Monday, May 5, 2008

"What's It Like to Be You?"

This blog kind of ranges all over the place in terms of topic --- it's a feminist blog one day, a book blog another day and an autism blog yet another day. Sometimes the different areas of emphasis are able to intersect, like when I focus on the portrayal of autism in literature, or on literary or folkloric tropes that characterize the media coverage of autism, or on the female experience of autism and media and professional neglect thereof. I think it's less successful when, as has happened recently, a single topic (say, feminism) starts to overshadow the others in terms of how often I post on it. So here's an attempt to steer the blog back toward a balance between its several themes.

I think one of the most important things to happen to the public discourse on autism has been the emergence of adult autistics who tell their own stories. When we come forward with our own experiences, it overrides the old conception of autism as the absence of meaningful experience. Ideas of "empty fortresses" or "children under glass" have less power when brought into competition with our own memories of the thoughts and feelings we had but failed to communicate to anyone else. Making our stories public humanizes us by replacing the old views of autism that denied our humanity.

I've been leaking small details of my personal life here and there on this blog, because that's how this stuff comes to me: in little epiphanies and fragments of memory. Today I'm not so much going to try to tell The Story of Me so much as just give a general impression of what it's like to walk around inside this skin, and to perceive with these senses. So, here goes:

Temple Grandin famously described her experiences navigating the NT social world as being like those of "an anthropologist on Mars." That rings true to me, as far as it goes, but there's another dimension that I don't think it touches. I think of myself more as being like Isaac Newton trapped in Faerie --- it captures the same sense of bewilderment and out-of-placeness as Grandin's anthropologist, but putting him in Faerie conveys better the vividness of sense-impressions that pervades my life. It's like the world is at once hyper-real and unreal, because while my heightened senses throw the immediate physical enviroment into sharp relief, I also feel like I never get past the surfaces of things. There are shapes, and colors, and sounds, but too often they come at me too fast for me to assign them any meaning. It's kind of like living in an Impressionist painting that way. Both of these analogies --- Faerie Land and Impressionist artwork --- connote great beauty as well as unreality, and that's deliberate. I don't know if Grandin meant to signify by her choice of Mars as the locale for her displaced anthropologist that her world is barren (I doubt she did, based on what she wrote in Animals in Translation), but that is one of the connotations Mars has, which is another reason her analogy isn't quite right for me. My world has always been full of life, and full of beauty, not so much inscrutable or inaccessible as much as just too plentiful for me ever to take it all in.

I don't mean to imply that I live in some kind of sensory Eden, though. There's a lot I can't tolerate --- a lot of sounds are too jarring or sharp, and for most of my life you could just forget about touching me. The slightest contact would burn my skin like acid. So I guess the concept of beauty I'm aiming for isn't so much the Hallmark, rose-garden kind of tame beauty but the wild, terrible beauty that gives you a sense of the otherworldly. (This is how I imagine Faerie to look; I think Susanna Clarke describes it well in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell).

1 comment:

Alana said...

Hello, I like the reference to Faerie in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and world-processing. I will rethink that next-time I do a reread of that book (which probably should be soon).