It’s never you until it’s you, part 1

It’s amazing how capable the mind can be of explaining away the congruence between an individual fact and general pattern.  Somehow, when your own life is in the balance, you can become stupidly good at finding reasons why the truth isn’t true and the wrong things are actually okay.  I suppose this evolved as some sort of protective mechanism, ensuring the perpetuation of the ego.  But it also has the potential to be one of our most disastrous faults.  I never learned this until I got into, and stayed for a very long time in, an abusive relationship.

I don’t remember when I first began to suspect that my long-distance committed partner, M., was abusing me.  It probably took longer than you would expect, given the behaviors to which I was subjected.  However, one of the pitfalls of relationships for people with spectrum disorders is our difficulty with interpreting cues accurately.  When you don’t often have the same gut reaction to another’s behavior that an average person would, you stop trusting what instincts you do have, and look to someone you think you can trust to tell you how the world is working and how you should respond to interactions– including interactions with that very person.  Once someone gains that inroad and convinces you that they have the kind of answers that your “badly”-wired brain will never provide, it’s ludicrously easy for them to manipulate your perceptions, making themselves unassailable and invaluable to your existence.  You couldn’t possibly survive without the insights and guidance they offer– not to mention the companionship, which is less than forthcoming from most of the population– and if you feel hurt, confused, frustrated, misunderstood, stifled, overwhelmed, worthless, inadequate, hopeless, resigned, even suicidal, those are manifestations of your own disability, not any fault of your benefactor’s.

In my case, the abuse eventually came to a head and became incontrovertible when M. came to stay with me for three months and the physical violence began.  On perhaps as many as a dozen occasions, I had the joy of knowing what it feels like when someone presses his face to yours and screams vitriol, spraying you with sweat and saliva, backs you into a corner, and, when you try to escape or call for help, digs his fingers into your arms, throws you onto the bed, kneels over your stomach and covers your mouth (and sometimes nose as well) while continuing to call you a stupid bitch, threaten your reputation and family ties, convince you that he’s already planned everything so that you have nowhere to turn for help, and endlessly confirm that it’s all your fault.  Yeah.  It’s pretty hard to excuse that.  (Although I did.  Even recognizing this blatant abuse, I pathetically believed the tropes about how sorry he was, how he was going to get help, etc., for literally months.)

However, even had the abuse never reached this extreme of physical and verbal assault, the relationship still would have been abusive; I am just not sure whether I recognized it in that stage, or ever would have if it had continued the same way.  Truth be told, my memories of the last year or so with M.  are pretty fucked up.  Maybe that has something to do with the number of hours per week I spent curled in the foetal position on my floor hyperventilating, then running to the bathroom and puking until I dry-retched.  I know these things:

  • He demanded more and more of my time.  I had to call him at certain times every day and spend all of my free time on IM and VOIP with him.  I lost touch with everything I liked to do on my own, and my son and I became very distanced because I wasn’t giving him the time or emotional energy that two and three year old children crave.
  • Everything we did had to be done his way.  If I wanted to, for example, watch a tv show that I liked, or go to bed early, I needed special permission which involved a whole lot of pleading and guilt-tripping.
  • He controlled virtually everything I did.  What I wore.  (No black.  No patterns.  Nothing dressy.)  How I did my hair.  Who I knew.  Where I went and when.
  • He had terrible rage problems.  When I made him angry (usually by questioning or  “failing” at the “obligations” listed above) he would lash out and harm either himself or the objects around him.  He broke at least half a dozen keyboards during the time I knew him.  He would slice the backs of his hands with razorblades while we were on VOIP and tell me I made him do it.  This should have been a pretty fucking huge red flag.
  • He manipulated me by telling me distorted half-truths or out-and-out lies about my mother and conversations he’d had with her.  I later found out he was saying the same sorts of things to her about me.  Apparently he was plotting to keep us at one another’s throats so that I wouldn’t have a refuge or confidant in her.
  •  I was constantly making excuses to others for his repeated calls and texts and ridiculous demands.  The stress of this, and the shame, was crippling.  I was isolated and living a perpetual lie, deluding even myself.

I know that I was unhappy, because I tried repeatedly to leave him, but he would always find a way to contact me and guilt or sweet-talk me into getting sucked back in.  But I genuinely think that it wasn’t until the assaults began that I connected the dots and identified the relationship as abusive in basically every possible way.  That sounds so pathetic now, because I consider myself reasonably street-smart and capable.  But I suppose one of the reasons abuse is successful is that it beats you down until you genuinely think 1) that it’s normal and excusable, and 2) that you can make it different by modifying your own behaviour.

So did I leave him once I recognized this?  Hell to the no.  I continued to accept his excuses and promises that he would find a way to deal with it, even as it got worse and worse.  Part of this was that because of the way he’d isolated me, I had no one to whom to turn for comfort after these traumas except to him.  If I left him, I would be utterly alone.  Also, I would have to admit my own “failure”– those are the terms in which I thought of it– and deconstruct the lie I’d spent a year and a half building.  I felt so weakened that I just couldn’t face that prospect.  The situation was self-perpetuating.  Anyone who despises battered partners for allowing the abuse to continue needs to understand that feeling before they cast judgment.

In the face of all that, my reason for finally leaving probably sounds ludicrously arbitrary and superficial.  One day I had been shopping for new, dressier clothes for school, having lost some weight.  I showed M. the clothes and told him that because academia is my profession, I felt I should start dressing in a way that reflected my committed attitude.  He got upset and lectured me about how out-of-character and immature it was to try to dress to fit in with a certain group of people and project a certain image.  As usual, I felt resentful and tried to argue, but ended up being cowed and depressed.  For some reason it was the last straw.  After the conversation ended, I remember going to the mirror and staring at my reflection for at least an hour, trying to discern anything that looked or felt like me.  I couldn’t find it.  I didn’t even know what that meant anymore.  I felt like smashing the mirror, but instead I went and told him that we were over.  And for whatever reason, that time I didn’t go back.  I spent three days sleeping on the couch, getting piss drunk, and watching the most abhorrent television I could download.  And then I got up and went on.  I rebuilt– am still rebuilding– my life, my relationships, and myself, one day at a time.

I wish I could tell you how I let go of the fear and did what seemed impossible; I wish there was a magic formula that I could give to everyone else who has suffered similarly.  But you know and I know that there’s not.

All I can say, to everyone but particularly to my fellow auties, is this:  I know sometimes we are desperate for someone to love us, because we’re told we don’t understand relationships and because no one seems to like or understand us.  Just ask yourself what that love means and at what cost it comes.  We’re not broken, unlovable people, but we can be vulnerable ones.  If you don’t feel like you understand how a healthy, happy relationship feels and looks (and they DO exist), do what we do best and analyze the world around you.  Read.  Peoplewatch.  Find out what realistic expectations are.  Don’t just accept what comes along and trust the person making the demands to tell you that they’re reasonable.  Life isn’t about being loved, it’s about being happy.  Trust me on this one: years later, when something better comes along, you will not look back and regret the years spent alone figuring out what the fuck this is all about and who you’re supposed to be.  You WILL regret sacrificing years of your life to a hurtful illusion and experiencing the self-loathing of knowing to what you consented.

Interestingly, only toward the end of our relationship did I find out that M. was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder with psychotic tendencies.  Looking back, this helps a lot of the pieces fit into place.  And only very recently did I find out that bunny boilers [definition]  with BPD latching onto autists is a thing.  Not to say BPD people are evil and untouchable, but do be aware of the symptoms of Borderline Personality.  Know that if you’re an autist, somewhere on the spectrum, or an otherwise sensitive or vulnerable person, you may not be the one equipped to handle a partnership with someone volatile and aggressive, no matter their other good traits; and understand that these behaviors are signs of being, not madly in love, but mad full stop.

Related Rinky-dinkies:

A good, accessible page introducing those on the spectrum to healthy, realistic dating and relationship habits:

Straightforward and very sensible advice on identifying secure partners:

Learn about your own attachment style, because being secure is attractive to secure people:

A more in-depth article on attachment theory (if you just want the “goods,” scroll down to “Adult Romantic Relationships” and continue from there):

NB:  I was unable to find a good reference for how to improve your own attachment style.  If anyone has any resources on this, please do share.  Also, every time I go to type “secure,” I type “sex.”  Boy would Freud have a field day with me.

Since at least the day of Aristotle, there have developed as many theories of tragedy as there are people with enough time on their hands, large enough dictionaries, and few enough video games to be bothered thinking about the issue.  Hence, I naturally find it of the utmost necessity as an academician to contribute my own assessment.  These thoughts will be highly subjective and anecdotal, so to save time and space, I will give an advance disclaimer that I expect you, dear reader, to preface nearly every subsequent sentence in this post with an unwritten “For me…”

I am not enough of an expert in criticism to confine myself to the genre of tragedy as others have struggled to define it.  Instead I want to talk about the more generally tragic, melancholy and just plain depressing arts, and why we, or more correctly I, find them so engaging and, paradoxically, inspiring.  Perhaps I love Hamlet, the Old English elegies, the Old Norse sagas, and Thomas Hardy’s poetry for partly the same reason that I like eating wasabi and bitter melon. (No, not together.  Although…)   Some might call this masochism.  I just call it good taste.  But even I have to admit that there is something not quite intuitive about the idea that someone– and evidently more than one someone, based on the sheer continued existence of these arts and foods alike– should enjoy eating plants based on evolutionary properties designed precisely to discourage consumption, or partaking in entertainment that revels in the inevitable despair and destruction inherent in human existence.  And counterintuitive Facts are why we civilized creatures of specialized professions come up with Theories.

Let’s start with the example of the officially second most depressing song of all time, Billie Holiday’s “Gloomy Sunday.”  If you don’t know it, have an idea of what to expect based on the fact that it’s also called the “Hungarian Suicide Song.”  The singer talks about being at peace with the decision to commit suicide while experiencing an overpowering depression in the wake of a loved one’s death.  After the release of Holiday’s translated version in 1941, the BBC promptly banned the airing of vocal performances because they deemed the lyrics detrimental to “wartime morale”; this ban held for just over 60 years.  A publisher who declined to publish the original Hungarian composition concurred:

“It is not that the song is sad, there is a sort of terrible compelling despair about it. I don’t think it would do anyone any good to hear a song like that.”

That quote brings me precisely to my point.  The last thing I want, or have ever wanted, or will ever want, at pretty much any time in my entire life, is to witness any form of self-styled “creative expression” that is designed to “do anyone any good.”  Edification in the arts is not a selling point, it’s a substitute for ipecac.  If you don’t want to believe me, turn to the authority of the Hallmark Channel.  Just have a toilet brush on hand in advance.  There is a reason why “Gloomy Sunday” is still fondly YouTubed, while the only reason anyone today has heard of “There’ll Always be an England,” for example, is (if they’re geeky anglophilic punks like me, at least) via its pithy ironic usage by the Sex Pistols and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  People know when they’re being patronized.  They may get caught up in the spirit of the moment (i.e. peer pressure), especially when their government-funded media is censoring all the good shit, but sixty years later the truth will out.  Producing entertainment that is designed to improve morale or be otherwise utilitarian is like baking a dessert sweetened with saccharin.  It’s a pathetic mockery that’s shiveringly hard to swallow and will probably end up giving you stomach cancer, at least if you’re a rat.  Seriously.  Gross, man.

The frowning of kindergarten teachers, wartime governments, and other such crushers of souls upon the expression of morbidity is a fantastic reason to love it.  People don’t want to take something away from you if it has no power.  And like when your parents tell you to be in bed by eight o’ clock so that you “won’t be tired the next day,” you know deep down that the rule isn’t for your protection but for theirs.  And once you realize that, you can’t help but wonder:  What is it that they are afraid of?  What’s going to happen if I push this big shiny red button?

Sadness is subversive.  It’s bad for productivity because it takes attention away from the external processes of life, questions the ultimate worthiness and validity of definitions of progress, and often confirms the audience member’s sense of alienation and isolation, rather than constructing a sense of social purpose.  On a more abstract level, it turns the gaze inward, to contemplation of subjective grief and despair, which pulls against the tide of social norms in dictating opinion and behavior.  Everyone can do the Twist in unison and laugh at a shared joke, but no two people will listen to “Gloomy Sunday” and feel the same sadness.  Grief is not, or at least much less readily, shared than pleasure.  (In this, I beg to differ with Jello Biafra, who in “The Lost Orgasm” bemoans the fact that the expression of pain is more socially acceptable than that of pleasure.  In a few instances, this may be the case; but when the pain of which we speak goes beyond a gnarly BMX wipeout [is that a thing?] and delves into the realm of human sorrow, essentially no one wants to hear about it.  If you go there, they’ll give you weird looks and tell you not to embarrass yourself in front of people you don’t know, and then stop answering your calls.  Trust me on this one.  Don’t try it at home, kids.)

Okay, so there is pleasure in the subversive because deep down we are all, or most of us, still six year olds who really want to find out what happens to the cat in the dryer.  But what is the continued savor in this expression of doom and gloom, disaffection, and disquiet?  What makes gloom a serious contribution to the arts, and not a juvenile rebellious fetish?  (Which punk music is NOT.  Screw you.)  Wouldn’t we rather be happy, and to do that, don’t we need to think about happy stuff?

Of course, there is irrefutable truth in sadness.  No one lives without it.  But hemorrhoids are equally undeniable and universal, yet to my knowledge (most) people don’t spend time and energy Google Imaging them.  It wouldn’t make you feel any better to do so, because you already know that everyone else gets them and that they look and feel basically the same as your own.  They are a collective pain, which therefore doesn’t require communication.  Ironically, it is precisely that form of pain that denies pure empathy– emotional suffering– which provides a meaningful creative inspiration and subject.  By definition, the futile task of translating solipsistic experience into public discourse provides its own raison d’etre.  The exercise is fruitful because it is futile, because what may be easily and comprehensively expressed, rarely needs to be expressed at all.  The truth of human sorrow is all-encompassing but fractured: it reflects everyone, but all from different angles.  It is not a mountain which can only be photographed from a finite, if enormous, number of perspectives; it possesses a limitless number of real shapes, to which neither accuracy nor legitimacy can be properly ascribed.

Engaging with the shape of one’s own sadnesses, then, is an act of reclamation of the individual experience.  When we experience another’s expression of grief or depression, we know that we are not required, and not able, to accurately identify with the shape of the creator’s experience.  Instead, we indulge in our own creative and interpretive impulses by transforming the inevitably flawed language of emotional expression into a portrait of our own feelings.  This process allows one to realize and embrace a hardwired distinctiveness from every other individual, and at the same time to understand that this alienation is ultimately the tie that binds all individuals together.  By recognizing and validating emotional isolation, we gain a deeper empathy for the similarly fractured lives of others.

I am beginning to feel like this isn’t making sense, so I’ll turn to another example, my most favoritestestest poem ever:  Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach.  Arnold begins and ends the poem with indicative description of the collective.  The pebbles act as a unit– a passive one at that– as they are drawn and flung by the inexorable force of the ocean.  The counterpart to the “grating roar” of this endless, cyclical wearing at the borders of human existence is the “clash” of the “ignorant armies.”  Within these descriptions lies no element of individual agency or experience.  The pebbles and the armies do only what they have always done, and the only thing they can do:  ebb and flow, break and reform, according to the laws of nature.  The sole redemptive, though potently bittersweet, property of Arnold’s perception of this reality is the intensely private emotion and action to which it impels him.  When he implores “love, let us be true/ To one another,” he directly predicates this imperative on the world’s inherent incapacity for fulfillment and solace.  His answer to the acknowledged substrate of sorrow is to construct an active, intentional realization of identity and form a deliberate connection to another individual.

The unstated implication, then, is that did the world contain “certitude,” “peace,” and “help for pain,” this choice would be neither necessary nor desirable.  It would instead be possible for men to drift through the sea of existence like pebbles, satisfied to fulfill their preordained collective roles and properties.  Only through disillusion with the external is Arnold able to access self and self-direction, and, in doing so, to form a genuine connection with another individual.  Through the powerful imagery of Arnold’s text, readers are able to apply this disillusion to their own private sorrows, thereby gaining the same consciousness and potentially forming a legitimate connection to Arnold as well as to themselves.


One final example, and then at long last I’ll leave this topic be:  The story of Griselda.  (The version related by Boccaccio and, particularly, Chaucer’s “Clerk’s Tale”; not Petrarch’s bastardized excuse of a “translation.”)  Griselda explicitly and completely submits her will to the control of her tyrannical Lombard husband.  He takes control of her entire external identity and strips her of all individual identifying characteristics, beginning with the garments that define her social role.  He appropriates the children she bears, making her believe that he is sending them to their deaths.  Significantly, the only request she dares to make is that the physical integrity of the infant bodies be preserved, but she is offered no assurance even of this.  Here, the redemptive aspect of the story– the reason for its affective power and, I believe, Chaucer’s purpose in translating it– is the tenacious intactness of Griselda’s emotions.  It is precisely by subverting her inner identity and never making it explicit in her outward actions that she protects it from destruction.  Like Arnold, by fully acknowledging and submitting to the tyranny of human tragedy, she does not counteract but rather overcomes it.  She transforms herself from subject (in a political sense– in grammatical terms, rather, an object) to a repository of latent power.
This, I think, is ultimately the pleasure to be derived– at least by me– from the dark and tragic in all its artistic forms.  By making the audience conscious of the inexorable “human misery” of the external world, it enables the construction and defense of individual identity and a consequent escape from the unending ebb and flow.  Once this identity is realized, at the expense of collective fulfillment, genuine interpersonal bonds become cemented in the understanding of shared isolation.  It is not necessary for the tragic to offer a deliberate pandering of edification.  By becoming conscious of our own tragedy– or tragedies, properly, plural– we have the choice to subvert the “morale” thrust upon us by the world’s tides; to redeem these tragedies and create, in them and through them, our own meaning.
As Arnold Lobel’s Owl, that most respectable of moderately buffoonish middle-class Victorian talking clothed animals, concludes, after contemplating the fate of spoons behind the stove and unusable pencil stubs, “Tearwater tea is slightly salty, but it is always very good.”

Tearwater tea