Posts Tagged ‘autism’

slade house

Well, it isn’t often that I gobble a book up all in one go, but this one I did. I have some time off from work this week, and not much to do aside from reading, knitting, and trying to remember to eat, so there was no reason not to. The book also reads a lot faster than the other things I’ve been reading lately.

As I was reading yesterday morning, I noticed something strange: the air here has suddenly gotten cold in the morning, so when I looked out the back window, I saw a clear day in early autumn, where some of the leaves are turning but there’s still a lot of green. But when I looked out of the front windows, I saw a wintry day covered in frost. I didn’t know if there was a lot of fog, or if there was a sudden icing over of the trees across the street, or what. It was disorienting, as if I were seeing into two different times, occupying a middle ground between what I thought was the present and the future. Later I walked over to the front windows and saw that they had frosted over in the night, as evidenced by the water still on the panes as the sun warmed the world. In real life there are perfectly rational explanations.

But in fiction there aren’t. Once every nine years, someone gets lured into a mysterious mansion and they’re never heard from again. These people are a series of first-person narrators, so we get to see what happens from their perspectives. They find their way through a tiny door set in an alley, where a pair of mystical fraternal twins leads them through a sort of Mind Theatre which always ends with a very Clive Barker-esque ritual murder, thus ensuring the twins’ survival. Their lives are unnaturally extended, and their ability to project thoughts and images into other people’s minds is sort of par for the course for a Barker villain.

What separates them from my beloved Mr Barker’s characters is that they’re really bad at being evil. Their illusions are sloppy, and the victims generally figure out what’s happening and try to escape. There’s enough of a soul left for them to appear as ghosts later and warn the next. However, like a good fairy tale or myth, they’re too late because the new victim has already eaten or drunk something and so can’t leave. Another problem is that they leave traces – it would be simple to treat these narratives as separate short stories, but they’re not. After the first victim disappears, a thirteen-year-old boy with Asperger’s, the second is a detective investigating the disappearance, the third is a college student in a paranormal club, the fourth is her sister who’s come looking for her, and the fifth is a psychiatrist studying the abductions and the narratives of the witnesses. Or maybe I should say, witness. Fred Pink sees the boy and his mother right before they go, and then he spends the rest of the book trying to figure out the truth.

That first section of the book is not a deep exploration of mental difference. The victims in this story are all people whom society doesn’t work for, outsiders, and the syndrome makes Nathan very pick-on-able at his school. In 1979 there weren’t any of the advanced medications or treatments or interventions we use now, so he self-medicates by stealing his mother’s Valium. I suppose it’s hard to be a proper horror novel victim when you’re high on anti-anxiety meds, but he realizes that he can drop physical items through the cracks in time, and is thus influential in bringing about the end.

The 1988 detective is divorced and unhappy – I’m not saying those two things are connected, but I also don’t feel sorry for him because he refers briefly to a domestic violence incident that these days would have led to a restraining order. Good police officers don’t hit their wives. The presence of Gordon Edmonds, though, really makes me wonder about Mitchell’s identity politics. (Give me a second. I’m circling back to this, but we need to mention the Timms sisters first.)

In 1997 Sally Timms is a college student in a Paranormal Society, lost in unrequited love for Todd, one of the other members. Her sin against society is being overweight, for which she was bullied mercilessly in school. In 2006 her sister Freya is a journalist trying to get to the bottom of the disappearance, and keeps fielding texts from her girlfriend while time is going all out of joint around her.

Okay. In real life, death is often a senseless tragedy, and we try to create a meaning for it. In fiction, authors choose who lives and who dies, which means that there are no accidental deaths. Authors kill people because deep down at some level the writers think the characters deserve it. The wife-beater I can understand, but the others seriously bother me, now that I’m thinking about it. Mitchell even draws our attention to their differences, as if on the surface being bullied can increase a person’s psychic potential and abilities, but going deeper, being bullied at school identifies people as targets and even the author can’t resist knocking them down and stealing their lunch money. Asperger’s Boy, The Lesbian, and The Fat Girl all have to die because their author is removing those who are different from society. He may be doing it in a sympathetic way by giving them voices, but he’s doing it all the same.

If you watch British television and film, you’ll have noticed two things: one, that unlike in America an actor can become famous and successful while looking sort of ordinary and not drop-dead gorgeous; and two, that the British crowd people (NPCs) are much thinner than the Americans. Yes, we have a serious problem with weight in our country, with literally two-thirds of the population considered overweight or obese, but while we talk about body-shaming here, it’s nothing like over there. I heard a story of an English teacher in the U.K. teaching his Asian students the word excessive, and he showed them a picture of a sumo wrestler, hoping they would pick up on the excessive weight. It was a teacher fail because in Japan sumos aren’t considered fat, and I was rather surprised he would have chosen such a culture-specific body-shaming example. But from all that I see and hear, it seems like it’s much more culturally acceptable to be horrible to fat people in Britain than it is in the United States.

I feel like I should say something about the homophobia, overt in 1979 and 1988 and implied in 2006, but to quote R.E.M., “This story is a sad one told many times.” I don’t want to keep talking about how people hate me for . . . I’m having a hard time finishing this sentence, because what precisely is it they hate me for? I don’t love differently than heterosexual conservatives; when I fall in love, I feel the same way about it that anyone else does, and I do the same sorts of things with that person that anyone else would do. Maybe I fuck differently than they do, but I don’t invite them into my bedroom to watch. Maybe they hate me for being open about liking something that they can’t imagine liking, but I don’t understand why this reaction is so much more extreme than when I tell people I like liver and onions.

This week I’ve been celebrating Halloween not just with a scary book, but with another viewing of the Harry Potter movies. At the last one I got all weepy, not over all the people who die or the attack on Hogwarts, but over the Malfoys. In the midst of all this huge conflict of good vs. evil in which all the wizarding world is taking sides, the Malfoys choose each other. Narcissa may not be a good person, but whenever we see her she is acting out of the love she has for her son. It’s a great, overpowering, maybe in some ways frantic and excessive love, but it’s love nonetheless. They’re in the middle of the final battle, in that lull between attacks, and Voldemort offers the students a chance to join his side – Draco’s parents beg him to come over, and since he’s been a minor antagonist all along we expect him to, but all he does is quietly and gently take his mother home. The books and films go on and on about the love of Lily Potter, but only the Malfoys turn their backs on both good and evil and choose each other over all the world. Even Lucius, Voldemort’s lapdog, leaves his Dark Lord’s army to stay with his family.

Which leads me back to Sally and Freya, the two sisters whose love for each other damages the forces of evil so that they can be defeated.

I wish Sally’s last known place of abode could have been prettier. For the millionth time I wonder if she’s still alive, locked in a madman’s attic, praying that we’ll never give up, never stop looking. Always I wonder. Sometimes I envy the weeping parents of the definitely dead you see on TV. Grief is an amputation, but hope is incurable hemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed. Like Schrödinger’s cat inside a box you can never ever open. For the millionth time, I flinch about wriggling out of inviting my sister to New York the summer before she started uni here. Sally wanted to visit, I knew, but I had a job at a photo agency, fashionista friends, invitations to private views, and I was just starting to date women. It was an odd time. Discovering my Real Me and babysitting my tubby, dorky, nervy sister had just felt all too much. So I told Sal some bullshit about finding my feet, she pretended to believe me, and I’ll never forgive myself. Avril says that not even God can change the past. She’s right, but it doesn’t help.

Which drops me at the last thing I wanted to say. Despite all of the horror novel trappings, this is a book about Grief. It even gets capitalized and personified a couple of times. Stripped away to the basic bones, this is the story of an extraordinary woman who can’t deal with her grief in constructive ways, so the unmanaged feelings lead to paranormal abilities and all sorts of damage. I don’t mean to judge her for this; Grief is personal, overpowering, and no one else’s business. Grief is the expression of love for someone who cannot return it. I nearly wrote ‘the final expression,’ but I don’t think it’s that. Grieving is the process whereby we learn how to continue to love someone we have lost. There is nothing final about it.

For fans of Cloud Atlas, this may seem like an odd direction for Mitchell to have moved in. I have The Bone Clocks on my shelf but haven’t made time for it yet, so maybe there were intermediate steps that I missed. But Mitchell’s writing is still excellent and engaging, and like me, you may find that this is a book you don’t want to put down. It’s a good thing it’s short.

I may not have to remind you that I am a mental illness hypochondriac. Reading a book with an autistic narrator may not have been the wisest move for me. I kept finding connections between his thought processes and my own, particularly when I was his age. The thing is, though, that if we follow current medical theory, we can talk about autism spectrum disorders; spectrum means that autism is more of a continuum than a toggle switch, and that means that we are all on it somewhere. Most people are grouped at one end that we call normal, and a few people are grouped at the other end that we call low-functioning autistic. Somewhere in between there’s a range that we call Asperger’s. These divisions are arbitrarily defined, and probably not very clearly defined. I really don’t know enough to say whether the idea of a continuum is even accurate; there may be more than one variable involved, which would take us from situating ourselves on a single line to finding our place on a plane, which is exponentially more complicated. So maybe I’m closer to the autistic side than most people, but that doesn’t mean that I have a disorder. It certainly doesn’t mean that if I ever talk to a doctor he’s going to prescribe medicine that I don’t want to take, so I probably don’t have to hide from all doctors ever. Though I do a pretty good job of that. As an example, I am not this extreme:

It takes me a long time to get used to people I do not know. For example, when there is a new member of staff at school I do not talk to them for weeks and weeks. I just watch them until I know that they are safe. Then I ask them questions about themselves, like whether they have pets and what is their favorite color and what do they know about the Apollo space missions and I get them to draw a plan of their house and I ask them what kind of car they drive, so I get to know them. Then I don’t mind if I am in the same room as them and don’t have to watch them all the time.

I don’t ask lots of questions, and it takes less than a few weeks of seeing someone every day for me to grow accustomed to them. But there are some people I feel instantly comfortable with, and some I don’t. I can tell how comfortable I am around someone by how often I look directly at him. If I’m uncomfortable, I will refuse to look at the person. Not consciously, it just sort of happens that way. Christopher’s narration is much more self-aware than I typically am; it’s only within the last few years that I’ve been trying to figure out why I do what I do and feel what I feel, and some of the answers I’ve come to in the last couple of months are epiphanies for me, and I’m twenty years older than the narrator of this book.

Christopher is a fifteen-year-old boy with autism who lives in Swindon. He’s writing a mystery story because the dog across the street got stabbed with a garden fork (which I imagine we have a different name for in the United States). The mystery is only the beginning of the book, though; halfway through the mystery is solved and we skew into a less-genre-specific, more generic journey/coming of age story. Christopher is being raised by his single working-class father, in a community that seems nice enough. Many Americans have a distorted perception of England because most of the media we get deals with the upper middle class or higher; it can be difficult for us to imagine rednecks with British accents, but they’re there. They just call them by names other than redneck.

Mr Jeavons said that I was a very clever boy.

I said that I wasn’t clever. I was just noticing how things were, and that wasn’t clever. That was just being observant. Being clever was when you looked at how things were and used the evidence to work out something new. Like the universe expanding, or who committed a murder. Or if you see someone’s name and you give each letter a value from 1 to 26 (a=1, b=2, etc) and you add the numbers up in your head and you find that it makes a prime number, like Jesus Christ (151), or Scooby-Doo (113), or Sherlock Holmes (163), or Doctor Watson (167).

Mr Jeavons asked me whether this made me feel safe, having things always in a nice order, and I said it did.

I play number games in my head too, but more often when I’m driving. Instead of multiplying as Christopher does, I factor. I’m very pleased with houses with numbers like 1326, because 26 is twice 13, which means that 1326 is a multiple of 102, so it’s 26 x 51, which is 2 x 13 x 3 x 17, or 34 x 39. If you asked me off the cuff what is 34 x 39, I wouldn’t be able to say. But I play the game anyway. It keeps my brain occupied, so I don’t have to think about all the other gleaming silver death machines trying to kill me. Or the red death machine that I drive, which may also be trying to kill me.

Another difference between me and Christopher is our relation to static. He embraces it; the white noise covers the things he doesn’t want to hear or can’t process. I don’t. When I get overstimulated (either through external things or strong emotions), I hear a buzzing in my head similar to static. It’s a sign to me that I need to get out of the situation and be alone to deal with things. It’s often associated with feelings of embarrassment or shame. For me, static means my brain isn’t working right.

A more significant difference, though, is our relation to the truth. Christopher can’t handle any sort of lie, including fiction. I escaped into fiction throughout my childhood (and adulthood too, if I’m honest), so it’s the life I’m accustomed to. I can hold multiple truth values in my head simultaneously and respond to people using the worldview that they themselves ascribe to. It’s convenient for getting along with different types of people, but it also keeps me from facing the question of what I really believe. And I’m not surprised when people lie to me, and sometimes I’m not even hurt by it. Like Mr Labor Day, who I’ve been thinking of again. He probably lied about nearly everything he told me because he didn’t want to start a committed relationship that night. The different things he said just don’t fit together. That being said, if I were to see him again, I’d still be interested in dating/fucking him, and I still hope that he’s happy, wherever he is.

A tendency that I see in myself (that I find alarming) is how quickly I will lie about things. It’s very strange, but I’ve been given to understand that it’s fairly typical of people from abusive homes, even after they become adults. If there’s someone I don’t want to get close to, I will lie inexplicably. I will refuse to give him accurate information about myself. It’s one of the ways I protect myself. I’ve tried to adjust this by being vague but still truthful, but sometimes the lies fly out before I can stop them. And the ways that I have lied to myself, all in the name of protecting the ego, well. It’d be startling if it weren’t such a common thing.

So when Christopher discovers the ways that he’s been lied to, because his father wants to protect him, he goes completely off the rails, as only an adolescent with autism can. As I certainly would not have. I would have simply classed this as yet another thing that we know deep down to be true but that we don’t talk about, like the fact that my cousin’s husband who just died a few months back was her second husband and not the biological father of her first child. Or the way that I figured out pretty early on that what we accept to be true at church and what beliefs we build our real lives upon are often different and contradictory.

Perhaps one of the most fundamental differences between me and Christopher is that he has complete faith in his ability to save and protect himself, which I have never had. Even when there’s clear evidence that I am an intelligent and capable person who can handle and survive any situation that he’s placed in, it’s hard for me to believe it. It’s part of the upbringing that I still haven’t overcome: the fundamental belief that terrible things are going to happen, both in the world in general and to me specifically, and there’s nothing I can do to prevent them. In the end, I think it’s likely that Christopher has ruined the lives of all the people around him in his quest for self-actualization, but he doesn’t feel it. All he sees is that he’s brave and strong and going to succeed in life.

And that’s another hugely significant difference: he can only interpret the most basic emotional cues. Anything more nuanced than a happy grin or a sad frown is lost on him. He even sometimes imagines that all the people who can interpret emotions are dead and the world is left to him and his severely autistic friends, whom he is certain must exist somewhere out there. I’m the opposite. I pick up on everything. A therapist friend once explained that it’s a defense mechanism of kids in abusive homes; we become hyper aware of other people’s emotional states because that’s how you keep from getting beaten. At least I’m learning to be better about understanding which emotions are mine and which are other people’s.

Sometimes I catch my brain asking myself, “Are you okay? Are you okay?” over and over. I tell myself that I am, even though a book like this can make me question that conclusion. I had started reading Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, but it might be wise to put that one down for a bit.