's companionship might help and invites Morgan over to visit.

Morgan, an eighth grader at the local middle school, has some troubles of his own: while he isn't autistic or developmentally disabled, he attends classes with a special group at his own school, which he refers to as "the group for kids who have no friends." He faces constant tormenting from bullies at recess, and though he likes the teacher of his special group, Morgan doesn't share a bond with any of his classmates. It is clear from the start that he is harboring a terrible secret of his own. When Morgan meets Adam, Cara is shocked when Adam speaks his first voluntary phrases since the murder. As the two boys begin spending more time together, Adam offers his own clues to Cara that are difficult to decipher but might be important to locating the killer. But Morgan's secret, as well as some old friends from Cara's past, threatens to obscure the path to the truth behind Amelia's death.

As Cara and Detective Lincoln draw closer to the resolution of this awful crime, Cara is forced to come to terms with the consequences of decisions she has made—including the choice she made as a young woman not to include Adam's father in his life—and realizes she is not alone in her pain and isolation. In order to get to the murderer and bring Adam back to her, Cara must find it in her heart to forgive and be forgiven. Cammie McGovern's Eye Contact is a heartrending portrait of a mother's relationship with her son and a psychological thriller that keeps the reader guessing up to its final pages.


Discussion Questions

  1. Cara is not the only parent in the book who struggles with raising a child with special needs. Morgan's mother, Kevin's mother, and Amelia's mother are all in similar situations. What are the differences between the ways that they treat their children? Do you think that some of the mothers fail where others have succeeded? What do you agree and disagree with in each of their situations?
     
  2. When Adam begins talking to the police and offering them clues, they have a difficult time understanding what he is getting at. For instance, one word he blurts out without prompting is "hair," which confuses Detective Lincoln because, as he says, "the guy we've got downstairs is bald" (p. 157). However, this particular word becomes very significant later on in the investigation. How different would the search for Amelia's murderer have been if Adam had been an average nine-year-old? What kind of obstacles would have been avoided? What new difficulties would the police have faced?
     
  3. On page 25, when she is being interviewed by the police, Amelia's teacher June is forced to admit that though she had planned on pairing Amelia with a partner from another classroom to help her development, she hadn't had the chance to do so. In the aftermath of a tragedy, people surrounding the victims often have feelings of regret, wishing they had done something differently that might have prevented what happened. Have you ever been through a situation like this one? How did you cope with your feelings of guilt and regret? How does June cope with hers? Are there other characters who feel similarly about Amelia's murder?
     
  4. Cara and Suzette's friendship is a continuing subplot throughout Eye Contact, and there are moments when it seems like they are the best of friends and other times when they are very distant from each other. Many of their misunderstandings revolve around Kevin and the feelings each of them has for him. What reasons do you think that each of them has for caring about Kevin? Do you think their friendship might have lasted if they had confronted Kevin when they were younger?
     
  5. Why do you think Suzette became agoraphobic? When Cara and Suzette were children, Suzette seemed to be the one who was more confident of herself and what she wanted out of life. What could have happened to her that caused her to become a recluse?
     
  6. What does the title "Eye Contact" mean to you? It is mentioned a couple of times in the book in reference to Adam—one of the most important things one can do to get an autistic child's attention is to gain eye contact—but it also serves as a larger metaphor for many of the characters and their relationships in the novel. How do you think the term applies to Teddy and June, for instance? Or Kevin and his mother?
     
  7. When Morgan's mother takes him to the police after he's admitted to starting the fire, she says to him at one point, "You're fine, Morgan, my God. A lot of people don't have friends. I never had any friends" (p. 159). Many of the other characters in Eye Contact are similarly isolated from their peers. What does this say about the way that both children and adults in their neighborhood communicate with one another? What do you think about Morgan's mother's comment—is it "fine" not to have any friends?
     
  8. When Morgan embarks on his own search for Amelia's killer, he forms an unexpected alliance with Fiona, another misfit student at the middle school. She tells Morgan, "the day after the murder Chris sat in front of me and started saying all this stuff about how he hopes people realize how bad it can get, that people can die from bullying" (p. 209). To what extent do you think Chris was right about this? Discuss some of the terrible things children do to one another in Eye Contact and whether you've observed this kind of behavior in young children you know. What are some of the ways this kind of cruelty can be prevented?
     
  9. One of the results of Adam's autism is his appreciation for classical music and his love of opera. He has perfect pitch and impeccable hearing ability. Why do you think that a child who has such a difficult time with language and communication loves music so much? What are his musical talents compensating for? How might they be able to enrich his future life?
     
  10. Amelia's mother fought to have her daughter placed in a special education classroom while Cara has been fighting since Adam was young to have him integrated into a normal classroom, with the help of an aide. How do you think their respective learning environments affected Adam and Amelia? In what ways might it have had an impact on the burgeoning friendship between the two children before Amelia died?
     
  11. When Cara is thinking back over her relationship with Kevin, she admits to herself that "he's kept certain secrets for reasons she can't understand . . . [but] so has she. If an impartial outsider looked at their lives, weighed the sins of omission, it's likely that Cara would be found at far graver fault" (p. 210). What does the author mean by this? Do you agree with this statement? What are the sins of omission that Cara has committed, against Kevin, against her parents, against Suzette, against herself?
     
  12. Although Adam is not a first-person narrator in Eye Contact, there are numerous sections that are written from his point of view. What did you learn about autistic children and how they see the world after reading this book? What preconceptions you have about childhood and communication are challenged by Adam's story?
     
  13. Morgan is convinced that if he finds out who killed Amelia, he will be forgiven for the crime he committed. Many of the characters in Eye Contact are in search of a similar kind of redemption. Do you think any of them are capable of achieving it? In light of this theme of redemption, how do you feel about where the different characters end up at the book's conclusion?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Penguin. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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