Adam (2009)

Adam (2009)

I first wrote this post immediately after watching Adam for the first time – I wrote very fondly of the film, as I honestly enjoyed it at the time. I still think it’s a pretty good movie, but after reading this review by the awesome Caroline Narby at bitch magazine, I see now that I was actually overlooking some crucial points. This revised post is an attempt to reconcile my formerly held opinion of the movie with my new one.

(Which makes me wonder, which of my opinions of the film is more authentically ‘mine’? The one I formulated myself right after watching it, or the revised one, reformulated after reading someone else’s thoughts and reflections? I guess the short answer is: the latter.)

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Let’s start with the alien metaphor; it seems like you can’t read / watch anything about autism without coming across some mentioning of a life form from another planet. Why don’t we talk about that for a while?

In the very beginning of the film, during the opening captions, Beth has this to say:

“My favorite children’s book is about a little prince who came to earth from a distant asteroid. He meets a pilot whose plane has crashed in a desert. The little prince teaches the pilot many things but mainly about love. My father always told me I was like the little prince. But after I met Adam, I realized I was the pilot all along…”

So of course this is a reference to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, originally published in French in 1943. If for some reason you haven’t read it yet, stop everything you’re doing and go read it now. Seriously, I’ll wait.

Are you done? Ok.

So what’s the deal? Why is the association of autism and alienism so common?

Ian Hacking, possibly one of the more prominent philosophers alive today, has written an article about exactly that. It’s called Humans, Aliens & Autism. Nothing too fancy or sophisticated, but a thoughtful explanation nonetheless. I’ll give you his argument in a nutshell.

“Aliens in modern space adventures may talk and walk like us, but by definition they are not human … Aliens can be better than us, as in moral fables such as ET. Most of the time they seem to be bent on destroying us … However, we seem to hold up aliens as mirrors to teach what is best or worst in us or in the human condition” (2009:45-6)

Hacking makes a great point here. When you think of it, aliens are always a metaphor; a metaphor for something that’s not us, but that’s not entirely different either. Some form of alter ego for the whole of humanity. An invention that’s meant to tell ourselves something about who ‘we’, as a species, are.

Ok, so what does this have to do with autism?

Well, Hacking believes this has something to do with the difficulty many with autism have with making eye-contact. This is because people – and this has been thought true for millennia – feel they can know the person in front of them just by looking at their eyes. You know how they say that “the eyes are the mirror to the soul”? Well, that sort of thing. Looking someone in the eyes allows us (well, some of us) to know the person in front of us, or at the very least feel like we know them (this distinction is crucial). Hacking calls this perceived ability ‘Köhler’s phenomenon’. If we are denied access to this proverbial “mirror to the soul” for whatever reason (either because the person in front of us isn’t making eye-contact, or we aren’t) we are confused, uncomfortable, frustrated, and mostly – we lack the words to describe our experience. It’s too unique. Hence, the need for a powerful metaphor.

Hacking argues that “…that kind of immediate understanding that Köhler described is not the common property and practice of that part of humankind that is autistic”, and he concludes: “We asked, “why does the metaphor of the alien crop up so often in fact and fiction?” We can now state an answer: because of the absence of Köhler’s phenomena in relations between neurotypicals and autistic people.” (2009:52) So the reason aliens come up so often in talk about autism is because autistics and neurotypicals do not share a certain ‘bedrock’ of experience that allows each-others’ inner being to be projected outwardly, and seen directly by the observer. This creates a feeling of unusual strangeness, which is well reflected by use of the alien metaphor.

Arghhh, I dunno. I mean ok, Hacking’s explanation is relatively straightforward and logical (if a bit obvious), and I don’t feel a burning need to confront it. But I’m not very satisfied with it, either.  Because what Hacking might be overlooking is the sort of power dynamic that is reinforced whenever the alien metaphor is used. Difference is very rarely neutral. Seeing as the alien metaphor invokes a very profound feeling of difference, we need to ask what is the political implications of referring to an entire group of people as ‘aliens’ (and I suppose this is where the tastefulness of the alien metaphor in Adam is brought into question). It’s not necessarily anything as simplistic as ‘we are good, they are bad’; we already saw that like in E.T. – or The Little Prince, for that matter – the alien is often morally superior to the earthlings. I would think the risk of using the alien metaphor is in that it reproduces a state of events in which one group (neurotypicals, in this case) is more privileged to determine the extent of the difference between it and the other group. The voice is always the earthling’s voice. Hence the voice of the autistic person, and his/her way of defining themselves or categorizing themselves is not taken into consideration. In Adam, the alien metaphor shapes the viewer’s experience of the story in the following way:  despite Adam’s name being in the title, it makes it a story about Beth. Because if Adam is the alien, then we are quite forcefully made to view the story through Beth’s perspective of him. As Caroline Narby rightfully points out, Adam becomes passive; merely a plot vehicle, whose “ultimate purpose is the moral instruction and betterment of the non-disabled Beth and, by extension, of the audience.” Spot on.

In its use of the alien metaphor, Adam is a striking example of Othering. It is not a bad-intentioned endeavour at discussing autism, but a misguided one nonetheless. Difference is fine – we need differences, we thrive on differences. Sameness should not be an ideal, and differences should not be concealed. But one has to be sensitive to power dynamics when discussing differences. To refer to another as so strange that he may well have come from a different planet is, well, plain wrong. Not just for its implications (the false assumption that autistics can never be sufficiently understood by us NTs – so what’s the use of even trying?), but for the very reasoning that brought it on: Autism means difference, but not THAT much of a difference. We don’t need to look up to the stars to account for this difference – the people on Planet Earth are sufficiently diverse. And we are all equally human.

And then a harder question creeps up: what to make of all those instances when autistic people refer to themselves as aliens. Wrong Planet being the most prominent example. I’m going to leave this question open for now. But I would love to hear what you all have to say about this!

I actually devoted way too much text to what is a very small part of the film – I’m aware of that. But I thought it makes an interesting point of discussion nonetheless. I want to briefly make one more point, though: I did think Adam was probably the most socially and politically aware movie about autism from all those I have watched so far.

About half way through the plot, Adam undergoes a series of unfortunate events. First, he unexpectedly loses his job; not because he did bad work, but for failing to adhere to his boss’s instructions (instead of a plain talking doll, Adam makes one with artificial intelligence; brilliant idea, but not too practical, from a commercial point of view). Then, cardboard box in hand (apparently the universal ‘I just lost my job’ signifier, in American cinema at least), he goes to watch kids in the school where Beth works. He just needed a splash of childhood innocence, to cheer him up a bit. Failing to see why an adult man watching children might worry some people, he is stopped by the police, and this quickly escalates into a violent and degrading affair. Then unemployment, and depression, and anxiety, and self- injurious behaviour.

This sequence was so political that I had to reassure myself that I wasn’t reading too much into this – this is an American movie after all. But no, it’s all there. And I have to give the creators credit; it’s very well done. See, I come across a lot of literature on autism in sociology, social work, public health, education, law etc. So much of this really good research is concerned with the type of difficulties autistic people face that are unequivocally social, similar to those depicted in Adam. Being thrown out of school / university; being shamed in public; losing jobs and failing to find employment; being arrested and incarcerated; even winding up living on the street – these are all relatively common experiences for people with autism; at the very least more common than for the general population. Of course, just because someone is autistic does not automatically make him/her unaccountable for their actions; But there is obviously room to take a person’s atypical neurology (and life history as autistic) into account when sanctioning him with expulsion / dismissal / arrest / incarceration. And this is seldom done. That’s a political problem for autistic people; and it is a problem that the makers of Adam rather courageously took it upon themselves to engage with.

So yes, sure, you would expect Adam to realize that complying with his boss’s directions is important if he wants to keep his job. You might expect him to realize that there’s a perfectly good reason for police to want to look at his ID when he’s staring at children through the school fence; and there’s definitely an unnecessary implication of violent tendencies in his banging his head against the mirror. In many subtle ways, Adam’s depiction of autism is inaccurate, stereotypical, or simplistic. But as far as creating some awareness to the sort of problems autistic people have to deal with in this world (those that go beyond social awkwardness or inability to pick up social cues), I thought the makers of Adam did a very decent job.

So good on them.

And while we’re at it, I thought it was really fair that Adam tells Beth about his having Asperger’s himself, rather than some doctor / psychologist sharing this information; I also thought it was very cool that in order to learn about Asperger’s and to form an opinion on whether Adam is good relationship material or not (a reasonable concern), Beth reads an autobiography written by an Aspie (it was Pretending to be Normal by Holliday Willey – haven’t read this one yet); I loved the fact that the term neurotypical is used in the movie, and even as a sort of caveat to psychologists’ expertise (most of them being neurotypical, and therefore have limited knowledge about autism); and I even thought it was a brave choice to write the following lines for Beth during her fight with Adam (after he freaks out about her lying to him, and wishes her dad to go to prison for life): “You’re a child Adam. Fuck Asperger’s. You’re a fucking child”. Was that over the line? Probably.  But I appreciated the implication: just because Adam is an Aspie, this does not excuse him for acting like an asshole. And that’s super fair, isn’t it? In some roundabout way, I felt this was a fairer treatment of autism than in most movies.

What do you think? I want to know.

My Name is Khan

My Name is Khan

Rizvan Khan grows up in a Mumbai neighborhood – possibly a slum. He is different from the other children; he takes things way too literally; loud noises and big crowds make him anxious; he dislikes being hugged, and gets upset by the color yellow (is a disliking of one specific color in any way common among autistics? I personally have never heard of this). He’s bullied at school, but his genius for mechanics earns him a respectable role in his community. His mannerisms are typical – perhaps stereotypical – of an autistic boy. But there is no real surprise there, or any room to wonder; we were already told by the movie’s opening captions that “The protagonist in the film suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.” And are further informed that “While the film endeavours to depict the character as authentically and sensitively as possible, it is a work of fiction and hence certain creative liberties have been taken in the portrayal of the condition.”

What an interesting statement. Why was it put there? Is it meant to appease those who might be offended by the inaccurate representation of autism in the film? Is it meant to forewarn the viewer no to take its portrayal of autism at face-value, lest he/she regards this as a project meant to educate, rather than entertain? Were the lessons from ‘Rain Man’ learnt – with its huge but unjustified effect on the understanding of autism in the English speaking world? Whatever the reason, I appreciated the film makers’ effort to qualify their depiction of autism as not-necessarily-accurate; after all, no depiction of autism in film can ever be 100% accurate (nor, for that matter, any depiction of anything else), so best to be aware of that fact, rather than to recklessly assume the role of educator.

As Rizvan reaches adulthood and moves to the US, he is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome by his sister-in-law, Hassina. “She was from Brooklyn, New York City”, he tells us. “She taught psychology in the university here.  She was the first to find out that I had Asperger’s syndrome. My fear of new places, new people. My hatred for the colour yellow and sharp sounds. The reason for me being so different from everyone was defined in just two words: Asperger’s syndrome.” Quite beautifully put, don’t you think?

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Rizvan falls in love with a woman, who he then marries. Later, following a terrible tragedy, he goes on the road, getting involved in all sorts of Forrest-Gump-like adventures, till the eventual and predictable happy ending, when he (spoiler alert) meets the president of the United States. Realism was never intended by the film’s makers. Over-acting and an inclination to melodramatic over-the-top-ness are hallmarks of Indian cinema, and My Name is Khan is no exception. But having said that, I did really enjoy the movie. I sympathized with and rooted for Rizvan, and I completely ‘got’ his love for the beautiful Mandira. I cried my eyes out in the sad bits, jollily danced my head during the Indian musical montages, and laughed at the good natured Bollywood allusions. All in all, I thought My Name is Khan was very good. And it raised some extremely interesting issues.

My Name is Khan is very clearly a story about difference. But the type of difference that is discussed is not so straightforwardly laid out. Initially, we are led to believe that the film deals with a neurological difference; an autistic boy growing up in a neurotypical environment (as is usually the case); treated with cruelty by his peers, but loved and understood by his mother: “No doctor could ever tell her why I was the way I was” he narrates; “But Amni… she never felt the need to know why. I don’t know how, but she found a way to know me”.

But then the plot unexpectedly turns to focus on a quite different sort of difference; riots break out in Mumbai between Muslims and Hindus. Ethnic and religious rivalry becomes the focus of the story.

As a boy, Rizvan, a Muslim, repeats to his mother some random violent rant against Hindus that he over-heard in the street. Amni, outraged, explains to him in a way she knows he will understand: Muslims and Hindus are exactly the same. People are only different insofar as they are either good or bad; that is the only difference that exists.

But if that’s the case, what can be said about Rizvan’s own way of being different? It seems to be implied that it is as insignificant as ethnic or religious differences. But is that really true?

The immediate implication of this message is obviously positive; it is that differences don’t matter, we are all the same; we are all equal. We should thus accept one another, love one another, and judge each other based on actions – namely what one does; rather than on properties – namely what one is (anyone finds this reminiscent of yet another Forrest Gump motif? “My mama always said”, Gump kept repeating, “stupid is stupid does”). This is a peaceful message of tolerance. But there is another side to this. In asserting that people are all the same, and by implicitly comparing ethnic differences with neurological differences, Amni ignores an important fact – that Rizvan’s way of being different is, well, different. It is not grounded in beliefs, traditions, texts, language, ancestry, or places of worship. It is not even grounded in the body, as is sometimes the case (from henna dyed hair through circumcision to skin color). Instead, the difference between Rizvan and his peers is grounded in their respective brains; in their minds; in – some would say – the very thing that makes them human to begin with.

In other words, we could regard ethnic or religious differences – as well as nationality or gender – as mere add-ons, under which we are all essentially the same. But when neurological differences are thought of in the same way, this poses some difficulties. Autism involves a different wiring of the brain, a different mechanism of cognitive process; so if autism is also such an add-on, what is underneath it? Is there an underneath? Because if there isn’t (it’s just turtles all the way down…), can autistic people really be said to be the same as neurotypicals? What would be the nature of this sameness?

The view that autistic people and neurotypical people are essentially the same is obviously good-intentioned, but it’s inaccurate. Primarily, it relies on the assumption that in order to achieve equality and acceptance, we first need to establish sameness. That’s not necessarily so. Equality and acceptance can be similarly achieved by simply acknowledging the fact that people are different;  that this difference is not necessarily at the surface level, but at the very core of what makes us human; that this difference in no way implies the superiority of some over others, or dehumanizes certain groups; quite the opposite. It implies that there is more than one way to be human. It implies that in order to achieve personhood, one does not need to first establish similarity to the normal or the typical. One does not need to change their ways, to mimic, or pretend. One can be divergent, even radically so, and still be just as bit as human as someone who is the very definition of typicality.

Kristin Bumiller wrote about this in her 2008 article entitled ‘Quirky Citizens:  Autism, Gender, and Reimagining Disability’. She believes that autism advocacy, and the neurodiversity movement in particular, has much more to offer society than ‘just’ promoting acceptance of autistic people (crucial in itself). “In their quirkiness”, she writes, “[autistic people] contribute to a culture of citizenship that fosters equality without sameness.” Neurodiversity fosters citizenship based not on sameness nor on difference (because both imply the existence of a benchmark norm), but on inclusion and acceptance; on individual roles and contributions. “Although neurodiversity is most important to people who identify as being on the spectrum,” she later adds, “it also has the potential to enrich society and change how we understand ourselves and other people.” (2008:982)

And how grandiosely was this potential realized by the protagonist of My Name is Khan, whose life-course is continuously affected by politics of differences. His brother rejects his Hindu wife. “You cannot marry her, it’s Haram!” he says. “She is a Hindu. There a lot of differences between them and us, understood?” to which Rizvan replies, “No, there’s no difference.  Good people, bad people. There’s no other difference.” The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre lead to a wave of hatred in the US; particularly towards Muslims, but anyone with a brown skin is suspect. His step son is killed in a racist attack. His wife sends him away, blaming his ethnicity for her son’s death. On his wanderings, he is the target of suspicion, fear, and ridicule, due to either his skin color, his creed, his autism – or all of these combined. His donation to a fund raiser is denied, as it is an event “for Christians only”. “Honey, keep it,” he tells the receptionist, “for those who are not Christians in Africa”. He is lodged by a kind Georgian Black woman and her young son, whose older brother has recently died in the war in Iraq. In a memorial service in the village chapel, he is asked to say a eulogy for his step son. To recap: in a Southern US state, In a Christian Church, in a village populated by African-Americans who bereave the death of their sons in Iraq, the Muslim Khan eulogizes, in Hindi, his son, a Hindu, who was killed by white Americans because of him having a Muslim last name. Get the picture?

Differences are omnipresent in My Name is Khan, and the protagonist is, we are made to believe, in the very best of positions to rise above these differences (without being oblivious to them, however, as one might think), and bring people of all colors and creeds together. To help each other out. To wear their cultural identities with pride, and to stand up against bigotry, prejudice and xenophobia.

In embodying a type of difference that in a way eclipses all other differences, Rizvan imagines a society where differences are respected, and where people are judged according to deeds rather than lineage, skin tone, or religious beliefs. To what extent does this tell a story of autistic people in general? Or even about autism itself, as a social category? I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this. Please comment and share hits blog with others who might be interested.

And why not end with this lovely quote:

“The Book Different Minds says that people like us can’t express their emotions in words but we can write them easily. I can fill thousands of pages, millions of times with ‘I love you Mandira’. But not once could I say it to you. Perhaps that’s why you are angry with me … meanwhile whenever I have time, I will write all that I couldn’t say to you. And then, you will love me again. Insha’Allah.”

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Mary and Max

Mary and Max

The sad and beautiful tale of Mary and Max is one of my favorite films of all time.

On two opposite sides of the planet, a lonely little Australian girl and a lonely middle-aged obese New-Yorker become friends. Mary and Max are both made of plasticine, yet they’re two of the realest people ever to appear on screen.

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From Mary’s poo colored birth-mark to Max’s chocolate hot-dog recipe, from Ethel the rooster to Henry(s) the fish, from Ive’s painted eyebrows to Damien’s stutter, from egg laying rabbis to babies found in beer glasses, from Vera’s cooking sherry to dr. Hazalhof’s obsessions with warts, and from bird taxidermies to jars full of toe-nail clippings – every single scene in this movie is a little miracle of compassion and nuance, a portrait of humanity at its simultaneous highest peaks and lowest crevices.

Shades of brown and tan are gently sprinkled with reds and pinks, empty shelves are decorated with toys, bare walls are adorned with drawings, expressionless faces are made to smile, while the lonely and potentially grim existence of a sad little girl and an anxious middle-aged Aspie is being filled with excitement, chocolate, pets, and friendship.

I could probably go on like this forever, counting the infinite number of ways this film touched me, but what would be the point? Sufficed to thank Adam Elliot for making us this modest masterpiece, and urge whoever hasn’t watched Mary and Max to not waste another moment.

The emotional textile of Mary and Max’s existence is so rich, that one barely manages to take a deep breath between gently laid brush strokes of sadness and courage, loneliness and hope, despair and longing, fear and love. It is this vivid emotional landscape that inspired me to finally attempt a discussion on what stands at the core of my research; emotions and their meaning ­– particularly in the case of autistic people.

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Confuzzled. Apparently just another made-up word (alongside snirt; namely the combination of snow and dirt, and smushables; the groceries found squashed at the bottom of the grocery bag), Max’s neologism reveals a lot about the nature of human emotions and the words we have for them. A combination of confused and puzzled, it even says something about the inherent limitedness of our emotional lexicon, whereby the words we have to describe our emotions are often insufficient. This limitedness is particularly consequential, I dare to suggest, in the lives of autistic people. But let us start from the beginning. Brace yourselves; discussing emotions is always an arduous task.

Many social anthropologists have wondered about the nature of human emotions. Are they universal? Do people of all cultures share exactly the same emotions? Are we all born with a capacity to experience emotions in similar ways? Do the words we use to describe our emotional states accurately reflect what we actually feel inside? Based on an extensive reading of anthropological theories, I will answer all of these questions with a hesitant ‘no’. Emotions, according to such theorists as Catherine Lutz, Unni Wikan, and Sarah Ahmed, to name a few, are not a property of the individual. They are not internal. Our emotional terms refer not to distinct ‘things’ within us, but rather to the nature of any specific relationship between a person and another person, between a person and an object, or even between a person and an idea, at a given moment. Emotions are always directed at something or another, and in this directedness they lie. Emotions are the stuff of which connections are made of. In this sense, emotions are relational.

Moreover, while all humans are born with the innate capability of being affected by their environment, their company, and even their own thoughts, this capability is not what is usually referred to when emotions are talked about. Rather, emotions refer to the cultural and lingual categorization of these affects, the connotations they raise, and the value judgment they are given (good or bad? Pleasant or unpleasant? Moral or immoral?). Emotions are the afterthought of the affective, the visceral, even the somatic. An afterthought that is inevitably framed in culture and limited by language. In this sense, emotions are socially constructed.

Similarly, seeing as humans are products of their upbringing, of the language they speak, and the social, historical and cultural context in which they live, our only available means of making any kind of sense at all of what we think and feel – is by using the vocabulary handed down to us by our parents, teachers, friends, the media etc. One cannot interpret what one cannot name. People of different cultures, therefore, or of different historical times, would have quite different ways to discuss their emotions; i.e., they will experience their emotions differently. In this sense, emotions are culturally specific.

Finally, emotions are only ever invoked in context. Sadness, or hope, do not lie within us waiting to surface; instead, emotional terms are begged when events, occurrences, relationships, and evaluations of a certain kind occur. Emotions are thus always specific, and no two are alike, despite the limited vocabulary we have whereby fear, for example, can refer to a great many different kinds of feelings, effectively crudely lumping them in one distinct ‘emotion’. When we think of emotions, when we articulate them – they are there. But when we forget about them, they simply cease to be. They are gone. When we are reminded in them again, they are then altered, changed, adapted to their new context, this time as the objects at which our new emotion is directed. And so on and so forth. In this sense, emotions are emergent.

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“Max knew nothing about love,” we are told; “it was as foreign to him as scuba-diving … He felt love, but couldn’t articulate it. Its logic was as foreign to him as… as a salad sandwich”. Is this a sentiment many on the autistic spectrum share? It has been my impression that yes indeed, many autistic people frustratingly feel that love is too confusing, inexpressible, and uninterpretable to them. We all feel this at times, I would venture, but possibly not nearly as frequently as autistics do, and to a significantly different extent.

“He felt love, but couldn’t articulate it”. But if that were to be the case, how would Max know that he did indeed feel love? What would be the nature of a love unarticulated, and how would one recognize it as such? Emotions, I and anthropologists before me argue, are never independent of their articulation. In fact, it is the very articulation we speak of when we speak of any specific emotion. What is love, if it is not the loving words, the loving embrace, or the loving gaze; if it is not the motivation to act in certain ways, to think particular thoughts, or to see things in a certain light? Articulation, clearly, is not limited to words. There are various means of articulating love; and seeing as no two emotions are ever identical, articulations of love are potentially infinitely varied.

“He felt love, but couldn’t articulate it”. So what are we to make of this statement, given that it contradicts, in a meaningful way, what we take emotions to be?

Had Max felt a confusing mixture of thoughts and physical sensations of a particular kind, energizing him with great valence; arousing positive connotations and affectionate memories; warping his perspective into a good-natured acceptance of things, like when looking through the eye-piece of a camera while its lens gradually focuses on a patch of colorful flowers – while having no idea that this very concoction can be said to be ‘love’ – was it in fact love that he can be said to have felt?

The unsophisticated and disappointingly straightforward answer would supposedly be no. Love exists only when love is spoken of. Hence, Max did not feel love. But wait, love was spoken of, by the narrator, in retrospect. So in this case, Max’s sensations can be said to have been feelings of love. But what is the role of the narrator in Max’s life? None. The narrator is part of our perspective on Max’s life, not of his. Max is ignorant to the existence of any such narrator telling his story, and articulating his emotions for us, in ways Max cannot. In max’s life, love was never explicitly expressed.

But if it wasn’t expressed, it was certainly articulated! We see it being articulated in so many ways!! In Max’s excitement upon receiving a letter from his friend Mary; at his concern for her well-being; at his interest in all aspects of her life; at his advice for her, and his loyalty to her, and his kindness towards her. We see it at his forcing himself to smile for her sake, and at his using her own tears to make himself cry. Even at his rage and disappointment when he feels she has betrayed him. These are all, unquestionably, beautiful articulations of love! Must we discard them merely because the word ‘love’ is not explicitly uttered by either party? Simply because Max may be unaware that this – this precisely – is what people speak of when they speak of love? Must Max be robbed of having experienced love merely because he was oblivious to the love he was indeed experiencing?

It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t seem fair.

So let us pursue a different option: Max loved Mary, and articulated this love in his letters, and in this very articulation his love can be said to have existed. Love is relational – and in the relation between Max and Mary there was love. Even more so, the relationship between Max and Mary can be said to have been made of love, love being the proverbial stuff of which their connection was made. Love is emergent, so in every new letter, in every bar of chocolate, or a drawing of a pet, brand new shades of ‘love’ arose and expanded. With this perspective in mind, we can say love is the central theme, the driving force, of Mary and Max’s tale. Love is everywhere! And yet confusingly, frustratingly, we are told that Max “felt love, but couldn’t articulate it”. Couldn’t articulate it? That’s all he ever does!

It appears the logical conclusion would be to argue that Max indeed felt love, and indeed articulated it brilliantly, but was simply unaware that he was.

How can we make sense of this statement?

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Love, like any such distinct emotion term, is socially constructed. But this is not to say that it is made-up, or in any way unreal. Not even remotely. Think of a building.  A building is obviously constructed, but that does not mean it is imaginary, or in any way shabby, short lived, or inconsequential. It does imply, however, that it has not been in its current shape forever, and might not have been the same had circumstances been different. A Thai Pagoda is not similar to a Gothic Cathedral, though both are made of stone bricks. Moreover, the endurance of any construction ultimately depends on how well it is constructed; a well-constructed building can stand erect for millennia, particularly if it is made from quality bricks. And the precise nature, use, and overall shape of a construction depends on the historical and cultural context in which it was made, and in which it is currently being used.

If love is a construction, what is it constructed of? what are its bricks? They are the essentially human capacity to be affected in significant ways by one’s surrounding. Sounds abstract? It is. Strip love of its social, cultural, and historical significance, and you’re left with a strong feeling perhaps, but a feeling so vague that it is no longer recognizable or articulable.

If love is a construction, who constructed love? Generations of poets, authors, philosophers, theologians, scientists, readers, interpreters, parents, friends, lovers. Each employing the notions of their predecessors while adding their own ideas and experiences to articulate love in novel ways, which then subsequently accompany the concept of love further along.

And importantly, if love is a construction, what are its blue-prints and designs? What is its architecture? That would be the way love is framed, categorized into kinds, interpreted, and made sense of; the way it is valued and revered, glorified but also feared; the connotations it raises, the cultural references it builds on, the way it is typically exhibited, expressed, verbalized, and even experienced!

Stone is inevitable. But it can take the shape of a building in infinitely various ways. Similarly, our capacity to be affected is inseparable from our humanity. It is, also, inevitable. But this capacity can take the form of emotion in infinitely various ways. That’s what is emphasized when it is said that love is a social construction.

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So where does this leave us? I suggested that Max was indeed feeling love, though he was unaware that he was not only feeling it, but was articulating it brilliantly. Now that we have conceptualized love as a social construction, or in other words, as the result of a collective social project, we may begin to understand why Max wasn’t aware that his relationship with Mary would normally be referred to as love; why he wasn’t conscious to the fact that he was articulating love; and why the language of love was said to be foreign to him. Being autistic, Max may have lacked what can be called ‘social intuition’; the capacity to effortlessly internalize such profound social discourses as gender roles, sociality, or indeed ‘emotion talk’.

In other words, seeing as love derives its meaning collectively, through the inherently social practice of language (verbal, written, or extra-lingual), one can be expected to be confused by it if one generally finds it challenging to intuitively understand other types of social practices.

Its logic was as foreign to him as… as a salad sandwich” we are told of Max’s puzzlement of matters of love. So what is it about Max being autistic that created this gap between him feeling love and his expressed inability to articulate love? Emotions, it was said, are social projects, inter-subjective endeavors, where a term is infused with meaning that is then negotiated to the point of mutual agreement. When somebody says “I love”, they are not simply expressing outwardly a strictly internal ‘thing’. No, instead, by uttering the word love, they infuse this utterance with a history of social connotations, with a world of cultural significations; they infuse it with great meaning. This much is – in some way or another – intuitive for neurotypicals; which is why love, or any emotion for that matter, is indeed never really straightforward, but still relatively understandable. Neurotypicals are generally comfortable treading the murky waters of emotion talk. But not autistics, for whom this murk often proves too opaque and impervious.

Max was not aware that love can be articulated in giving a thoughtful advice, by placing a gift-pompom on top of one’s yarmulke, or by sharing a favourite recipe with a friend. Max did love Mary; but unfortunately, seeing as the meaning of ‘love’, in its typical use, is framed and indeed ‘coded’ by neurotypicals, its complex and nuanced meaning was lost on him.
I’ll end with a couple of quotes from Mary and Max that I simply adore:

(1)    “I cannot express myself very clearly at this point, and so I will list my emotions, in the order they feel most intense: hurt, confuzzledness, betrayal, discomfort, distress, and wheeziness.”

(2)    “When I received your book the emotions inside my brain felt like they were in a tumble dryer, smashing into each other. The hurt felt like when I accidentally stapled my lips together. The reason that I forgive you is because you are not perfect. You are imperfect, and so am I. All humans are imperfect.”

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