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.)
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.