March 4, 2022

What feeling represented feels like

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 1:09 pm by chavisory

I actually wrote this a few years ago, and for a long time I thought it was the bones of something else, before realizing it actually was what it was. I’m posting it between the occasions of this year’s coming release of season 4 of Stranger Things, and the recent death of author Gary Paulsen (1939-2021).

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One day in 2017 I spend a rainy day off watching Stranger Things, and immediately afterwards start obsessively reading reviews and commentary. And I know by now I shouldn’t feel the wind knocked out of me when I read someone say things like “Sometimes she seems like a real person…at others she’s little more than a plot device,” or even “the ultimate in lazy sexist tropification,” but I still do. It happens every time. If I really, really love and identify with a character, and go looking for what other people have said about her.

Like I feel like I should just be used to the fact, by now, that every time I strongly and viscerally identify with a female character, she will be declared nothing like a real girl, and I can’t help but suspect that has some relationship to the frequency with which, growing up, I was told in effect that I had to be mistaken about what I was experiencing, because that’s not how things really are for people. That real people don’t work like that.

But Eleven disguised, in that ill-fitting dress and blond wig, looks the way I felt every time, when I was her age, that someone made me dress up kind of like their idea of a real girl.

I hated the way I looked like a boy in an uncomfortable girl suit with a tight collar, told to keep my hair out of my face.

She looks the way that felt.

And how everyone blames her for not being able to explain what she knows.

And only really value her for what she can do.

The way no one really thinks about what anything costs her.

The way they expect her to know things she couldn’t possibly, and the way she just says “no” to demands she knows she can’t meet.

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At some point a popular blog publishes an honor roll of books containing examples of good representation of disabled people. It doesn’t make me want to read any of them.

The protagonists all sound like solutions to math problems, and I just don’t care.

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Eleven has a back story that no one would believe even if she could tell it.

Treadway Blake can’t say “I’m sorry” in words, only in anonymously mailed sheet music and elaborate secret murder plots.

Amy Pond and Olivia Dunham both know what it feels like to exist in two different whole sets of memories.  I feel myself being re-embodied back into the world I belong to as Peter and Olivia do the same—Peter keeps defiantly being a person in a version of the universe he was erased from, Olivia learning how to live with memories of a whole life she wasn’t supposed to have had.

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There were two books I had to read in 5th grade for the lunchtime book club. One was called On My Honor, and it was by far the more critically acclaimed, and one was There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, and that was the one I loved.

The main character was a boy who was nothing like me in a lot of ways, who was actually more like some of the real-life classmates I found incredibly grating. But he felt like he couldn’t get anything right, and he talked to his stuffed animals.

My mother asked which one I liked more and I told her, and she said “No, really?”  I don’t remember what I said when she tried to make me explain why. Probably “I don’t know.” I had too much alexithymia and not enough abstract language to say something like Bradley behaves in ways other people find immature and aggravating because he feels unheard and alienated by the social expectations of his peers.

“I just did.”

The American Girl dolls and books had become a huge hit around the same time that I had developed an obsession with 19th-century pioneer life. But whenever I got bought any American Girl things, they were Samantha’s.

Kirsten felt shabby and insufficient and alone in her new world, where she struggled to make herself understood or valued in an unfamiliar language.

Samantha was elegant, articulate, polished, at home in her own skin, and seemed to have the world handed to her again and again in a way I found baffling. People listened to her. Adults believed her. She looked more like me, with her dark bangs, but I couldn’t figure out why, otherwise, I was supposed to like her more, why I was supposed to be more like her.

When I first read The Lacuna, I didn’t even like the writing that much right away, but—and I couldn’t put my finger on why at first—Harrison Shepherd felt more like a real person to me than like a character. I actually thought, “I don’t like the writing that much but I like this kid.” I still feel guilty analyzing details of his characterization as if he’s a literary creation; it feels like betraying his privacy. He feels like a person.

And yes, he’s a multiply marginalized person, and yes, that’s significant, but that’s not why.

It’s the way he compares the tactile experiences of mixing plaster and making pastry dough.

“Mrs. Brown,” he says later, “I have an odd impairment.”

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I’ve been thinking lately about how a lot of the social justice movement often treats people like collections of identities, and not actually like…people. I think those can look like the same thing, but they’re not.

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I see these lists go around about how to write an autistic character or how to write a disabled character, and I’ve contributed to some, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on what bothers me about them, or where they miss the mark, even when I mostly agree with them.

Almost without exception, they start with “Say their diagnosis.” But we still live in a time when that isn’t the life that a whole lot of us have lived. A lot of our actual lives are going to fail those checklists and I don’t understand why I’m supposed to feel more represented by characters written as if experiences that broadly resemble mine are off-limits, or should be.

I read this list of books being honored for their representation of disabled characters and I can barely make it through some of the synopses.

But near the beginning of Zodiac, I watch Jake Gyllenhaal’s character walk into a conference room of fellow journalists who all act like they can’t hear him speak, and this character wasn’t created to make me feel represented (indeed, he is actually based on a real person), but I have never, ever, ever seen this experience—one of the earliest memories I have, one of the core constants of my whole life—represented on screen from the point of view of the person being targeted by it.

If there is a common thread to my experience of fiction, it’s probably that I fail to identify with the characters I’m supposed to, and do with the ones I’m not.

And sometimes these listicles about how to write an autistic character that I’m supposed to identify with just make my heart sink, because my life doesn’t add up right in this checklist, either.

In a way, it feels like yet another way in which disabled people are held to standards that non-disabled people aren’t in order to be considered good or real.

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Part of why I think, even with so much guidance that now exists about how to write an autistic character, that I still usually find coded- or accidentally-autistic characters better-written than explicitly-identified ones, is that, when you can’t lean on clinical language or community-approved terminology lists to do your work for you, at all, you have to actually just write the experience. You have to show and not tell. You have to really be in your character’s head, and I’m afraid that a lot of the guidance I see on writing good representation, rather than helping in that regard, is actually just leading writers to believe that they can’t, that they shouldn’t, deeply and viscerally identify with their characters in certain ways if they don’t share a facet of their identity. And, as I’ve said before, I don’t think that prohibition serves either artistry or empathy.

“Write about us, but don’t write our stories.”

Well, I don’t want to read about a character if I’m not reading some facet of their story. What is the point?

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If I’m thankful in one way for growing up not knowing the word for what I was, it’s that I never really had occasion to ask “What does this have to do with me?” when faced with the stories of people purportedly not like me in fiction or history. Any story might give me some vital clue about how to identify or understand my own experience. I had no basis on which to be picky about who was or wasn’t similar enough to me in some arbitrary way to warrant my attention, especially since a lot of characters with lives that looked like mine didn’t actually make any sense to me. I grew up surrounded by people who looked like me. But nobody was like me.

Attractive and graceful upper-middle class white girls with tight-knit friend groups and lives that added up and adults who were a dependable source of support just didn’t say anything for me. Those weren’t reliable signals.

So there was no real barrier to perceiving something important to me in the stories of Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth, or a boy stranded alone in the woods in a plane crash, or an Inuit girl who leaves a home where she’s not welcome to live with a pack of wolves, or the kind and humble daughter of an African king.

I don’t identify with characters because they look like me. I do when they feel like me.

When Jodie Whittaker becomes the 13th Doctor, I read the status of an immensely well-intentioned male friend, who says “Listen guys, for 54 years, we’ve always been able to see ourselves in the Doctor. And now it’s the other half of the population’s turn.”

And don’t get me wrong, I loved the casting choice. I love Jodie Whitaker’s work. I was happy, and I thought it was exciting, and right.

But the other thing is that I’ve never not been able to see myself in the Doctor just because he was a man. (Except, really, he’s a two-hearted humanoid alien masquerading as our preconception of a “man,” but, details.) I’m confused by and then I resent the implication that I never got to see myself in the Doctor when I did.

I agree that it’s ridiculous the way so many men insisted they wouldn’t be able to empathize with a female Doctor. Why is it not absurd to assume that people like me could never have empathized or identified ourselves with a male one?

I love the casting of a woman partly because I think male Whovians should get a chance to have that experience.

But I wasn’t not having it all along.

October 5, 2017

Invisible history

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , at 2:00 pm by chavisory

I started watching Westworld last week. In a scene in the first episode, one of the android characters, a “host” in the immersive Wild West-themed amusement park, has found a photograph in his field, discarded by a guest, depicting a woman in modern clothing standing in Times Square at night. Disturbed and confused, he shows it to his daughter, Dolores, but she’s not similarly affected (at least, not yet).

Lacking any possible context or way to make sense of what she sees, she can only say over and over again, “It doesn’t look like anything to me.”

She can’t process the possible existence of a whole reality that she has no framework at all in which to understand.

 

With the premieres recently of both Atypical and The Good Doctor, I was having a conversation about fictional representation of autistic characters–what we wish we saw more of, what we find intolerable.

And one of the things I have managed to put my finger on that unsettles me consistently, that leaves me unable to connect with a lot of the portrayals I see, is the tendency for autistic adults or near-adults to be portrayed as baffled, bumbling, almost complete naïfs about the non-autistic social world and its expectations and the realities of how things work.

As if, at the age of 18 or even older, they walked out their front door and encountered an overwhelming and often hostile world for the first time yesterday.

When, in reality, and unless we have been terribly, inappropriately isolated or sheltered (though often even then, often especially then), we’re actually well-acquainted with the fact of a world that doesn’t work terribly well for us, and we’ve been navigating it for a long time.

We aren’t dropped into our world for the first time in the opening teaser of a television episode.

A lot of writers and actors seem to be able to get their heads around what autism basically is, in terms of language, sensory, and social communication difficulties. But then it’s as if they don’t know, or can’t extrapolate to, the full range of experiences that autistic people actually live. That things have happened to us, and things have happened in certain ways for us all our lives, and those things have had consequences for who we become and who we are.

So, for instance, by the time we’re adults, we have made a lot of social mistakes and had to deal with the fallout.

We’ve often had to be responsible for ourselves in ways that other people our age haven’t, because adults haven’t been reliable sources of support. We’ve had to teach ourselves things that everyone else seems to just know.

We’ve had to be careful in ways that other people don’t and problem-solve for ourselves in ways most people haven’t.

We have to know things that most people don’t about navigating the non-autistic world. And we know more about what we don’t know than most people even realize there is to know.

We have to anticipate being mistreated or misunderstood almost constantly.

We have dealt with a lot of abuse, ostracism, isolation, loneliness, being disbelieved about our experiences and perceptions, and violation of our autonomy.

We’ve had to work harder to not just fall through the cracks of the world. We’ve also experienced uniquely intense beauty and joy, as well as many of the common experiences and challenges of growing up that most adolescents and young adults experience.

All of those things have impacts, besides that people learn and grow and are affected by their histories as they age. People become competent at dealing with the circumstances of their own lives.

 

And without that grounding in personal history, you’re left trying to construct a character’s personality around a diagnostic checklist, and you wind up with characters who are basically walking autism in some kind of imaginary pure state—without patterns of experience, without memory, resilience, or emotional connective tissue—who therefore have the social navigation skills of 6-year-olds no matter how long they’ve supposedly actually lived on this earth.

 

The more I thought about it, the more I started to suspect that this is actually what people are talking about when they say things like “But you don’t seem autistic.”

It’s not just that we don’t behave like children or that we don’t have the same “kind” of autism as a character they’re familiar with or don’t seem to occupy the same place on the spectrum as their own or someone else’s child.

It’s that the autistic characters they are used to seeing have no depth of experience.

They are people without history.

A growing number of people know children diagnosed with autism. But autistic adults are still overwhelmingly likely to be undiagnosed, or closeted, or both—if they’re not isolated from their communities in group homes or institutions or segregated workplaces, and many still are. So many people don’t really know autistic adults, or at least don’t know that they do. Their knowledge base of autistic people is still being drawn from children, or from fictional representations based on clinical knowledge of children.

And that leaves the reality of our life experiences, both positive and negative, and their impact kind of invisible. So if autistic people change or grow as people, or pick up skills we weren’t expected to, it must be because we overcame or outgrew autism, or “must be very high-functioning” in the first place…and not because we are capable of learning from our own experiences and the demands of our environment.

I speculated once (apparently in a comment now lost to the depths of the internet, sorry) that the myth of autism as developmental stagnation or eternal childhood, and a lot of “not like my child” rhetoric directed at autistic adults, stems largely from this inscrutability of what the passage from childhood to adulthood looks like for autistic people.

“They’re taught to overlook our humanity, and a lot of what happens to us is hidden from them,” writes Rabbi Ruti Regan.

Most people just don’t have a framework of knowledge about the substance of our lived experience.

So it doesn’t look like anything.

 

A lot of the time, when autistic people complain that autistic characters are unrealistic, it’s presumed to be an issue of a character not representing the traits or experiences of a certain faction of the autistic community, and we get responses like “But one character can never represent all autistic people.”

But that isn’t the problem. It’s not that they’re not exactly like ourselves; it’s that they have no depth or complexity because they have no lived experience, because their creators didn’t know how to give them one.

Well-meaning non-autistic people frequently protest that “You aren’t only autism!” but it usually isn’t we who seem to think that we are only autism and not an intricate amalgam of our innate character traits, our strengths and weaknesses, our personal histories, our thoughts and desires and fears and embodied experiences of the world.

And yes, autism pervades all of that. But it doesn’t comprise our personalities in a vacuum.

Just because we’re new to many non-autistic people’s conception of the world, doesn’t mean we’re actually new to the world. We have histories, and we are affected, like all people, by those histories.