I’ve written at length about how autism inhibits my ability to connect with and keep friends and lovers. It is not an exaggeration to say that, for me, humans are another species. I find it impossible to engage in their rituals and rites without feeling more as though I am conducting some kind of experiment than actually fitting in. I can count on one hand the humans I know or have ever known who are acquainted with what I feel to be the “real” me. It’s not that I don’t try or that I don’t want to connect. I just really don’t know how. Never were the famous words “all the world’s a stage” more true than for an autist in a neurotypical world.
When other people’s reality feels to one like a badly written script whose lines you never learned– and often, at that, a farce– the worlds we weave with words become ever more vital and more real. Many times they make more sense, being the conscious effort of a single creative mind rather than the cumulative confused consensus of thousands of years of superstition, cruelty, ignorance, and corrupted power.
In particular, fictional characters have a leg u on their human counterparts. As someone who has more than dabbled in writing fiction, I can attest to the concerted effort required to bring them to life. To be believable, a character must be both complex and consistent; both flawed– even fatally– and lovable. With the exception of “flawed”, none of these qualities are requisite for a human being. When we read about characters, we don’t just see how they choose to act around us. We are flies on the inner walls of their skulls. We know– when they are written well– why they act as they do. When they appear ignoble, they may be redeemed. When they seem strong and stoic, they may show their vulnerability. When they don’t say what they mean, we know it, and we know why. They have no choice but to share with us their true selves, because by definition whatever identity we see in them is true. In a very meaningful sense, the relationships we forge with them are more intimate than our bonds with one another. We come to know them as we know, otherwise, only ourselves.
For all of these reasons, most of my best and oldest friends, and, embarrassing though it may be to admit, many of my early romantic interests, have been found in fictional worlds. For any given turning point or troubled time in my life, I can point easily to the characters who saw me through it, when human acquaintances and lovers confused me, hurt me, and abandoned me. It’s true that I often feel a deep sense of loss when I first come to the end of a given story– The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine spring to mind– because it is an ending of sorts, but it has never meant that the characters left me for good. They were always there for me to return to when I needed them the most. The need to rewatch of re-read was only an opportunity to become reacquainted and to deepen my understanding.
To me, my deep connection to fictional places, events and characters underscores my conviction that autists are not inherently devoid of empathy, compassion and social meaning. We simply relate in a very different way from neurotypicals. We thirst for information and clarity wqhere, among humans, there is rarely any to be found. We go through the world feeling as though someone really needs to explain it all better, more thoroughly, more precisely, and that is what a good author does.
And perhaps I am not just an autist, but a romantic and a bit of an idealist. Perhaps my lifelong fixation on fiction is a result of this, or perhaps it has conditioned me to seek a type of connection that simply is not possible between humans. For one thing, I thought for many years that there was someone right for me out there, who would love me through thick and thin, until I was old and grey and saggy, and who would still find me beautiful, even when I did not feel beautiful and did not love myself. Someone for whom giving up their other options wouldn’t feel like a sacrifice. I no longer believe in that kind of love. I no longer expect or try to find it.
And I no longer believe that if I just try hard enough to play the game and to be kind and to take risks, I will find many of the kind of friends who care enough to know me and don’t just come and go like snowflakes on hot asphalt. I can’t speak to other people’s realities, but I also can’t keep hurling myself at the plate glass windows of other people’s homes hoping to break through. And each time I have crept back, bruised and battered, to my den, I have turned the page or the channel and found that my fictional friends, who wait for me, have dusted me off, set me on my feet, and reminded me of what matters. They have taught me not to pity myself. They have given me the solace and strength to carry on.
So to me, by every meaningful definition, works of fiction, and fictional characters, are completely and intensely real. They exist. They may not have bodies, and I do not believe in souls, but they have throughout my often melancholy life leapt from pages and screens to take me by the hand and guide me through dark places. They ensure that, to paraphrase Gandalf, while I must walk in sorrow, I need not walk in despair. And I need never walk alone.