Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Another Nonliterary Post

From Feministe, a link to this post by Shark-Fu:

A bitch was pleased to read that Senator Clinton would increase funding into autism research and education

…but I’d like to see some of that money go to adult autistics too.

Oh, I know that the press is in love with autism right now because the revised spectrum has resulted in a better understanding of just how common an autism diagnosis is.

But the press has failed…horribly…to point out that autism is not a childhood illness just because symptoms appear when a person is a child.

Autistics grow up.

I left a comment at Feministe that tried to express what I think underlies this failure of the news media, or public policy, to acknowledge the existence of autistic adults and the fact that children with autism do develop, even if it is at a different rate and in a different way. I'm not sure it comes across in the comment, but I think the popular image of autism has a lot in common with the old story of the changeling --- a human child stolen by fairies and replaced with a strange, inhuman substitute. A lot of the terminology people use when they're describing autistic children --- in their own world, cut off from other people, walled off behind the autism --- has an undertone of otherworldliness or abduction. My child doesn't live in the world, or alternately, my child used to be fine and healthy, but now he's different and I don't understand it at all.

I have a vague idea that there might be a book written on this subject, but darned if I can remember the title, or find it on Amazon.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Is It Enough Just to Say a Character Is Autistic? More Thoughts on Soon I Will Be Invincible

One thing I never got to in my last post, but which I wanted to write about, is the character of Blackwolf. He's the Champions' Batman analogue: a brilliant detective and elite-level athlete whose traumatic past led him to become a costumed crime-fighter. He's also supposedly autistic, although the story doesn't really develop this. The label gets dropped onto him a couple times, and it never seems to fit. He has no identifiably "autistic" traits, and the label gives the reader no insight into anything he says or does. Yet Grossman obviously thought it important to give him that label, since he repeats it.

On one level, I'm intrigued by this decision, since Blackwolf counters a lot of the most common sterotypes about autistic people. He's described as attractive, physically graceful, and charismatic, and he functions as a love interest for both Fatale and Damsel (his ex-wife). He's also not shown as having any particular difficulty understanding social dynamics; indeed, in one scene where Damsel's parents are taking her to task for her handling of the Doctor Impossible situation, Blackwolf rises spontaneously to her defense. Without even being prompted, he knows that she's feeling distressed and needs him to stand up for her. It may just be that he'd had enough practice mediating between her and her parents in their marriage, but even that sounds like an improbably diplomatic role for an autistic person to take. While it's awesome to have a character clearly labeled "autistic" who does all these things we don't often see autistic characters doing, problems arise when the character has so little in common with the category "autistic" that, rather than broaden the category, we question his inclusion in it.

There are a couple passages where we see hints of his autistic nature. The first describes a fight between Doctor Impossible and the Champions, in which Doctor Impossible (he of the "Malign Hypercognition Disorder") expresses a sort of mystified admiration of Blackwolf's unusual thought processes:

He's got that twitchy autistic look he gets in a fight, his odd neurology hyperaccelerating, problem solving in real time.

Bearing in mind how "hyperaccelerated" Impossible's own cognition is supposed to be, this is high praise indeed, possibly indicating a tactical savantism on Blackwolf's part. Later in the fight, Blackwolf slips away and surprises Impossible, indicating that he did plan out his actions ahead of time, while the evil genius was busy holding off the other Champions. And since everywhere else in the book, it is Blackwolf who is in awe of Impossible's intelligence and who despairs of ever anticipating his plan, his ability to outthink Impossible must apply only in very narrow circumstances, i.e. during a physical fight. Having narrow, hyper-specific areas of genius that rise far above one's general intelligence level is the defining characteristic of savantism, and autistic cognition in general, even among non-savants, is very uneven. It would make perfect sense from that standpoint for Blackwolf to be smarter than Doctor Impossible in some contexts and hopelessly outclassed by him in others.

In the other passage, Fatale tries to act on her feelings for Blackwolf, only to have him push her away:
Our lips touch, and for a second it's everything I thought it would be. The metal in my jaw is awkward but somehow exciting, and he kisses back. ... Then I make a mistake. I reach for the mask, and he catches my arm, ready to break it. His jaw sets, and I'm dealing with Blackwolf again. It's like watching a different personality take hold, and I get a glimpse of what he's been holding back, a terrible, unappeasable mourning. Something really god-awful must have happened to him at some point.

Blackwolf's obsession with avenging his lost siblings rules his life. Obsessions and compulsions are indeed a part of autism, but I see a more powerful authorial motive than mere verisimilitude at work here, one that explains the overall lack of depth to Blackwolf's exposition. The two things I've singled out as most autistic in Blackwolf, his inscrutable mind and his rigid obsession with vengeance, are also the things that alienate him most from the other characters, that make him most clearly "Other." Doctor Impossible and Fatale both marvel at him, wondering what could possibly lurk in that brain of his:
I wonder what makes him this way, what primal, originary scene branded him with an obsession that makes him dress like an animal, and helps him fight. Who does he see when he looks at me?
...I get a glimpse of what he's been holding back, a terrible, unappeasable mourning.

The other members of the Champions, as I detailed in the last post, are all isolated by their powers. Their powers, and whatever price their bodies pay for those powers, dictate every aspect of their lives. They are utterly alone, Grossman tries to emphasize. Because Blackwolf lacks a power, he had to be given something that would make him as alone as Fatale, with her amnesia and her metal body, or Damsel, with her alien parentage and force field. His autism, therefore, is a metaphor for what Grossman feels the real price of superhuman ability would be. As such, it is not and probably was never meant to be accurately portrayed, which is lame insofar as it fails to invest a character with sufficient depth to be truly alive to the reader. Ideally, a metaphor should succeed both on the literal level, as an accurate depiction of the object or idea being used in the metaphor, and on the allegorical level in which it stands in for something else. Blackwolf never rises above the level of a cipher, which not only fails to endear him to us but also leaves us with a superficial idea of autism. Autism, as embodied in Blackwolf, is just isolation, just a state of arrested development. We get no insight as to what it's like to inhabit his strange, unevenly brilliant mind, no concept of him as an individual. So, as much as I love Soon I Will Be Invincible for its clever plays on the comic-book idiom, I'm disappointed by its lazy use of its one autistic character.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Superheroes and Disability in Soon I Will Be Invincible

While there are a lot of potential topics for an essay on Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible, the one that fits the best with the theme of this blog is the novel's extended analogy between superpowers and disability. It sounds contradictory, but very few of Grossman's characters are simply superhuman. Their powers camouflage the extent to which they can't function in the everyday world. We get the impression that many of them fight crime (or mastermind it) because the wider world has no other use for them.

An ongoing theme of the novel, voiced at different times by its heroine, Fatale, and its villain, Doctor Impossible, is that superheroes (and -villains) pay a physical price for their power:

[Doctor Impossible] learned ... to spot the telltales of power: the stutter-step of a bad nerve operation, and the alien hybrids, Altairian eyes and Enderri hands. How to look at the way superheroes walk ... and see what happened to their bodies, once upon a time. Most of them had paid a price for their power, and for most of them it was too high.
That holds true not only for the bottom-tier freaks and strongmen that Doctor Impossible meets during his early career, but also for elite superheroes like Fatale's group, the Champions. Fatale herself is a cyborg, having had her body rebuilt after a car accident that destroyed half of her real body. She has no memory of her former life, she needs to be constantly on immune-suppressing drugs to tolerate her implanted circuitry, her added height and weight make her somewhat awkward and graceless, and she is infertile. The leader of the Champions, Damsel, is an invulnerable flying powerhouse whose bizarre alien-hybrid metabolism has her constantly throwing up (Fatale initially believes she has bulimia), and a teenage sidekick, Rainbow Triumph, is on an extensive drug regimen, both to keep her, too, from rejecting her cyborg implants and to hold off the degenerative bone disease that's slowly killing her. The level of sheer physical dysfunction that the Champions have to deal with every day is brought home when Fatale describes her teammates' nightly routines, spying on them with her x-ray vision:
[Rainbow Triumph] opens a metal briefcase and begins opening pill bottles and boxes, until fourteen pills, capsules, and dietary chews are lined up on the edge of the marble sink in front of her. She does it every twelve hours. She's probably been doing it since she was seven; maybe it's to fix whatever was wrong with her in the first place. ...

Underneath my feet, Blackwolf [a Batmanlike martial artist/detective]washes his hands for a full five minutes before popping three or four painkillers, which explains a lot. Then he pushes the little room's furniture to the side and puts himself through a series of calisthenic exercises ...

Feral [a huge cat-person, super-strong and a fierce fighter] drops to all fours when he's alone, and sleeps curled in a ball. I think he has back problems from trying to stand on two legs all the time.

Besides the physical (and, often, psychological) complications of the kind of altered physiology a superhero would have, Grossman's characters also have to deal with a larger society that marginalizes them. The personality quirks that lead characters to choose heroism or villainy over civilian existence are labeled disordered on both sides: Doctor Impossible is said to have "Malign Hypercognition Disorder," literally evil genius syndrome, while Fatale, quitting her job as a mercenary to fight crime, is accused of having "an adjustment disorder." Fatale is regarded with extreme suspicion by her landlord, who requires her to put in a thick carpet at her own expense, and to sign a series of waivers before he will rent to her. Doctor Impossible and another villain, Laserator, are both brilliant scientists who nevertheless are unable to succeed in academia; Laserator languishes in an obscure professorship while Doctor Impossible quits "legitimate" science as a postdoc, after watching himself grow older and older than his classmates while failing to do any serious work.

In the passage containing the description of the Champions' pill-popping bedtime rituals, Fatale articulates what might well be the novel's guiding thesis on what it's like to live as a superhero:
For everyone else, it's a momentary fantasy. They don't have to take them into the kitchen, the bathroom, and the bedroom. Or wake up in the night in flames, or sweep up shattered glass in their apartment, or show up late for work with a black eye. No one else knows where they itch or bruise you, or has tried the things you've tried with them when you were bored or desperate. No one else falls asleep with them and finds them still there in the morning, a dream that won't disperse upon waking.

This litany of domestic details strikes me as particularly relevant from a disability-rights perspective: no one but us knows what it's really like to live with whatever it is we live with. No one but us knows our real "quality of life," the constellation of small, intimate details that define our condition. The passage was meant to de-romanticize the superpowered life, as experienced by our ambivalent and somewhat cynical narrator, but just as she wants to dispel the "momentary fantasy" of how wonderful it is to be a superpowered crimefighter, a similar passage would also work to dispel the equally one-dimensional vision of horror most nondisabled people imagine when contemplating disability.