Sunday, January 8, 2012

Of Tiggers and Beatles

Hi, there!

You had not, until yesterday, acknowledged the existence of this blog, though you do, of course, acknowledge the letters this blog grows out of. I still don't know what you think of my literary effort here, or the public nature of it. I don't know what I think of my carrying on even an edited version of a private conversation in public, but I do enjoy the opportunity to expand on certain topics we have discussed, but not had time to fully develop.

Autism, for example. I remember the subject of Asperger's syndrome came up once, and you interrupted me to insist you didn't know what that meant. You had to insist, because I was off on a conversational tear, and not particularly noticing my audience. Someday, perhaps I will become humble enough, or interpersonal enough, to listen before I speak, to listen, even, while speaking.

Anyway, I think I provided a partial definition (Asperger's syndrome is a mild version of autism, etc.) and then emailed you some links, and we have not been back that way again. So many conversational roads to travel, and as Frost said, way leads on to way. But I never asked you if you had simply not heard much about Asperger's or autism, or had heard much but found no whole in what you heard? I have a suspicion that hardly anyone knows what these things mean, and that the experts think they know, to the frequent detriment of actual Aspies and autistics.

I re-watched "The Yellow Submarine," the other day (a tangent which is about to exhibit rather Beatlish behavior, for a line, by curving back around) and Jeremy Hillary Boob, PhD, hit unexpectedly close to home. I assume you’ve seen the movie, even if you don't remember Jeremy’s name—I hadn’t, though I had remembered the character from previous viewings. He’s the “nowhere man” who appears in the void after the Vacuum Flask Beast sucks up everything else, including itself. I had always liked the character, even going back to when I saw the movie as a kid, and I always liked the song, but I never really thought much about him.

This time, though, it seemed clear that he was supposed to be preoccupied with obviously irrelevant stuff—that the editorial assumption here is that anyone using big words is obviously a figure of fun. There he goes, sprinkling his speech with Latin for no obvious reason, glued to a typewriter, happily oblivious to the Beatles' total non-interest in his monologue. But I bet I sound like that to some people--people who mimic me even use a similar accent and vocal mannerism to Jeremy's (do I really sound like an upper-class Brit, or do I just sound like I should?). Watching a movie make fun of oneself is never fun, especially when it’s clear the object of fun isn’t supposed to be in on the joke. But I'm not actually going on about nothing, and I don't think Jeremy is, either. As George keeps saying throughout the movie, it's all in the mind; we see the movie through the minds of its protagonists. And I imagine four young pop-stars with every reason in the world to be arrogant, might well listen to an admittedly geeky intellectual and hear gibberish.

And actually, the plot argues that Jeremy is not really the willingly blind "nowhere man" the song describes. If Jeremy were simply suffering from a character flaw, you'd expect him to open up through his journey with the Beatles. That's what such characters do on journeys, and while "Yellow Submarine" tried so self-consciously to be mind-bending, the plot is fairly standard in its barest outline. But Jeremy never actually changes, even when he becomes the pivotal figure of the story; he reconciles with the Chief of the Blue Meanies by reading snippets of poetry from a reference book.

What I think is that Jeremy is autistic. He is very aware of detail, and apparently brilliant in his several fields--among other achievements, he fixes the submarine's motor twice--but he is socially awkward and stiff, and does not appear to have a firm, immediate grasp of the big picture. These are all fairly standard characteristics, and although he never gets upset because his routines are altered, and never shows sensory over-sensitivity, it is possible he's just compensating well. Intellectualism is pretty standard for Aspies, but Jeremy is so off on his own trip that I think he is, more accurately, a high-functioning autistic.

The Beatles treat him thus. Of autistics, experts and science-writers alike so often say they are utterly alone, cut off from other people by their own strange indifference. Twice this past week I have seen public statements to this effect, one a newspaper article and one a documentary, and neither ever consulted actual autistics as experts in their own condition. If they are self-isolated originally, I think some people are content to leave them so. And the Beatles do to Jeremy exactly what these journalists did to their subjects; they briefly observe Jeremy's weird but creative and cheerful behavior, and then they feel competent to tell the world who and what Jeremy is;

"He's a real nowhere man,

living in his nowhere land,

making all his nowhere plans

for nobody.

He's as blind as he could be,

just sees what he wants to see,

Nowhere Man, do you see me at all?

He doesn't have a point of view

knows not where he's going to,

isn't he a bit like you and me?"

Jeremy can hear all of this. His typewriter disappears, and he appears in a tight spiral, going around and around with the Beatles, like they've pulled him into a record. Except the Beatles get off the spiral, and having issued their diagnosis, having declared Jeremy's life and interests and skills all completely meaningless, they back away, withdrawing their color and their music as they go. Jeremy's spiral gets smaller and smaller and he travels backward towards what looks like a drain, waving goodbye sadly as he goes. Finally, when his spiral has utterly disappeared, leaving him isolated in the void, without even his trusty typewriter and reference books, the Beatles prepare to go on about their business and we see this formerly cheerful man crying, sobbing as though his heart has broken. And maybe it has.

Jeremy is, like real autistics, frighteningly vulnerable. He needs the Beatles to tell him they want his company, because he can't ask for theirs. He needs them to ask him questions, because he can't figure out how to be of service to them otherwise. He needs them to be kind and generous because he can't protect himself from people who aren't. He even needs them to point him in the direction of his great heroic act; overcoming his guard and then disarming and befriending the leader of the Blue Meanies.

But we all need a little help from our friends--who doesn't?

And here I am going on and on. Shall I sprinkle my speech with scholarly phrases to make the comparison more obvious?

Meandering expansion of meaningless memes:

he bridges, bodaciously, psychic extremes

not wholly at home, camoflaged nowhere,

eloquence enters the ecotone of dreams.

Am I an Aspie?

Not quite, I think; not only am I not that bad, I'm also not that good--and I'm something else, I think, some variation along another spectrum as well. I get in moods--I've been in one most of this week--where I identify very strongly with the autism spectrum and I get very idealistically angry and go stomping off like a one-woman protest march on behalf of us autistics...but it doesn't quite ring true, not wholly, and at the end of the week I decide I don't really want to invite the whole world to consider my personal neurology, anyway.

But I like that Jeremy is the one who disarms and befriends the Blue Meanies. I like that he turns out to be the hero of the movie, not by triumphing over his strangeness but by being the exactly right kind of strange at exactly the right time and place. Like Sherlock Holmes (widely considered to be an Aspie, despite being fictional), Jeremy's difference is so obviously a gift.

I'm no neurologist myself, but I suspect that if everybody's difference were treated as a gift, if intervention and treatment were framed as ways to foster and unlock that gift, then people who are different in one way or another would live better--and so would everyone else. There would be fewer Blue Meanies.

-best, C,

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