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.)


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.


18 thoughts on “Adam (2009)

  1. Everybody who critiques this movie picks Adam apart. No one ever picks Beth apart. I really hated her character. She was superficial. She was caught up in appearances. She was USING Adam. She was using him to get cuddles and affection and even sex with no attachment or commitment. Watch again how she negotiates the emotional territory of her sexual relationship with Adam and watch how he innocently goes along with it, kind of adrift and unsure. He wants a full relationship. He’s not quite sure what that means, but he’s pretty sure what he’s getting isn’t it. And Beth uses that naïvete to her advantage. And NO ONE ever recriminates her for doing that to him, for using him, for manipulating him through the disadvantage of his disability.

    I thought Adam was a really decent guy and Beth barely made an effort to meet him half-way. Like many power-imbalanced relationships/friendships between NTs and Autistics, she thought she was meeting him half-way and got upset with him for not going the other half, completely unaware that she was actually expecting him to go 90% of the way or more. She had no clue what she was doing and 100% blamed him for every mistake she made.

    The first book I read after my diagnosis was Wiley’s because it was the only book my library had. The book made me so angry, I threw it against the wall more than once. The book paints an unrealistically bright picture of autism and my reaction to it was frustration, anger, and despair because it didn’t even BEGIN to describe what my life had been like. I thought, “if this is autism, I have something else. Something REALLY awful!”

    Since then, I’ve talked to Liane and she admits that her book is unrealistically cheery. She said the whole time she was writing it, she kept thinking about her autistic daughter reading it some day, so she was afraid to write about the dark things that had happened to her (none of which are my stories to share, so I’ll keep it that vague) because she didn’t want her daughter to be discouraged or lose hope.

    But I digress. I seriously disliked Adam, but not for the same reasons Narby did (I also pretty much 180 degrees disagree with her assessment of Snow Cake) I disliked it because Adam was a good guy and no one gave him a break, least of all Beth, even least of all the framing of the whole story by the writer/director. Adam was the good guy, Beth was half an inch away from evil — only saved from evil by the fact that all her nasty was born of pure ignorance, not malice. I thought she was just disgusting and repeat that I am amazed that I have never seen anyone else giving Beth’s character the right lambasting she deserves.

    1. Thank you Sparrow. These comments really make me think.
      Would it be going out on a limb, if I suggest that in her self-absorbed, occupied-with-appearances, and somewhat ignorant ways, Beth is actually a useful character in that her behaviour represents the sort of problems autistic people inevitably face in some of their own romantic relationships with NTs? I agree 100% that Beth is not a positive person, and I completely relate to your point that she does, in fact, use Adam. But maybe (and not necessarily intentionally) the makers of this movie raised what is actually a very common real-life concern for autistic people – that their romantic partners might find it too easy to manipulate and use them?
      I suppose too many people enter relationships with mostly their own self-interest at heart, and with an unhealthy amount of manipulative cynicism and egotism – even cruelty. Such a person would cause a lot of pain for any romantic partner, but presumably even more pain if their partner is autistic (because unsuspecting, naive, vulnerable?). So I definitely don’t want to generalize and claim that all NTs are mean jerks, but we all know some who are. Most of us have fallen for those types of people now and then. Maybe this is what Adam (the film, not the character) is all about?
      Though if that were the case, Beth should definitely not have been portrayed as so good-hearted and angelic. She definitely comes off as the good-guy in this story. And you’re absolutely right in saying that she’s not.
      Then again, like you said, it wasn’t even that Beth was evil. In my eyes she was just average. That’s hardly a compliment, but not an indictment either. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m sure the sort of relationship seen in Adam is not at all uncommon… Romantic relationships are often hard and sometimes painful. Aren’t they harder for autistic people, in some ways, and potentially even more painful? I mean, when the autistic person’s partner is EVIL, this would probably develop into an abusive relationship. But if they’re like Beth (i.e. average), it would “just” be painful and unhealthy.
      I guess my point is this: Should Beth be held accountable for hurting Adam as much as she did? Absolutely she should. But in real-life, WOULD she be held accountable for hurting him? Probably not. And that’s the problem right there.
      Anyway, I love your reading of the movie.

      What book would YOU have someone read, if they told you they wanted to know more about autism? (Aside from the one you yourself had written 🙂 )

      Can’t wait to hear more.

      P.S., I would love to read your thoughts on Snow Cake if you find the time:

  2. All I can do here is describe my experiences with feelings of being an alien…I can’t necessarily justify them or base these experiences in philosophical considerations of otherness.

    For me, feeling like an alien has nothing to do with eye contact. For me, it’s all about unspoken social rules. I struggle with non-verbal laguage…I don’t see it very well, have very little body language of my own. I often break unwritten rules…I’m often confused by the statements and actions of others, because it’s hard to anticipate what people really mean. Navigating a social interaction often feels like being an alien visiting Earth, masked as a human and just winging it. In order to get through an interaction, I have to observe others very closely…puzzle out what’s meant, what I should respond with…so the alien thing just fits. If some find the term to be “othering” and inappropriate…eh, tough shit. Subjectively the metaphor works for me.

    An alternate metaphor that I sometimes use is “tourist”…I’m visiting a place where I don’t know the customs and learn a few phrases/gestures to fit in…but alien just captures that sense of being around people you have nothing in common with way more than tourist.

    When I saw the trailer for Adam I knew I couldn’t watch it. It just looked too maudlin, cloying. It’s entirely possible that I’m wrong, and it’s never fair to judge something you haven’t seen. Still…one thing I hate and am really sick of is those with Asperger’s being presented as these sort of asexual, innocent man-children. I know the dude gets laid in the film…but the commercial still made him out to be this forrest gump like character…he even referenced forrest gump in the commercial, I believe saying, “It’s not like I’m forrrest gump”…and I just wanted to avoid it. Again, that’s probably not fair. It’s the same thing with the guy from “Big Bang Theory”…even if he gets laid at some point in the show, he’s still presented as this hyper-nerdy man-child. Fuck I’m tired of that image…so many different ways to present Asperger’s, yet people routinely go for that stock character.

    anyway, i’m done rambling, thx for the post.

    1. Thanks for these comments! And a good job clarifying why the alien metaphor works for you. I suppose it really is a rather useful one. And it makes me wonder – I mean, the idea of aliens is clearly a relatively recent notion. What metaphor do you think might have been used in the past for these type of experiences that you describe? (obviously autism is, too, a pretty recent label, as is its current construing as a social and clinical category and a marker of one’s identity. But assuming that many of the its traits have always existed, it’s probably safe to assume that such experiences of alienation aren’t new at all. Anyway, It would be interesting to try and find out!). Actually, ‘tourist’ sounds like it would work even better before globalization, when cultural barriers sort of started to fade.
      Susan Sontag has some really interesting things to say about what the metaphors we choose to use when ill (so a very different story of course, but still somehow related) say about us, and about how we perceive our bodies and their pathologies. Should have probably referenced her in the post, but oh well.
      Anyway, maybe, like some other terms, the alien metaphor should only be used by some people and not others… i.e., by autistics but no by NTs. Not that I want to be language police – but I am aware that language matters; specific uses of it matter. So in a sense, YOU get to say “tough shit” if someone finds the alien metaphor inappropriate. Me… not so much. Identity politics. To quote some of my favourite bloggers, “that’s a thing”.
      About the movie – yes, you’re absolutely right. Maudlin, cloying (two words I embarrassingly had to look up) are probably what the makers were going for. Next week I’ll be discussing the Belgian film Ben X. It’s sad, sad, sad – but also honest and unapologetic. I thought it was very good. Maybe watch it so we can chat about it a bit?

  3. The commonplace ‘socially-acceptable’ notions regarding ‘autism’, while awful enough, are mostly lies – lies in that the true extent of our ‘self-chosen demoniacal nature’ is NOT spoken of.

    Speak of the Devil, and he’ll show up, right? Oh no, we don’t want that. (says each NT in his/her heart, er, unconscious)

    We have always been seen as Devils: Martin Luther spoke of a child – someone who looked like some of us – as not human, a piece of flesh, some thing that needed killing. No doubt, he knew of changelings. But it goes deeper – and is worse – than that, even.

    Millennia have not changed the nature of the unconscious – the realm of instinct, and the ‘magic kingdom’. That is where the chief trouble lies: we are not dealing with reason, nor anything remotely similar to what is commonly thought of as ‘thinking’.

    We are dealing with a ‘manifold’ being, one which glares at us from behind every snickering face; a being which drives every act of covert cruelty – a many-souled organism that ultimately knows but one rule: “I want it NOW!”

    It does not matter that we are simply ‘ignorant bystanders’, too clueless to knowingly stand in THEIR collective way. What DOES matter is that we are not ‘invisible’ to their raving hunger-gorged vision.

    The unconscious sees everything being done by and for ‘magic’. One of magic’s rules is “magical power can only fully manifest in pure individuals forming a pure society.”. Ever wonder what the true point of the Holocaust actually was? The goal was to create a

  4. (continued from earlier post)
    create a pure society, one where all of the “chosen people” ( as defined by Hitler) were of one mind, one nature, one appearance – in short, every person alive in “the magic kingdom” was to have certain desired characteristics – outward behaviors acting as a ‘superorganism’ – indicating that true Neuroconvergence had been achieved.

    The fact that all of these individuals would be mere ciphers then – narcissistic extensions of their betters, with Hitler himself being the one true god – was the exact point. That was the exact unstated-yet-universally-understood goal. More, the vast majority of Germans WANTED this precise outcome.

    Merging with a greater power is the sole approved means of eventually usurping that power’s place and privilege. This is instinct in the majority, as is the bulk of (Normal) social behavior; and, its ultimate goal is to achieve absolute power over all life.

    It is expedient to hide this, and most people keep their ‘inner psychopath’ within that box named ‘social approval’. They all want to let it out, though.


  5. The first time I watched Adam I didn’t actually know I was aspie, I was a case of late diagnosis (more common in females) and I remember enjoying it. Now when I look back on it I still enjoy it. It’s not perfect, but it’s rare that any form of representation is, especially in the film world where there is so little about autism. For me, the way Adam never quite makes eye contact, the little physical tics of frustration, the emotional honesty of confusion, I get it, so much. I agree with the person above, for me, I felt the film was about how wrong the NT world gets us sometimes. It was about Beth trying but ultimately failing to be right for Adam. The mission of the story wasn’t integrating Adam into life with NT people, it was about Beth realising that actually, not everyone is like her, and the journey that began to take her on. The bitter sweet elements I liked. As for the alien thing, I actually find the term really useful. For so long I felt like I was getting it wrong, I wasn’t trying hard enough etc. that it was my fault. When I found out about being on the spectrum, I began to learn it wasn’t my fault. Yes, you can always learn but I am just different. I’m a big fan of Star Trek and I just had this moment where I was like, okay, I’m not getting it wrong, I’m just a vulcan in a world largely inhabited by humans. That’s okay. Some are going to be more willing to make allowances for communication difficulties, some aren’t, but ultimately it’s not my fault I can’t be a person like they are. I am, in a way, a different species. Doesn’t mean I’m less than they are. But I think the alien thing is individual. For me exclusion was never an issue. I’ve always been weird and different but it was only said fondly, I was never outright bullied for it or anything (that I was aware of anyway). I think if you have been bullied and alienated deliberately it’s different. But I think I will always love the film, just for having representation that isn’t utterly false.

  6. I’m an Aspie married to an NT wife. I actually watched “Adam” before I was diagnosed with my son. The first watch I knew nothing about Asperger’s Syndrome or that it informed me of my personality, brain functioning, and strengths and weaknesses in interacting with others. I thought the moving was amazing! My wife thought it was a decent movie but nothing great. I thought it was the best romantic movie of all-time and my special interest is opposite of Adam relatively (Ancient Christian history and thought). My wife and I have experienced several of the same challenges. After diagnosis I watched “Adam” a second time and realized that it was good, but it wasn’t the best romance of all-time anymore. Perhaps, that’s because I became more self aware. For me the feeling different from the “typical” world in whatever sense is accurate though I have never been excluded fully–just subtly. All Aspies are unique and different, so every analogy will fail just like any analogy. 😉 To the day, besides “Simple Simon,” “Adam” for me is the most accurate portrayal of a male with Asperger’s. I have no idea about females–Aspies or NTs–they are a beautiful mystery. God love my wife! 😀

    1. Thanks for this really interesting comment Tex. “All Aspies are unique and different, so every analogy will fail just like any analogy”. Couldn’t agree more, wonderfully put. And I will have to make a note to watch Simple Simon!

      1. Good luck in academia there, Ben. I tapped out at a masters degree.

        Hope you can find your niche and stomach it better than I could. Take care!

        Yes, watch “Simple Simon.” Best depiction that I’ve seen yet–at least with our subtle ways of communicating non-verbally though it’s ironic because we have issues with interpreting non-verbal communications. Typical human beings–we’re all upside down snowmen. 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s