December 15, 2021

Dana Scully and the trauma of unanswerable questions

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 12:32 pm by chavisory

[This post contains major spoilers for season 5 and beyond of The X-Files!]

The inspiration for this post was, of all things, a silly X-Files quiz I was taking at work that inspired a Twitter discussion of a badly written question.

The question in question was “How many children has Dana Scully had?”*

And, well, the tricky thing is that there are a few different possible ways to determine the answer to this question.

Are we counting only the child that she gave birth to by choice? Then the answer is one: William.

Are we counting the children who we actually met as characters in the course of the run of the show? Then the answer is two: William and Emily.

Are we presuming that by now she has had the child we find out she’s pregnant with in the series finale? Then the answer is three. Her known, living children? We’re back to either one or two (William and the as-yet-unnamed baby), depending on the time frame we’re looking at.

But if we really want to count the number of children who might exist or have existed, who might be genetically hers?

We don’t know, and neither does she.

And I don’t think that the quiz writer meant to provoke any such debate or serious consideration of this subject. I don’t think the intent was to write a question requiring this level of interpretation. Honestly it seemed like the whole thing was written by someone who was barely familiar with the show but went through a guidebook or something for material. Because anyone intimately familiar with the story would know that that’s a virtually unanswerable question without specifying some additional conditions or boundaries. You can make some assumptions about what the test is looking for and make an educated guess based on those assumptions. (I went with “how many did we meet as characters within the broadcast run of the show,” and got counted right.)

But I think it’s actually significant to some of the central tragedy of the show and its depiction of ongoing trauma—one of those things being told around the edges without ever actually being articulated or drawing our attention directly to it—that we don’t really know. That there are some incredibly basic questions about her own life that Dana Scully cannot answer.

Like where she was for three months of her life. And how many children she has.

“The answers are there,” she says in the pilot episode. “You just have to know where to look.”

But she doesn’t. In regard to a couple of issues of central to her life, she doesn’t really know where to look (or might not want to), and there may not be an answer. (We learn in “Emily” that the Syndicate might not have been keeping astonishingly good track of the children it created in the course of the hybridization experiments. Mulder and Frohike manage to trace a handful of birth records, but it seems like a lot of these children were just kind of abandoned to the social services system.) Even after all this time, there aren’t any straightforward answers, not just to some of the biggest questions in her life—but to some of even the barest facts.

And the thing is that that exacts a toll on you. It takes a toll on your ability to function in the world, to not be able to fill out things like forms or surveys or screening questionnaires. It takes a toll on your ability to form normal relationships when you can’t answer basic or casual questions in straightforward ways. To in effect always be lying by omission, either to yourself or someone else.

Even if the underlying story isn’t inherently traumatic, which Scully’s is. Even if the answers do exist and you do know what they are, they just don’t translate into checkboxes, forms, applications, or casual conversation. When they are none of the available answers to the multiple choice questions. When normal, innocent inquiries force you to lie, evade, or say “Where do I even begin.” When this is a constant fact of your life.

Scully has to lie in some way, shape or form, to virtually every possible question about her children. The two she didn’t get to raise for differently terrible reasons. The unknown names or even number of who knows how many others.

It’s interesting to me that we see at least a couple of instances in which Mulder has to give an evasive answer to a question that should be easy but isn’t.

“Do you have a significant other?”
“Um, not in the widely understood definition of that term.”

“Do you have kids, Agent Mulder?”
“Uh, well, I have son, who’s… he’s grown, though.”

But I don’t think we ever really see Scully have to navigate such a conversation, although she must. (We do see a couple in which she just doesn’t answer an accusation that she doesn’t know what it means to be a mother, or to be abducted.)

It’s in and of itself a form of trauma we see perpetuated on both Mulder and Scully into the revival, that after everything they’ve been through, who can they even talk to about it? (Besides each other, and that seems to carry its own share of problems.)

And I know we love to pillory the writers for leaving Scully with so few female friends or close colleagues by the end of the show that we didn’t even know a single one of the women at her baby shower. But really? I have no doubt that this plays a role in the seemingly inexorable departure of pretty much every female acquaintance from Scully’s life, even aside from the ones we see die. The writers didn’t miss the mark all that badly at the end of the day. It is hard to maintain intimacy or equal footing in relationships with people who you have little ability to share everyday details of your life with because they just have no possible frame of reference.

It sucks. When the facts of your life don’t fit into the way the world works for anyone else. When even trying to explain is exhausting and only makes you a constant object of ridicule or fascination or just incomprehension.

I’ve been talking a little bit recently about illegibility in the lives of autistic people—how so often even well-meaning researchers and professionals don’t succeed at asking questions in a way that lets us give true or useful answers, because so few people really know what our lives look like. I can’t even tell you how many surveys or web forms I’ve just had to stop and give up on because of a question to which I had no possible true answer but also couldn’t skip or go around. About the need to allow for multiple answers and complicated answers and answers that don’t fall into any category you might have anticipated needing to identify, especially in the realms of gender and sexuality, relationships, living arrangement, and employment. I’ve had four meetings with my ACA navigator this year alone, largely for help in constructing the elaborate web of half-truths that will let me exchange data about my life for affordable health insurance, because the state of New York doesn’t know how to ask questions about those things that would let me just tell them the truth.

To say nothing of the things that I mostly just don’t tell people.

And it takes such a toll, to never be able to say true things about your life. Not just in terms of, say, getting healthcare providers or tax professionals or social services or educational institutions to understand what you need, but in your ability to feel known, feel counted, feel like what’s happened to you does count.

That you can be accounted for.

*Interestingly, when I went back to the quiz to make sure I’d remembered the wording right, the question had been changed to a more answerable version: “How many children does Dana Scully know she’s had?” Which is still tragic in its implications, but more possible to come up with a straight answer to. So it’s possible that more people than a handful of fans on Twitter said something…

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