On and off of cyberspace, I encountered music, film, and literature that left a lasting impression on my brain (I’m noticing that my picks that I chose to publish have largely to do with relationships, Autism, mental health, and emotional abuse in some way). There’s actually a great deal more of these discoveries than a mere 5, but I want to keep this post a reasonable length.
1. The Disney film”Frozen.” I grew up with and adored Disney films (being a Walt Disney Studios animation artist was one of my childhood dreams). By age 13, I owned a vast Disney VHS library. Around the time of my 20th birthday, I began to see the cracks in all the story lines of my favorite films. Disappointed and questioning the studio’s choices in character development, I began to see clearly the ableism, racism, sexism, class profiling, and other insidious designs which were unearthed by the new level of critical thinking imparted to me from two exceptional college professors.
But today, when I watched Frozen, I noticed something that I think is unique for Disney. I will admit, I was reluctant to pop the DVD into the player. I had the feeling that I should have the remote close by, ready to fast forward through any stereotypes I’d have too much trouble explaining to the youngsters (they are natural-born film critics). Of course, there were those *signature* Disney moments that make me cringe, but the feature affirmed a reality that a certain demographic of minorities have been living with for decades in America: disability and ableism, sexism and gender profiling, psychology and the spectrum of sexual expression in our material, political society. It seems as though Disney can’t perpetuate old stereotypes, at least not quite in the same way as in it’s past, nor can the current state of the American psyche be swept under the magic carpet.
Before watching Frozen, I had to do what I always do – read criticisms that were written about it. On Arts.Mic, I found an article that listed points about the film which, in the critic’s point of view, made it the studio’s most progressive film ever, including some astute observations having to do with how Frozen challenges the social status quo of gender and sexuality. As a gender queer person with a whole lot of professional and social setbacks and traumatic life experiences under my belt, I realize that’s a pretty big leap for Disney (irrespective of its intentions), perhaps the biggest ideological wellspring for my childhood bullies’ rationale. Though I haven’t seen my own perspective of the film in writing yet, I have seen “Elsa, Autistic?” articles.
From my perspective, Frozen may be the first Disney film that brings mental health, neurotype, and disability under the umbrella of inclusion, and embodies these different psycho-social issues in the main characters. Elsa, Kristoff, Olaf, and even Anna have something to offer up by way of what isolation and inclusion can do to people negatively and positively. Even the villain, Hans, is a posterchild for narcissistic personality disorder.
Straight away, I identified Elsa as being autistic. Little Anna’s adoration of her big sister’s magical power to conjure ice and snow flurries formed a bond between the two children, though one day during play with Elsa’s powers, matters got a bit out of hand. In an attempt to keep Anna from slipping and falling, Elsa shoots forth a spray of ice crystals which accidentally strike her little sister in the head, causing her to fall unconscious. Their parents come to the rescue, scooping up Anna and bringing along Elsa to the counsel of the trolls. In the wisest troll’s assessments, it is best to have Anna’s memory purged of her big sister’s magic. Turning toward the father, the troll solemnly recommends that Elsa’s powers be contained, hidden, and restrained. This scene touched me personally. It came through to my understanding as an attempt to “cure” Elsa through managing her behavior.
There wouldn’t have been much tension in the plot if Elsa’s parents provided boundaries and spaces for their different daughter to develop naturally. The crux of the story leverages itself by the stigmatization and demonization of Elsa’s powers as a force of destruction and harm, rather than an integral aspect of her that needed respect, balance, nurture, and unconditional love. I saw Elsa’s “stims” and “fascinations” as her own way of relating to the world, which were evident in the frost, snow, and ice that emanated from her touch, emotions and physical sensations causing varying degrees of icy effects. All of this was part of her mental health and identity, as inseparable from her as the heart beating within her chest. Covering her up, hiding and restraining her did not change her attributes or physical characteristics. They did change how she saw herself, though. They shifted her mental reality and imprisoned her.
After the fateful visit to the trolls, Elsa’s new life takes form: gloves upon her hands, layers of clothing to conceal her expressive flesh, and isolation from the outside world. This didn’t only afflict Elsa; it injured Anna, too. As the movie rolls on, we get to the pinnacle of conflict, the reason for Elsa’s banishment from her kingdom and her exile to the snowy mountains of Arendelle. When the famous “Let it Go” musical scene opened, the waterfall gushed from my eyes. Here are Elsa’s words which accompany emotionally-stirring imagery:
The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
Not a footprint to be seen.
A kingdom of isolation,
and it looks like I’m the Queen
The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in;
Heaven knows I’ve tried
Don’t let them in,
don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel,
don’t let them know
Well now they know
Imposed – or forced – isolation can be an abusive control tactic that family or caretakers use to corner and exploit an autistic, disabled female or differently gendered person rather than a self-generated state. To give you an idea of what imposed isolation looks like: shame and fear were injected into my psyche when my stimming would not be tolerated because it was seen as threatening and embarrassing, and my meltdowns and overwhelm were met with punishment and public shaming. I didn’t want to hurt anyone or embarrass anyone by being myself. I was led to believe that I created this isolation, that it was the same as the self imposed isolation used to regulate overwhelm, and that the two of them afflicted my loved ones. Later in life, I was labeled “mentally ill” or “sick” by people who couldn’t face me as I am or accommodate my needs, much less accept that I required considerations that may put a damper on others’ plans. When they rightfully felt guilt, I took the blame for the isolation, having to “take responsibility” for my sense of otherness and my shame. Elsa’s imposed isolation reminded me of what I’ve been through.
In Frozen, the autistic female (and/or one who appears to have the physical traits of what female is culturally expected to look like) is suppressed with ferocious tenacity and expected to look and act “normal” at all costs. Isolation is imposed upon the child, and as the child grows, their isolation is given a new label. The isolation morphs into a symptom of mental illness, if not outright causing emotional distress to the developing young autistic adult. For me, the name “Ice Queen” would follow me throughout my teenage and young adult life, given in resentment by failed lovers who felt threatened by what and who I was underneath the concealed parts.
I felt that Kristoff was similar to a close friend of mine in childhood and even had some traits of being an Aspie. Animals are close friends; people less understood. Sven the Caribou is Kristoff’s best friend and closest confidant. This sort of relationship may be lost on many neurotypical people. Personally speaking, I’ve had depthful dialogues with animals and even plant life with little effort. Disney portrays this as a flaw, however, and that was my suspicion, that the studio was delivering its own opinion on society’s definition of mental illness.
In his naivety, Olaf, the snowman, pines for the warmth and sunshine of the summer season. Unaware of what would happen to a snowman in summer, Olaf’s aspiration becomes comical, even adorable. I laugh heartily at this scene (I hope you watched it from the above link) because its an uncanny and amusing depiction of how I get with the things I enjoy and wish for, and I wonder how many people throughout life were just dying to burst my bubble.
At the end of the movie, when unconditional love prevails and acceptance finally becomes a reality for Elsa, the frozen Arendelle thaws. Olaf gets that warmth and beauty of summer that was long hoped for, but it comes at the price of melting. Elsa understands Olaf’s needs and uses her powers to create a little flurry cloud that hovers over Olaf, maintaining just the right temperature to prevent melting, allowing the snowman-in-wonder to enjoy all the scenery of spring. This is what inclusion looks like to me. It looks like our friends, family, and society making an effort to accommodate and include us, so we can live a good life, too.
Here’s a video from Noah Britton I want you to watch. Wraps up this personal review for me. He talks about some of the mechanics of Autism and our behavior that is lost on neurotypicals, especially those who are against us in one way or another.
Moving on to number two…
2. Grey’s Gardens.
“To my mother and me, Grey Gardens is a breakthrough to something beautiful and precious called life.”
— Edie Beale, 1976
This documentary came heavily recommended by a close friend of mine. I’d poked around on different websites that advertised it and watched an array of trailers. None of that would prepare me for the psychologically engrossing phenomenon that is this formerly wealthy and mentally ill mother and daughter interacting with each other in near complete isolation. This film struck an uncomfortable chord with me because I grew up with a type of grandmother figure that resembled Big Edie in many respects. The mother-daughter relationship seemed OK enough, it’s what I expect from two people kept in isolation together having to confront points of tension that lead to family discord in the past.
I want to refrain from making criticisms on the people themselves as this is a documentary, but I can’t help but comment on the later instances of Big Edie (Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale) emotionally abusing her daughter. I don’t know if it’s codependency or feelings of obligation or something altogether different that keeps Little Edie living there.
So anyways, the two women are relatives of Jackie Onassis. They live in a derelict mansion at 3 West End Road in the wealthy Georgica Pond neighborhood of East Hampton. Seems sort of boring, doesn’t it? Well, let me tell you, I just got sucked into it! I don’t smoke cigarettes anymore – I’ve been clean for over 8 years – but half way into this documentary at 1:30 in the morning, I found myself craving a pack of Camels and a pot of coffee. I don’t think I would have had this reaction if it weren’t for the memories it was churning up. The effects of mental illness and abuse is palpable, and not withstanding that, I see Aspie traits in Little Edie which makes my heart ache for her, because the way she was living was a detriment to her well being. Her mother constantly berates her, picking at the way she looks and sings (bespeaks of Narcissist envy I think) while cornering her in mind games having to do with self esteem. This further reminds me of the unreasonable demands elderly parents sometimes place on their adult children, and that often time, what most people don’t realize, is that’s an extension of an unhealthy parent-child relationship going way back from youth. You see abuse in adulthood because it was present in childhood.
So, I don’t want to give too much of this gem away. You’ll just have to see it for yourself. I’d recommend researching the life of Edie Beale (Edith Bouvier Beale) to put this film into context. She was stunningly beautiful, sentimental, kind, talented, and intellectual to boot. You can either get it at the library or watch it on YouTube. I must also post this parody of Grey’s Gardens which I watched approximately 6 months before I discovered the documentary. If you really want a good chuckle and a blown mind, I suggest watching the parody first. (please bare in mind, that the chuckling at parodies is something I’m entitled to, because it’s my coping mechanism for what I’ve been through with similar types of people to Big Edie).
IF you enjoyed this documentary, you may be interested in this website about it. I was surprised to see it has such a culture around it.
3. Black Moth Super Rainbow.
I discovered them at the beginning of 2016 while searching for some good beats to paint to. I am blown away by their music, and it gets me into my “zone.” Ideally, I like to create my art while in a trance, and I’ll select any sort of music that uses a lot of rhythmic synthesizers, voice boxes, and other electronic elements, though Inuit throat singing can achieve the same result with my mental state.
This group also produces pretty interesting music videos. “Twin of Myself” is one of my favorites – the light trailing and symmetry effects on the dancing figure soothes me. There’s also a small piece about them up on wikipedia, but they don’t really have much up on the internet. If you enjoy the Flaming Lips, you may like this group, which opened for them in concert. I found some articles about that concert in fact, and can I say, “I’m not surprised”? WARNING: be very careful clicking on any image links. If you have trauma triggers, Tobacco’s concert visuals may put you in a bad place like what happened to me. This group is so unique because they are who they are, they stand by that, unwavering. That’s a sign of a strong artist.
4. Asperger’s Are Us. This is the first documentary where I feel like I could reach out and touch the people in it. I think this is because I felt a strong longing and a sense of belonging through watching Ethan, Noah, New Michael, and Jack interact. Their friendship as I could see it on film, reminded me of my teenage social life with a best friend who was willing to play along with my deep interests, and so our childhood past time became producing films and music videos that had a comedic element running through them. I also identified strongly with New Michael who seemed to have the same difficulties I had working within the group and conveying ideas. His comedic sense seems a lot like my own, and I could see a lot of strengths that we have in common. It was just a relief to see someone else like myself, that person coming out their hard-earned performance empowered.
Nostalgia was something flowering in my brain while watching this with David, someone who I met in college who understood me in ways that no one else could. And, we just clung to each other from the point of introduction onward. We delved into our interests and pursued them with playfulness and (safe) adventure-seeking, casting aside public opinion and disregarding the backlash from certain relatives. Freedom for me looks like just being able to have fun, my own way, in my own skin, without shame. For David and I, our adventures and projects have always been about creating writing, art and music, experimenting with personas and challenging popular ideas. This documentary was a comforting and reaffirming experience for us both, to see that there are people like us, doing what we love to do, and being pretty darn good at it.
I do have some things to be nit picky over, though.
The editing emphasized conflict and disability. Also, the comedy was sorely lacking. For all the buildup of the troupe’s last performance, I would have hoped Alexandre Lehman and Duplass Brothers Productions would have filmed a substantial portion of the show or even ran a single sketch the whole way through. Instead, as we observed, there was a lot of focus on instances of conflict within the troupe and the friends’ relationships with their parents (two members of the group are either in the background or entirely absent). The conflict and difficulty they experienced in collaborating seemed like the point– their overcoming of obstacles, not the quality of their comedy itself. The show is even shot in such a way to emphasize the more “offensive” material and show people walking out, again focusing on the difficulty rather than the comedy.Of course, this made me uncomfortable and was left wondering about aspects of myself that seem “dysfunctional” to neurotypicals who cannot relate at all to an autistic. David and I would have LOVED to see the entire show. This troupe is one of my favorite comedy groups, and I’d like to see more.
For more about this troupe and what they are up to, you can visit this website.
5. Two Essential Reads on Autism. Temple Grandin’s The Autistic Brain, and Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes.
I’d like to open my take on Dr. Grandin’s book with a YouTube video from her appearance at the Chicago Humanities Festival in 2013.The Autistic Brain was my first practical introductory read on the preliminaries of Autism, which for me served as an instruction manual to my brain. As funny as this may sound to most neurotypicals, for most of my life up until my official diagnosis as an adult, I felt like I was stuck in a vehicle I did not know how to drive with my lead foot duct taped to the accelerator, forced to maneuver all types of roads in all weather conditions with traffic laws still applicable to me regardless of my inability to operate the vehicle and not understanding why law enforcement is banging on the rolled-up window while making serious verbal threats on my life. This is the baseline plot for one of my most potent recurring nightmares since pubescence. This book helped me to navigate through some of that terror by rationalizing with scientific and anecdotal data the reality of my neurotype, brain structure, and corresponding types and patterns of behavior. The result: some of my fears about myself lessened.
One of many qualities of this book that I like so much is that Dr. Grandin writes like she speaks. This is an amazing feat from my own literary perspective because, for me, reading involves hearing a voice speaking to me, and if the language isn’t formulated and typed out in just such a way, I don’t hear a voice and cannot continue reading the material. Each chapter is cleanly layed out, with Grandin getting straight to her explanations of the mechanisms that comprise the neurology of various thought patterns. For example, Dr. Grandin describes to me how an individual’s ability to see effects their ability to read and draw, and this has a correlation to how they think and interpret and interact with visuals. The individual is probably a visual thinker, and if there were an MRI of their brain, the visual cortex would probably appear thicker with a great deal more activity in it than the brain of a neurotypical. She describes auditory thinkers, pattern thinkers, and word-fact thinkers, even offering up bullet-point suggestions for each type on how to manage stressful disturbances in sensation and perception. She also writes that many autistics aren’t a strict one or the other but a blend of two or all of the types.
Another quality of this book is its physical appearance. The font isn’t fancy – neither too angular or rounded, bold without being blurry, and large in comparison to many other books I’ve read. The paper is cream colored, rather soft to the touch and more fibrous, and the chapters aren’t that long.
I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting an informative, constructive look at the mechanics of autism without political or overly cut and dry scientific overtones.
Neurotribes is an entirely different book.
It’s journalistic approach, shaped primarily by anecdotes, finds balance between all of the scientific and historical trivia peppered throughout it. Admittedly, I am not finished with this read because it is difficult to hear Silberman’s voice on account of how the book is written and the look of words on the page (small type, brighter paper, much longer chapters). I began the book with the introduction, which I only got halfway through. From there, I flipped to a random page and found myself zeroing in towards the middle of the book at the point where Silberman gets into the evolution of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) through the period of the 1950’s and onward and what this meant for patients’ treatment under certain problematic diagnoses, the wording of the symptomatology criteria for each disorder, and, consequently, the interpretation of all this data by certain Health Insurance CEOs as a financial risk, which, in turn, influenced patients’ medical coverage, making the road to a correct diagnosis all the more twisting and arduous. Moreover, what the information presented in this book suggests is that the diagnostic process right down to the actual diagnosis was dependent on a financial structure. It comes to no surprise why this portion of the book hit me hard like a hammer to nail – it revealed the hidden aspects of my struggle with the system in receiving a timely diagnosis, notwithstanding how the reality of my gender would factor in.
The diagnostic evolution of Autism as presented in Neurotribes is as astonishing as it is disturbing. The bit I’ve read opens up an inexhaustible list of questions in my mental Word Document file. None of this do I think I could ask my insurance providers or even my doctors for fear of termination of care, to give you an idea of how potent this material is. I’d really like to get through this book because I find it absolutely crucial to my understanding of Autism in a socio-economic context and as a valid diagnosis and neurotype demanding supports and respect. When I do finish this work, I want to give it the more multi-faceted, *autistic* review it deserves. In the meantime, I can offer up this phenominal NPR interview with Silberman on the topic of this book that sent chills down my spine.
This concludes my list. There were so many discoveries on the home front in 2016. I look forward to experiencing all the good of what 2017 has to offer!
I’m an autistic writer, philosopher, artist, spouse, and parent who home-educates my three neurodiverse children. I’ve taken up blogging and begun to express my thoughts and feelings about autism, mental health, gender, chronic pain, chronic illness, disability, and civil rights in visuals and writing. My calling is to not only give my children the best of myself so they can grow up to be confident, caring, and empowered adults, but to be an artist advocate and story teller, flowering forth work that represents and/or supports the diversity of life experiences of those of us in the IDD community. Along my journey, I hope to reach other Autistic parents with my blog, Healing Hilary’s Heart: A Facebook Parent With Autism.