the_dinner

 

 

In theory, The Dinner, Dutch writer Herman Koch’s internationally bestselling and much ballyhooed novel, was right up my alley. Dark and twisted? Sign me up! A brutal satire of bourgeois mores, or lack thereof? Be still my snotty proletarian heart!

I immediately logged into my Toronto Public Library account and put a hold on the book, because the only thing I love more than sinister satire is tending to my immaculately curated hold list at TPL (and because all the cool kids memorize their library card numbers and check on their account status multiple times a day). Late last week, the magical and perfect library dropped a copy of the book into my hot little hands.

It all started so well. While I didn’t think that The Dinner was entirely living up to the massive hype surrounding it, I was enjoying the book and was tearing through it, eager to learn more about the terrible incident at the heart of the matter and to find out how Koch’s collection of imperfect characters would handle it. And then, on page 185, something terrible happened.

That’s the page on which Paul, the book’s semi-reliable narrator who has been oscillating wildly between dickish and violent outbursts, goes to see a psychologist. That’s the page on which this paragraph shows up:

The psychologist had mentioned a name. A German-sounding name. It was the surname of the neurologist who’d had this particular disorder named after him.

My immediate reaction was a Tony Harrison-esque “Oh here we fucking go…”

Then I caught myself. This was clearly just part of the satire, right? A riff on the way that middle and upper class white dudes use Asperger’s as an excuse to be giant, unabashed assholes?

A quick Google search told me that I was giving Koch far too much credit.

 Here’s what he told Untitled Books about Paul’s disorder:

“It was going to be a real affliction, and then I thought if I name it in the book, then it’s no longer fiction. People will think it’s this or that, and then doctors will say actually in this condition people are not really that aggressive. Of course I had in mind something like Asperger’s, and the indifference to human suffering that entails. But Paul goes beyond that: let’s say he’s very active in his lack of empathy.”

And here’s what he said about it in an interview for the Delft University of Technology:

 “I was deliberately vague about that. I considered certain autistic disorders, particularly Asperger’s. After all, he is rather indifferent about what happens to other people. But if I had stated this explicitly in the book, people would have said, ‘That’s a very crude caricature, people with Asperger’s don’t behave as aggressively and unpredictably as this fictional character!’ I had no wish to engage in discussions of that kind. However, I did consult an expert about whether someone’s DNA might show clear evidence of such disorders. He told me that this is not yet possible, but that it will be in five years’ time. So that’s the only bit of science fiction in the whole book.”

So, you know, he wasn’t explicitly saying that Paul had Aspeger’s. But obviously he was thinking about Asperger’s. He didn’t want to come out and name it, though, because then people might get all uppity about the characterization.

That’s when The Dinner went from a book that wasn’t to be taken lightly to a book that wasn’t to be taken lightly Dorothy Parker-style.

I finished reading it, because I have an obsessive need to finish books, even when they’re awful and written by Charlaine Harris, but it sucked all of the fun out of it for me. Suddenly, the whole experiment felt incredibly half-assed and facile. The nature vs nurture theme reminded me of something I would have written in high school (or at least somethingI would have written in high school if there’d been an awesome Skinny Puppy on the topic to quote at length).

I’m all for fiction and creative license. Really. My verisimilitude preferences are pretty flexible. They’re probably more strident than those of the most out-there aesthete, but they’re certainly more open than my otherwise Aspergian need for rules and order would suggest. There’s a difference, though, between indulging your muse and letting it run wild like an overly permissive parent who doesn’t want their special snowflake hampered in any way.

Koch didn’t explicitly name the disorder because he didn’t want to engage in discussions about whether or not his portrayal of Paul was a crude caricature, or just plain wrong. Which is just a really fancy way of saying that he didn’t want to do any fucking research. He could have at least checked the Wikipedia page on autism spectrum disorders. He could have googled “Asperger’s and empathy” and figured out that he was completely off base in his random assertions. But he didn’t feel like it.

Aesthetically, my issue with what Koch has done is that it’s unrepentantly half-assed and that that laziness affects the quality of the book as a whole. The diagnosis just shows up, out of nowhere, on page 185. It doesn’t appear as part of an unveiling or unravelling carefully orchestrated by a brilliant writer. It just appears, completely unannounced, two thirds of the way into the book. It’s basically “Hey guys! Paul has non-Asperger’s Asperger’s now, ok?”

Now I’m not saying that there needs to be some sort of reverse Chekhovian rule along the lines of “If you’re going to diagnose somebody with an ASD on page 185, then you’re going to have to show some hand flapping in the first act,” but any relevant foreshadowing whatsoever in The Dinner would have been nice. There’s absolutely nothing in the entire book that even begins to hint at the diagnosis that Paul will eventually receive, though. The only even vaguely autistic issue that Paul has is a minor problem with stimuli. That also shows up on page 185, a few paragraphs before that neurologist with the German-sounding name is mentioned. And it’s never referenced again. Which, I suppose, is the problem with making up your own version of something and pretty blatantly alluding to it while not giving a shit if it’s accurate or not. It makes you look almost as incompetent at writing as you are at researching.

On a personal level, I am just so completely and utterly sick of this shit. Somehow, Asperger’s became the hot new thing for characters to almost have. Writers sure seem to love making up characters who embody all of the stereotypes of Asperger’s and high functioning autism, but they just hate having to deal with all of the research and the not being a petulant child about creative freedom and the potential repercussions that come with actually saying that a character is on the spectrum. And so they just don’t name it and they do whatever the hell they want and apparently that’s super cool.

Except that it’s not cool at all if you are a real human being who already has to deal with the stereotypes surrounding your disability. Because now you have to deal with all of the bullshit characters and stories that are based on bullshit stereotypes about your disability on top of dealing with the bullshit stereotypes about your disability. And the writers themselves don’t have to do much of anything, because they didn’t want to be tied down by facts, man! And so they’re not.

It’s not cool when the writers play around with Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory and make him embody every obvious autism trope ever but refrain from actually diagnosing him so that they can have all sorts of fun at the character’s expense without officially looking like ableist dicks. As much as I otherwise love Community and Abed, it’s not cool when they refrain from diagnosing him in the name of creative freedom, either.

I certainly sympathize with the desire to avoid conversations about Asperger’s and empathy and stereotypes and whether I’m getting it all wrong, because I have to have them all the time and they’re frequently infuriating. On the other hand, though, I have to have frequently infuriating conversations about Asperger’s and empathy and whether I’m getting it all wrong all the time, so I have no fucking sympathy for anyone who just chooses to bypass that step because they can and they wanna. Especially when it’s at my expense.

I don’t need any more white, ostensibly neurotypical men with more privelege in life and in art than I can ever hope to have exploiting me and people like me and then whining about how they shouldn’t have to deal with the consequences of exploiting me and people like me. If you want to trade in on the cultural cache that currently surrounds Asperger’s, then have the balls to admit it and face the discussion that comes with that, both positive and negative. And do a modicum of research, for fuck’s sake. I’m not saying that you have to nail every single symptom and character trait. I’m just saying that you should probably get at least one thing right.

Herman Koch doesn’t do that with The Dinner. He presents Paul as a man who really has no empathy and is prone to fits of brutal and uncontrollable violence. And then he randomly assigns him a disorder named after a German-sounding neurologist. Which can be treated with medication.

None of those things have anything to do with Asperger’s. I don’t even know where he got most of that shit from. Someone who learned all they know about Asperger’s from post-Newtown tweets would know more about AS than Koch appears to know.

So why shouldn’t he have to “engage in discussions of that kind?” Why shouldn’t people say that it’s a very crude caricature and that people with Asperger’s don’t behave as aggressively and unpredictably as this fictional character? It is and we don’t. The fact that he didn’t explicitly drop the A-bomb does nothing to distance us from that stigma. It doesn’t save us from having to talk about his stupid book.

And I am going to have to talk about his stupid book. People are going to ask me what I think about it. Some people are even going to ask me if I’m like Paul. Then I’m going to have to handle those awkward social situations with my imperfect social skills.

I’m going to have to carefully monitor my every move, lest I give someone the impression that I’m going to fantasize about bashing their face in and/or actually bash their face in just like Paul.

And I’m also going to have to bite my tongue and prevent myself from saying “Why would you read that tripe? I mean, if you want to laugh at rich people, rent The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. If you want viciously dark humour about horrible people, watch Nighty Night. And if you want a good story told by an unreliable narrator who slowly reveals his abominable actions, then read Lolita like a grown up” because I can’t be perpetuating that old nugget about people with Asperger’s being rude and pedantic, either.

In light of the horrific school shooting that left 27 dead in Newtown, Connecticut yesterday, a lot of people – both in the media and the populace at large – have been saying that it’s time to talk about mental illness.

I’m all for that. We do need to talk more openly and honestly about mental illness in all facets of life. But when we do have that talk, especially in relation to this tragedy, we need to be incredibly careful about the tone and the direction it takes. And I can’t say that I like where this particular conversation is going so far.

If we, as a society, are going to Talk About Mental Illness, can we talk about treatment and outreach? Can we try to eschew, or at least address, any preconceived notions of weakness or deviance? Can we not talk about bootstraps and positive attitudes? Can we do our very best to treat these afflictions like any physical disease? Can we attack the illness and not the patients?  Can we try to get past the stereotypes and prejudice attached to any and all mental illnesses?

And, if we’re currently too fucked up and traumatized and devastated and scared by this brutal situation to deal with all of that right now, then I hope we can at least try to keep the following two points in mind:

  1. Mental illness is a common comorbidity of Asperger’s Syndrome, for many reasons, but Asperger’s Sydrome is not a mental illness in of itself.
  2. While some people who suffer from mental illness, Asperger’s related or not, could possibly be ticking time bombs, all of us are vulnerable. And acting like we’re all potentially dangerous is only going to make us more so.

Even now, as a depressed and autistic woman, I can’t simply grieve with my fellow human beings. I can’t just be sad and confused; I also have to be defensive.

I have to read things about killer Adam Lanza like:

He was described as socially awkward and was known in high school as “intelligent, but nervous and fidgety, spitting his words out, as if having to speak up were painful.”

and

He was smart,” the insider said. “He was like one of these real brainiac computer kind of kids.”

and

“Adam Lanza has been a weird kid since we were 5 years old.”

and

“He was just a weird kid. He was a very quiet kid, a shy kid, maybe socially awkward,” Israel added.

and

He was a socially awkward kid,” Ms. Israel said. “He always had issues. He was kind of a loner. I don’t know who his friends were.”

AND

“[…]he just didn’t really connect with our high school, and didn’t really connect with our town.”

and know that any one of things can, or could have, at one time, been said about me.

I have to watch ostensibly respectable outlets like CBS and The New York Times report that Lanza maybe, kind of, sort of, might have had Asperger’s Syndrome and worry about what the inevitable onslaught of misinformation and stereotypes will mean for all of the awkward loners out there just like me who will, once again, have to add suspicion to list of issues that are keeping them isolated. And I have to watch people trot out the old gem about people with Asperger’s being absolutely incapable of feeling empathy (which is, at best, an oversimplification and, at worst, absolutely untrue) as some sort of explanation for what happened in Lanza’s head to make him capable of such unbelievable malice, cruelty and evil.

Even in this moment of collective grief, I am removed from the rest of society.

Isolation just like this is one of the reasons that so many people with Asperger’s Syndrome also suffer from anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses in the first place. None of what is happening right now is going to help us in any way. And it has the potential to make things worse.

I get the impulses behind the narrative that people are building around Lanza right now. Honestly, I do. People are trying to make some sense of a completely nonsensical event. It’s only human to want to find some meaning, context, or explanation in the face of such an incomprehensible act.

But the thing is, we’ll never find any of those things. We never do. The current confusion and sloppy speculation will eventually give way to hard facts and more clinical discussion of what caused Lanza to gun down so many people and to brutally murder such young children, but we’ll never actually have answers. We will never understand this tragedy and will never understand Adam Lanza. We can’t even ask him to explain himself.

What we can do is try to understand mental illness– Asperger’s related or not– a little better. We can talk to people who suffer from it, including people who have never fucking considered hurting anyone other than themselves, and try to understand what is happening to them. We can have a mental health talk that is as much, if not more, about helping people for its own sake as it is about stopping potentially dangerous people from hurting the innocent normal population.

Even if that doesn’t prevent the next mass murder or equally monstrous event on a major scale, it might just do a little to lessen the little tragedies that people who suffer from mental illness face every single day of our lives.

Shit Autistic Girls Do

January 27, 2012

Just before the holidays, this went viral:

And I was like

Eventually, confusion gave way to anger and frustration and, about a week after Shit Girls Say went viral, I went crazy(er).

It wasn’t just that I didn’t get the humour. My own sense has always been off kilter at the best of times and I’m used to being baffled by things that normals find funny. What really bothered me was that I couldn’t figure out why it was supposed to be funny.

You see, pop culture has been integral to my understanding of the neurotypical world, and it’s also played a significant part in my integration into that world. At some point in my late teens, I decided to study the normals in an effort to become less off-putting to the general populace. And, because I was a homeschooler with virtually no life and no friends, I had to use television, movies, books, magazines and the internet as my main source of information.

Eventually, I was able to use my new skills to venture out into the world. I was then able to add people’s responses to pop culture to my oeuvre. I learned a lot of decent, functional stuff about the outside world during this period, but I also learned that women can never really do anything right.

I tried my best to be a good normal woman. I obsessively monitored everything from my behaviour to the size of my legs. And while my efforts were never really good enough, they were certainly better – or at least more successful– than my natural instincts. I started passing as a normal. And, when people started telling me that I didn’t seem like I had Asperger’s, I mumbled something about working hard in therapy instead of saying “I have dedicated a decade, and my genius-level IQ, to little more than studying and imitating your people. Of course you can’t tell.” Because good girls don’t say things like that.

Then people I follow on Twitter started retweeting stuff from the Shit Girls Say account. I kind of ignored it at first, figuring that I didn’t get it because I wasn’t cool or young enough. But then the video hit and it seemed like EVERYONE I knew thought that it was the greatest thing ever.

I just didn’t get it. And it really started to bother me.

I get Cathy and Kathy from Kids In The Hall just fine. I love those skits.

But the point of the Cathy and Kathy skits is that office culture and small talk are inane, not that womenkind as a whole are.

And if SGS is funny because the shit being said is inane, isn’t the implication that girls should stop saying that shit? Or that they’re wrong for saying it?

Certainly, the reaction among my friends would suggest so. So many of them posted links on Facebook and Twitter with some variation of “This is so me. Poor Significant Other for having to deal with me!” Doesn’t that suggest that they think those things are wrong? Why else would they pity their SOs for having to listen to them say shit?

But what the hell is wrong with asking for a blanket? Dudes do that. And Aaron has asked me to pass him something many times. He’s never once felt guilty for doing so, nor has anyone thought to make fun of him for it.

The lines that really drive me crazy, though, are the ones where girls are being mocked for saying things that are clearly a product of their social conditioning, like “Can you do me a huge favour?”

I say that one all the time. You know why? Because I’ve learned, in all of my observation, that women aren’t really supposed to ask for anything. It’s bitchy, demanding and/or needy. And, in that light, even the smallest request becomes a big deal. When I say “Can you do me a huge favour?” I know it’s NT code for “I acknowledge that this favour, small as it might seem to you, is a major imposition on account of my being a woman-type person. But would you please consider it? I concede that it is a big deal. Please feel free to say no. And forgive me for asking in the fist place. Please don’t think I’m a nag or a bitch or a ballbuster.” So, as far as I can tell, women are pretty much forced to be meek by society, and then they’re mocked for that meekness. And then they’re expected to laugh along at the laughing at their meekness, because it’s just for fun! And you don’t want to be one of those women who take everything so seriously, do you?

The next wave of videos, especially Shit White Girls Say… To Black Girls made sense to me. People with privilege of all sorts say really, really dumb shit to people who don’t have it, and it’s both amusing and effective to call attention to that shit and discuss it in a format like this. And yeah, if we say shit that is featured in those videos, we should reconsider our behaviour.

Then that seemed to give way to stuff like Shit Yogis Say and Shit Vegans say, which was more like “LOL! We’re making fun of ourselves, but in a way that we’re actually talking about how much more awesome we are than everyone else!!” Beyond onanism, I have no idea what purpose these serve.

And then we got into “Shit Girls Don’t Say,” the implication of which, as far as I can tell, is that women suck for not saying these things. It seems to be really popular among the “I don’t have female friends because women are suuuuuuch dramatic bitches” set, who love to talk about how they totally say those thing! Because they’re not like normal girls! They’re like dudes with boobs! Which, I guess, is fine for parts of the video. I’ve said some of that Shit myself. But it gets really creepy as it gets going. Why is it funny that women don’t say that they’re getting fat and they should lose weight for their partners? Why is it funny that they don’t wear bags on their heads? We should not do those things. Do NOT fuck someone who is not willing to look at your head when they are fucking you! Or, to simplify things: No head = NO HEAD.

The trend seems to be dying now (although Shit Liz Lemon says, the only video that has truly captured my essence so far, was released earlier this week) and even though I’m more than over it in the fifteen-minutes-ago sense, I’m not quite over it psychologically. Logically, I know that I should just say “fuck it,” and go my life however I want, even if it involves blankets. But there’s always this feeling in the back of my head that those videos were a reproach, and that I should be monitoring and correcting my behaviour, erasing every “you’re the best” and squeal that I’ve so carefully programmed into my head over the years to make myself less susceptible to mockery and disdain. But then, when I try to ask people why those videos are funny, and what they think women should change, they tell me that I’m being too serious and that it’s just a funny joke, and then I get judged for not laughing at the stereotypes on top of getting laughed at for embodying them. AND I THOUGHT THAT I WAS SUPPOSED TO EMBODY THEM TO FIT IN.

And so I have become the Joni Mitchell of autistic people. I’ve seen normals from both sides now and I really don’t know normals at all.

I’ve been told that I’m overthinking this whole issue, but really? “You’re overthinking this” is Shit Neurotypicals Say.

Why I Blog

July 27, 2011

A reader named Mat had a couple of questions for me in the comment section of a recent post.

“I have been toying with the idea of a blog, to think about the things going on in my life, good and bad,” he wrote. “What has blogging brought you, what are you hoping to get from it? Do you tell people about your blog, or have your tens and tens of followers come across by accident?”

You’ll be shocked by this, but my answer got a little too long-winded for the comments section.

Awesometism wasn’t exactly born of altruism. I wanted attention and was indulging the occasional wild book deal fantasy, so I went and got myself a blog.

My original, self-serving mission hasn’t been much of a success. Awesometism gets me a little bit of attention, but the hits so far have been respectable but modest. I shamelessly whore my latest posts on facebook and twitter, and I’ve managed to lure a few people over with those mad social media skills, but they probably only account for a small percentage of my readership. Some readers find me by accident. Some readers are my mom.

I imagine that a scientific breakdown of my readership might look something like this:

Here's a generic pie chart. Pretend it has relevant stuff on it.

15% friends who click on my links on facebook and twitter

20% Toronto Star readers who followed link over here and stuck around

20% people who googled a line from NBC’s Community that I once quoted

10% other

5% Mom and Dad

30% people who google some variance of “how to seduce an Aspie”

And I love each and every one of you. You’re not a fairy god agent, but you’ve been part of a rewarding experience none the less.

In my real life, this little sucker has proven itself a far more valuable communication tool than I could have imagined. It’s helped a lot of people to understand me in a different way. Even my mom says that she’s learned a significant amount about what’s actually happening in my head from reading it.

I’m also starting to hear from readers whom I’ve never met, who have discovered me through various means, and seem to appreciate what I’m doing here, which is really exciting.

I’ve amused some, touched others, and even infuriated a few, and I’ve appreciated all of those responses. They’ve all helped to sharpen my skills, make me reconsider how I present things and, most importantly, made me continue to write. It’s so much easier to work on a new post when you know you’re not sending it off into a complete void.

Blogging, in general, is an extremely AS-friendly form of communication. It’s basically living in your head (and most of us have probably been told that we live there at one point or another) for public consumption. I was pretty active on livejournal through my late teens and early twenties, and that experience had an extremely positive influence on both my writing and social evolution. I was able to process things at my own pace, formulate my ideas in a medium that was comfortable for me and then send them off into the world. If people commented on my posts, then I’d also get a chance to practice working through my ideas in a more dialogue-oriented, give-and-take format while still in the comfort of my own timetable and comfort zone. That early flirtation with blogging helped make me the semi-functional social caterpillar that I am today.

I also believe that blogging is valuable for the autism community as a whole. What better way to reinforce the saying “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism” than to add another voice to the different and divergent mix of people on the spectrum who are letting the world know about their unique experiences, struggles and triumphs? I truly believe that the best treatment for autism is understanding and communication, and the more that we expose each other, both on and off the spectrum, to the greater whole of the autism experience– opinions we endorse, opinions we disagree with, stories that could be ripped from our own lives and lives we couldn’t even have imagined –  the more we can all learn to to find common, more comfortable ground and begin to exist with each other with a little more compassion.

And, if you’re really lucky, you could always end up with tens and tens of followers and unfulfilled book deal fantasies just like me.

Dune: An Epilogue

July 21, 2011

"This box is your childhood. Survive it and you are the Kwisatz Haderach of a Dune nerd's heart."


I grew up and fell in love with a serious business Dune nerd who truly values my ability to make casual Bene Gesserit references.

I did eventually read the first two books in Frank Herbert’s original series (Dune and Dune Messiah) and found them interesting enough, but I probably will never get around to the rest. I might go back and read the first one, but everything after that breaks my heart. I can’t take anything bad happening to Alia or Paul; they mean too much to my childhood. It would be like Mr. Dressup going crazy and being controlled by a floating man with pimples, or The Friendly Giant going blind and wandering out into the desert to die. And I still can’t abide  the giant man-faced phallic symbol with a phantom weenie.

The internet came along and turned everyone with even a passing interest in any kind of pop culture into a six-year-old with Asperger’s, so there’s really no shame to be had in being obsessed with something and talking about it nonstop these days. Or at least it’s easier to find people who will appreciate and condone that behaviour.

Oh, and those who carried the name of concubines? Well, I hear that history called them wives.

My husband, A, finished reading God Emperor of Dune, the fourth book in the original series, for the millionth time while we were away. So I spent a disproportionate amount of our vacation staring at the cover, a lurid display full of gaudy reds and orange swirls that wouldn’t be out of place in a velvet painting, topped with a bunch of little guys in white one-pieces similar to the spandex suits worn by the nihilists in The Big Lebowski,  and a giant, black worm with a tortured and bloody-looking dude’s head carved out of the top, sort of like the most terrifying watermelon sculpture possible.

“So, he really turns into a sandworm?” I kept asking, like my repetitive interrogation would somehow make all of that nonsense disappear.

“Yes. Leto Atreides, Paul’s son, becomes a sandworm,” he would answer with remarkable patience.

“Why?”

“Because [insert incredibly detailed spiel about some kind of future vision that made Leto realize that he needed to make the ultimate sacrifice and turn into a sandworm to govern Arrakis for the next few hundred years that I was only half listening to].”

“Where’s Alia?”

“She’s dead. This is hundreds of years in the future.”

“So, it’s just a whole book about a sandworm?”

“Well, he has a legion of feisty warrior women who run the planet with him.”

“How does he talk to them?”

“He still has a human head. [insert explanation about Leto’s slow metamorphosis and how he thinks that his human head will disappear and then he’ll go off into the desert and die because I’m pretty sure that’s the Atreides solution to everything].”

“This book is dumb.”

Seriously, what the hell?

I picked up the weighty tome a few times when he was done with it, scanning the occasional page to get some sense of this clearly drug-fueled orgy of overly serious thoughts about worms and sand, but all I came up with was a passage in which Leto explains to the seven millionth incarnation of Duncan Idaho that he still feels his genitals, even though they’ve been gone for centuries.

And I guess it’s an, um… admirable thing that someone in the history of the human race has taken some time to ponder the internal and external life of human/sandworm hybrids and whether or not they’d have phantom genital syndrome, but I just don’t have any patience for that kind of thing. That’s just not my Dune.

My Dune was David Lynch’s Dune. Well, at least partially so. You see, my thing with Dune was particularly narrow in its focus, even for an Asperger’s special interest.

My Dune, as understood and explained by my six-year-old self, was as follows:

There’s this planet with sand and spice and the people eat the spice and they get blue eyes. And there’s this orange thing floating in space because it ate too much spice. And there’s this guy, and the scary woman makes him stick his hand in a box and it really hurts but he can’t take his hand out or he dies but he doesn’t take his hand out and that’s a good thing. And then the guy is on the planet and he knows how to put the special desert suit on even though no one ever showed him! And there’s a little girl who’s really scary and smart and a fat guy with pimples who floats.

For some reason, the suit part was the most important part. To my younger self, Dune was basically a movie about Captain Picard being really impressed by the way that Agent Cooper wore a skintight suit.

As far as special interests go, Dune was not exactly a great love affair. It didn’t last for years on end. I never dragged my parents to lectures by Frank Herbert. I was too young to really attempt reading the books, anyway. I didn’t memorize every possible fact about it.  But my Dork Passenger’s brief flirtation with Dune sticks out in my mind for a couple of reasons. First of all, I love being able to brag that I’ve been Lynch fan since I was six years old. Secondly, it marks the first time I was really aware that my special interests weren’t considered cute anymore.

I discovered Dune when I was in kindergarten. I distinctly remember walking into my living room, seeing a giant orange thing floating through space on TV, and thinking that it was the best thing I’d ever witnessed.

I’m not entirely sure why parents let me watch it, and my mother can’t remember the details, although she doesn’t seem to think that it was a big deal. I have a different theory, though.

Despite my mother’s lack of concern in retrospect, my parents were at least somewhat careful about what they let me watch, on account of the fact that I was quite skilled at having nightmares based on innocuous commercials and interstitial programs. They probably rented it with every intention of watching after I went to sleep. But, like many people on the spectrum, I had (and still have, to a certain extent) erratic sleeping habits and, at some point, Mom and Dad probably got so exhausted and desperate to actually watch the movie before they had to return it to the local Videoflixx that they just put the damn thing on. Then I walked into the room. And really, once your kid has seen and become instantly obsessed with a giant orange vagina-faced creature, the damage has pretty much already been done. So they gave in and let their weird and wired kid stick around.

I didn’t really follow the whole movie. Even smart six-year-olds with an autistic sense of focus aren’t really ready for a sci-fi epic in its entirety. And, to be fair, few adults not named David Lynch and maybe not even David Lynch actually knew what the fuck was going on in that thing. But the parts that I did follow and remember became my favourite movie of all time.

I started walking around the house, imagining, in a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, that I was Alia, the disturbing, too-adult girl who freaked out the grown-ups. I found a Dune colouring book deeply discounted at the local Bi-Way (there couldn’t have been much of a market for such a thing), carefully selected a burnt sienna crayon from my arsenal of seventy-two colours and wore it down to a nub as I bathed every page in the sandy tones of Arrakis. Then I took out a blue crayon and did everyone’s eyes. I discovered that my school’s library had a copy of the original Dune book, but my excitement was short-lived when I also discovered that kindergarten students weren’t allowed to borrow from the big kids’ section just yet.

Vagina Face! In colouring book form!

I also started telling people about it.

My early experiences with sharing my special interests were uniformly positive. It’s cute when a kid shows a fascination with dinosaurs and adults loved to indulge me during that phase. Asking me to talk about dinosaurs was an adorable party trick. And while the Titanic might have been considered a little more morbid, the ship’s discovery was such a big deal in the mid-eighties that most people in the general population were at least a little charmed by my encyclopedic knowledge of the topic and my unbridled excitement for all things White Star Line. People at Titanic society meetings practically fawned over me. Even Dr. Robert Ballard himself seemed to like me well enough when I met him after a lecture in Toronto.

But there’s nothing cute about a kid who loves one of the most notoriously controversial and (unfairly) reviled  sci-fi flicks of all time. In fact, the only thing more creepy and unpleasant than Dune itself, for most people,  is listening to a child talk about it.

My ridiculously narrow focus didn’t help matters, either. I mean, I have memories of telling people about the suit scene, with no other context or explanation. Just “In Dune, there’s a guy who is new on the desert planet, and he knows how to put the special desert suit on without anyone having to tell him. And the planet guy is really impressed!” What the hell do you say to that?

My parents, as always, were wonderfully patient and supportive of my latest all-encompassing fixation. Everyone else was, understandably, less so.

Play Barbies? No thanks, I want to talk about sandworms.

I don’t really blame anyone for their reactions to me. You probably shouldn’t encourage a child’s love of Dune, and the colouring book is now, rightfully, considered a horrible, mind-warping idea. But those reactions really did a number on me.

At least some people probably assumed that I was just a spoiled, overindulged child who needed to be taken down a peg or two and taught that she wasn’t a precious snowflake with the best, most fascinating interests ever. Maybe they were right. But maybe not. When I look back on a lot of the clashes that I had with adults who were not immediately related to me during my formative years, it feels more like everyone was so worried about me developing an ego because of my intelligence that they never stopped to determine if I had any self-esteem to begin with.

I didn’t feel special or precious. I certainly didn’t feel entitled to the attention. I liked it, though. Talking to adults about the things that I loved were some of the most positive social experiences of my young life and yes, I wanted more of that.

I had a lot of social blind spots as a child, but I have always been extremely aware of when I’ve done something truly undesirable or when I’ve disappointed someone. And I felt that very acutely when I tried to tell people about my new favourite movie.

In the end, it wasn’t Dune – or even my fucking twisted colouring book– that warped my young mind and destroyed a little piece of my innocence; it was the repercussions of loving Dune that did. It was one of the first events that made me realize that I was different, that there was something odd and off-putting about the things that I loved and that people weren’t really interested in them, or in me talking about them.

It wasn’t enough to stop me completely, and the whole Titanic obsession continued its course unabated until we hit the iceberg of adolescence, but there was something different about my special interests after that. They became more muted in some ways. I knew that I had to be careful about what I did with them,  what I said about them and who I said those things to, that I had to hold my interests close to me like any other shameful secret. The innocence and the pure, unbridled excitement were gone.

Fear of rejection became my imagination killer.

In The Club

June 13, 2011

While the outside of a nightclub is clearly terrifying for my crippling low self-esteem and self-loathing, the inside is actually a lot more perilous from an autism perspective. Loud music! Personal Space Issues! Socialization! Here’s my lazy, so-late-it-barely-matters-anymore recap of my night as an autistic club kid.

Loud Music

Although I had to beg my mom to turn the music down when I was a teen, my sensitivity to sound is relatively minor. I’ve never felt overstimulated by music. Loud sounds are only really upsetting when they’re a surprise. I can (and regularly do) attend concerts without any major issues.

I am, however, no good at having a conversation while loud music is playing in the background. I can’t always separate the tone of a person’s voice from the overall sound and, even if I could, I can’t really process the conversation as quickly as I would be able to if there weren’t any outside stimulants. Which is all for the best, because I have problems moderating the tone of my voice at the best of times, so even when I can attempt to be part of a normal club conversation, no one can ever hear me.

I solved this by…

Personal Space Issues

…leaning right into people and yelling into their ears! Because taking an autistic person’s unique concept of personal space and mixing it with alcohol can’t go wrong!

Socialization

For the first hour, I watched everyone else in our party get approached by guys. Then one particularly confident and focused gent strutted up to our bench and sat right down beside me… so that he could talk to the girl who had been sitting on the other side of me. I handled the slight with dignity (or, um, loudly declaring myself a Liz Lemon and high-fiving a million angels) but it’s not exactly the biggest ego boost when you’re the only undesirable in the group.

I have three theories to explain my lack of male attention:

1. I was wearing glasses. And while Dorothy Parker’s line doesn’t necessarily apply to a city soaked in hipsters (who stole my look), it still might be accurate in Niagara Falls.

2. Although I was not hideous enough to be turned away at the door, I’m still only slightly hotter than a middlingly sexy version of Odo from Deep Space 9 at the best of times.

Hello, boys.

3. Boys apparently complained to the bride to be that some of the girls in her party were stuck up and just hanging out with each other and weren’t friendly. This could have been me. I haven’t exactly mastered the art of open body language and my shyness has often been mistaken for aloofness.

At some point, the boys either ran out of other options or I magically appeared less accidentally bitchy and they started to talk to me. Here are some actual conversations that I had with strange men who may have wanted to get into my Starfleet uniform:

Boy: Hello ladies! Where are you from?

Me: Toronto.

Boy: Oh.

and

Boy: Hello! How are you?

Me: I’m married!

Eventually, one sweet, nerdy and impossibly young boy took a fancy to me. I gave him a lovely speech about the possibilities of youth and how he had so many years ahead of him to make stupid mistakes and have bizarre adventures. He asked me why I was talking like I was old. Then a security guard came up to us and said that he looked better in stripes than I did.

I doubt a neurotypical could make any more sense of that than I have.