Marathon

Marathon (2005)

Roy Richard Grinker is definitely one of the best social anthropologists out there to study autism. If you’ve never read Unstrange Minds – Remapping the World of Autism, I strongly recommend it; it offers a wonderful overview of the social and cultural context of autism, and it’s extremely well-written and engaging. Among other things, Grinker presents the reader with a picture of how autism is framed, interpreted, and understood in various cultures throughout the world. One of these is South Korea.  So to me, Marathon was not only a beautifully made film about a topic that fascinates me, it was also a visualization of a world I was somehow already partly familiar with, and it made it all the more appealing. Anyway, in case I need to make it even more explicit – I loved Marathon. I thought it was excellent in so many different ways. Representations wise, it’s not perfect, ok. But honestly, when the protagonist is a barely verbal, quite severely autistic character, you always run the risk of painting a very specific, not necessarily representative picture of autism. But within the remits of their protagonist’s individual capabilities, he is a positive, well-rounded character, with personal coherence (so that his autistic traits don’t just ‘dissolve’ during the movie like in so many other films) – and that’s really all anyone can ask for.

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Cho-Won loves animals; one of his favourite things to do, ever since he was a child, is watching nature documentaries on TV – and he knows the narration by heart. His absolutely favourite documentary is the one about the Serengeti Wilderness, an African region “uncontaminated by people”, where wild animals can roam free. He sympathizes not with the lions or cheetahs, but with the grass eaters, the animals of prey. He adores the zebra, which is a prominent theme throughout the movie. This reminded me of a point Temple Grandin often makes, about the similarity of experience between autistic people and prey animals, for both of whom fear is an overbearing emotion (what do you think about this?). According to Grandin, this shared experience is what allows her to understand cattle as well as she does – and she obviously does.

But Cho-Won’s love of Zebras didn’t lead him to become an animal behaviorist; instead, it mostly got him into trouble. Running away at the zoo, for example, or grabbing ladies’ purses or trousers if they happen to have a zebra pattern. Yet, in various stages of the film, his love for the striped animal also has benefits; he seems to understand motherly compassion, as he repeats the narration about the mother zebra caring for her cub; he understands danger, knowing that zebras can’t afford to stop running or fall over, as they will be eaten; he understand fear, sympathizing with the zebra’s constant need to look out and take care.

Understanding and expressing emotions are other themes common throughout the movie, and they’re articulated very carefully. “Your dad goes on a trip…” his therapist posits, “your mom is in the hospital … how would that makes you feel?” she shows him drawings of faces: “Happy? Sad? Angry? Scared?” His dad incidentally did go on a long trip, and his mother did lie sick at the hospital. The film seems to indicate that in some indirect way, these exercises have indeed helped him sort out his emotions. Also halfway in the film his mother teaches Cho-Won to smile, which he doesn’t quite get, until the very last scene, where he finishes the race, and his picture is taken. His running away at the zoo, in the beginning, was later recalled by him as a traumatic event, when he accuses Kyeong Sook of deliberately letting go of his hand, wanting him to run off. And his hesitant participation in the hiking trips with his mother evolved into a complex relationship between mother, son, coach, and long distance running, where prizes (choco-pies, medals) are awarded for success and the fear of pain (injection) thwarts defeat; this ultimately leads to the important and interesting dilemma that marks this film: whether Cho-Won enjoys running or was he numbed into passive submission by his mother’s constant pushing.

In Grinker’s writing and others’ about autism in South Korea, what stands out is the significant and often frustrating role of mothers; they are held responsible for their child’s autism; they are expected to subdue it, treat it, or at the very least conceal it; they must negotiate the diagnosis, often exchanging it for an arguably less stigmatizing (but false) ‘reactive attachment disorder’ (RAD); often, the concept of ‘border’ autism is used to frame the condition as uncertain, contingent, and temporary. Mothers of autistic children (adults too) are required to simultaneously be both assertive and respectful as they battle exclusion and discrimination in a society where individuality and defiance are frowned upon, and conformity is mandated.  They need to ceaselessly explain, apologize, and excuse their children’s slow progress in school, in an environment where academic excellence is revered. To top it all off, fathers seldom take any part in caring for their autistic child, or negotiating his/her place in society. Yes, none of these problems is entirely unique to Korea; but this specific combination of societal expectations and limitations make the Korean “version” of autism quite idiosyncratic, and make the role of mothers challenging in very particular ways.  It is apparently within this social context that Cho-Won’s mother faces the formidable challenge of raising an autistic child.

This blog, and my research in general, is not about the experiences of parents, siblings, caretakers, or children of autistic people. These are of course very significant. It is important that they are recognized and dealt with, and many researchers very successfully do so; but it was my explicit decision to limit my research, within reason, only to the experiences of autistic people themselves. However, Marathon represents a good example of one of those situations when the mother’s and child’s experiences become virtually indistinguishable. In fact, this is the very question the film’s makers pose: is running what Cho-Won wants, or is it what his mother wants? Is it him that can’t live without her, or her that can’t live without him?  Was he upset by the coach’s unorthodox methods, or was she? Seeing as Kyeong Sook always had to make nearly every single life decision for her son, either big or small, how can one even tell what are his choices anymore?  And is that really a valid question? In other words, can Cho-Won even make choices?

Still far from being able to answer these questions, I could try and suggest a way of approaching them.

Cho-Won’s mother struggles with her inability to determine whether he chooses running. She knows he likes zebras and choco-pies, meatballs dipped in ketchup and dancing in the supermarket. These preferences are easily communicated. What’s different about running is that it is painful (as his coach goes to great lengths to illustrate) and potentially dangerous. It is a more complex question than whether he likes choco-pies, for example, because running involves risk. Although she knows Cho-Won better than anyone, Kyeong Sook repeatedly fails at getting him to communicate his choice about running.

But perhaps we’re thinking about this all wrong; perhaps it’s not a problem of communication at all.

Usually, when one thinks of ‘choice’, one imagines an autonomous, individualized thought process, which might be influenced by the opinion of others (namely through advice and council), but is ultimately achieved within the bounded self. But is that really the only possible way to frame choice? After all, people make decisions in context. For example, a person is usually ‘ascribed’ with certain markers of identity at birth: gender, nationality, or ethnicity. Others are similarly innate (I use this word here sloppily) but are found out later, such as sexual orientation. Still others are considered to be personal preferences, such as political affiliation, hobbies, or an inclination to monogamy. But what if we don’t regard any of these as either purely ‘given’ or purely matters of ‘choice’; instead, what if we imagine choice as situational, whereas any ultimate state of being is a consequence of one’s environment, historical context, milieu, social expectations, and indeed some personal choice – this time in the traditional sense of the word.

Is being Jewish my choice? Choice has something to do with it, yes, because no one is forcing me to accept Judaism as my religion. But is it entirely my choice? Of course not. I was born to Jewish parents, grew up in an environment where almost everyone is of this faith, and I am expected by the people close to me to accept it. These factors aren’t the least bit marginal in the question of my choice of religion; they’re constitutive of it.  You could say “yes, but if you decide to become a Buddhist tomorrow, that would be entirely your choice”. Not true. The only way that were to happen is if other social influences not only encouraged me, but also allowed me to convert to Buddhism – and that these influences would in some way overpower the former influence of my family and childhood friends. In that case, these new factors would have a significant share in “my” decision to convert. This is arguably true of any choice, large or small. Even my decision as to what to eat for lunch today would be affected by all sorts of influences; my upbringing, my cultural preferences, my budget, my grocery store’s inventory, and how much time I can spare to prepare lunch for myself. It’s never really just “my” choice, is it? Ok, you could frame it as ultimately my choice; but I propose a different perspective; that it’s partly my choice. Every individual’s choice is always just a part of the story of how things came to be.

Cho-Won may not have become a runner on his own accord. That his mother ‘pushed’ (a quite judgmental term) him into it obviously had a huge part in it. But who is ever unaffected by the decisions made for them by parents? And grandparents, and teachers, and political leaders and policy makers? Kyeong Sook may never get her son to articulate whether he accepts the risks of running marathons and chooses to do it anyway; and in no way am I implying that his desire is irrelevant or insignificant! But if he was given every opportunity to stop running, and kept at it; and if he enjoys the activity while he is pursuing it; and if he seems content with life in periods where he runs regularly; then his part of the ultimate choice to run seems more or less resolute. The question of whether it is his choice or his mum’s might simply be misguided; the choice is situational (a situation which includes Cho-Won’s communicational difficulties, among all other factors). It is both his and hers. The fact that he’s autistic, the fact that his coach believes in him, and the fact that he’s a good runner were all important parts of this. The circumstances seemed to have led him to register for running a marathon; but then again, actually completing it – well, that was entirely up to him.

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The Story of Luke

The Story of Luke (2012)

Like several others of the films previously discussed in this series (e.g. Snow Cake, Adam), The Story of Luke also begins with the death of the autistic protagonist’s main carer. This similarity between the movies is not surprising, because they actually share something quite fundamental between them; in all three films, autism is not engaged with in any serious way, but instead it is merely a plot device. Here’s how they work: the main carer of the autistic person is dead; someone else must now take care of him/her, and cope with the difficulties this entails; that someone will now learn valuable life lessons thanks to this experience, and come out fulfilled, happier, and morally better. Along the way, the autistic person him/herself will rather magically overcome hitherto insurmountable challenges due to an extraordinary newly-acquired will-power.

But what’s the problem, you may ask. Wouldn’t inheriting a responsibility to look after a person with a developmental disability indeed be a huge challenge, so as to inspire a story worth telling? Perhaps. But then it’s not only autism, is it? The same is true for any other newly found, and not necessarily sought after, responsibility for a fellow person; an elderly parent that suddenly needs care, a badly injured relative, or a baby born prematurely. So why bring up autism? Why this puzzling disability and not another, more straightforward one? I suspect the reason why the movie makers chose autism is mainly for its potential for creative dialogue, unique acting mannerisms, and humorous rhetoric. The specific and particular circumstances of living with autism, both positive and negative, are never treated seriously. Ok; The Story of Luke is meant to be a comedy, I get that. But I happen to think that when a movie maker takes it upon him or herself to engage with a neurological condition, they need to actually have something to say about it, rather than using it to make some loosely relevant point (at best) about human compassion and people’s capacity for betterment.

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So unsurprisingly, there are many problems in how autism is depicted in The Story of Luke, but one thing really annoyed me: out of all the ambitions and desires that motivate people to go out, to do stuff, to struggle, and to ultimately overcome – couldn’t the makers of Luke think of something a little more sophisticated than his desire to screw? His sole reason for wanting a job – and this is repeated constantly throughout the film – is to get Maria on a date and look at her “pretty breasts” again. If Luke weren’t autistic, we’d think he was an immature chauvinistic moron, and root for his failure just out of spite.  So instead of using autism as an excuse for such a questionable ambition, why not just give him a proper motivation to get a job; like, I don’t know, to contribute to society, to challenge himself, to earn the respect of his family and friends, or to, you know, pay the bills and buy groceries? We’re meant to believe Luke wants a job so desperately simply because he eventually wants to have sex with a lady with whom he spoke once. I doubt that such a haphazard motivation would drive anyone to make such huge, life-changing decisions and overcome massive difficulties as he did – pretty as Maria’s breasts may well be.

But there I go again, getting all worked up about representations, when this shouldn’t even be what this blog is about. So once again, let us shed our disbelief, and instead follow the path paved for us by the makers of this film and see how, despite it all, we can use The Story of Luke as an inspiration to discuss some important issues about autism in its social and cultural context.

My favourite scenes in the film were the ones in which Zack (Seth Green) – who’s presumably also on the autism spectrum – shares with Luke his knowledge of neurotypical behaviour. He takes his study very seriously – he observes neurotypicals carefully, takes notes, and makes inferences based on what he sees. In more than one occasion he refers to his approach as ‘scientific’. He makes use of all the tools at his disposal, including computer hardware and software, to devise experiments and practice interactions. When Luke is taken on board as Zach’s student, they treat Luke’s attempts at socializing with neurotypicals in the ‘outside world’ as field experiments. This is reminiscent of many autistic authors’ experience of constantly trying to ‘figure out’ other people. Seeing as people with autism often lack the capacity many of us apparently share of somehow automatically knowing what people mean, think or feel, they need to apply a rational method to interpret human behavior. A ‘scientific’ method, so to speak. Temple Grandin succinctly compared this feeling of constantly being on-guard and always having to think and analyze people’s behaviour and actions to being ‘an anthropologist on Mars’. I wrote in a previous post about the alien metaphor commonly used in autism discourse. Today let’s discuss the other half of that statement by Grandin – the ‘anthropologist’ theme.

In my post about Mozart and the Whale I discussed the common issue of autistic people feeling pressured to mimic neurotypical behaviour and ‘act normal’ (with an emphasis on ‘acting’). But the scenes with Zack and his binoculars made me realize something that I was somewhat oblivious to up until now, or at least that I’ve never fully appreciated; that in order to mimic neurotypical behaviour, you first need to have a pretty good idea of what actually constitutes ‘neurotypical behaviour’. And, well, that’s quite a tricky bit isn’t it?

I remember reading in many memoirs and blogs by people on the autism spectrum about how, as children in the school-ground, they were looking at the kids around them; how strangely they were behaving, how inexplicable their actions often seemed. Similes such as ‘it was like they were speaking a foreign language that I just couldn’t understand’ are quite common. Indeed, aside from the aforementioned (and not a favourite of mine, as you may have realized) alien metaphor, the culture concept, stretched to its broadest meaning, is perhaps the best tool around to try and understand the sort of difference that autism brings about. The experience might be something like being in a strange land, not knowing – or even recognizing – the local language, habits, customs, and rules. I can only imagine the confusion and frustration one must feel, and the resulting sense of exclusion and solitude – as well as fear.

Except – what if you were to take it upon yourself to study real hard, and come to speak the language, habits and so on? That would certainly make things much easier wouldn’t it? You could make friends, fit in, and become a member of the group. Even if you’ll never be a 100% like ‘them’, at least you won’t be a total stranger any more. Well, not really. This might be true when different cultures are concerned, but it does not seem to be the case with autism. Like I wrote elsewhere, a neurological difference is grounded not in language, history, faith, or even the body – it is inscribed in the brain; and as such, it cannot (nor should it) be made to go away. A person can change their clothes, religion, surname, and accent. If they will it, they can even change their skin color. But they can’t change their brains. They can’t change who they are. That difference is there for good.

So what’s my point? It is this: Zach confused things. His honest attempts to learn neurotypical behaviour in order to mimic it was misguided. Mimicking may get one so far in certain situation, but from what I gather, such attempts too often result in utter stress, frustration, and an anxiety of being “found out” (though sometimes, unfortunately, these attempt just can’t be avoided – the social pressure to conform is simply to overpowering.  Sometimes things like getting an education or employment depend – sad as this may be – on one’s ability to ‘pass’ as normal. This is not inevitable, of course. This is why political action is necessary).  But then what about learning neurotypical behaviour, not in order to mimic it or pretend to be it, but purely to satisfy one’s intellectual curiosity, and to make some sense of what too often seems nonsensical; that might be quite a positive enterprise, wouldn’t it? Understanding those different from oneself, I imagine, could go a long way in assuaging fears, feeling comfortable around those Others, and feeling more at ease in their otherwise intimidating presence. It offers the safety of knowing your surroundings.

It’s also just really interesting. I mean hey, it’s essentially what I chose to do with my life.

So here, I believe, is something anthropology can really contribute to bettering the lives of autistic people – as it can be employed not just to the study of autism by neurotypicals (which is what I’m doing), but also to the autistic study of neurotypicals.

It’s long been held in my discipline that in order to be a good anthropologist, you need to leave your familiar surroundings. That’s the best – and some say the only – way to ‘stumble on every rock’, as it were; to be intrigued by what others consider mundane; to be bewildered by the otherwise banal; to ask questions that no one had thought of asking; to offer new sorts of explanations to phenomena mistakenly thought to be sufficiently-understood. When Zach observes the ‘mating habits’ of the office NTs, his potential for coming up with novel ideas about human behaviour is in fact much greater than if a neurotypical anthropologist would observe the same activities. For example, the fact he attributed such importance to the frequency and duration of eye contact obviously derives from the fact that to him (presumably), any eye-contact is an inexplicable activity. This puts him in the best of positions to try and explain this ‘odd’ behaviour – because it allows him to ask the most unobvious questions about what makes it so.

But importantly, while Zach’s curiosity is potentially very productive, his methods are entirely wrong. Observation might lead you to ask interesting questions; but it alone will never allow you to come up with any valid answers. In referring to office flirtation as a ‘mating ritual’ Zack makes a mistake that is common among non-anthropologists (or early anthropologists, or just bad ones) – the assumption that human behaviour is as predictable and patterned as animal behaviour. It isn’t. Human behaviour, much like humans themselves, is as unpredictable as it is complex. Affect, agency, performance, subversion, selfhood, defiance, creativity, cultivation – these are just a fraction of the concepts social scientists use when analyzing social behaviour in humans, in order to emphasize just how irregular it is, and how different ‘social forces’ are (if those can even be said to exist) from the laws of physics, chemistry, or biology.

If Zach wanted to understand the ‘ritual’ he was observing (namely flirtation near the water cooler) – he would have no choice but to come out of his office and ask the people involved what they thought was happening. Why did she laugh when he told that obviously unfunny joke; why did he look away when she looked at her watch; that sort of thing. He needn’t take their answers at face-value though – he’s absolutely entitled to make his own interpretation. That’s what anthropology is mostly about. But collecting their own thoughts and ideas is an invaluable first step. Without it, one never really has a chance of understanding other people. Without it it’s just guess-work, and you’re very unlikely to guess correctly.

“The institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical” is a brilliantly articulated and witty example of what autistic anthropology shouldn’t be (it’s satirical, of course, and I’m just using it as a straw-man). It paints a grotesque image of neurotypical behaviour, that’s as invalid as it is funny. As a piece of social commentary, a satire – it’s brilliant. But this is not the kind of thing I’m proposing.

I wish we were all anthropologists – I honestly do. I think anthropological insight holds incredible potential for a better, more just society. But anthropology shouldn’t be taken too lightly, either, lest people are taken lightly; and that’s the very thing anthropology tries to avoid. In other words, be anthropologists, I urge you; it might just make things easier; behaivours might become less confusing, people might be seen as less strange, and the world a bit less chaotic. But be good anthropologists; take a course or several, read some anthropology introduction books, follow some anthropology blogs – do it right. Bad anthropology is often ridiculously bad, and is damaging more than it is helpful. Good anthropology, on the other hand, can be incredibly useful.

Is this what I was getting at this whole time? I sincerely doubt it. But I do like what came out. So I might just keep it.

What do you think about all this? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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Ben X

Ben X

In what would usually be referred to as ’the real world’, Ben is a Belgian (Flemish) teenager; lonely, full of anxiety, practically mute, and autistic. Is he anxious and silent because he is autistic? Well, partly, yes. But it is also because he is treated ever so horribly by his classmates who tease him, bully him, beat him, drug him, and humiliate him. Despite having loving and caring parents, and at least one kind and considerate teacher, Ben’s ‘real world’ existence is full of suffering; it is quite unbearable.

But in the virtual on-screen world of Archlord, he is Ben X; a hero, a skilled warrior, an esteemed and respected figure; and the fellow in battle, travel, and play to the equally skillful heroine who goes by the name of Scarlite.

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“The princess of letters, on the other side of the land; who is always by my side when things get out of hand; who knows me without knowing my name; who could put me back together again; who could make me ‘sleep tight’.“

During the film, Ben constantly shifts back and forth between the two worlds he inhabits; master in one, victim in the other; admired in one, tortured in the other. Is it any surprise he prefers one over the other?

An excessive liking to video games is frequently framed as a problem; quite often, the word addiction is invoked. I don’t want to go into a debate about whether excessive gaming is really such a bad thing or not – I guess I just find it hard to generalize. In principal: yes, a healthy life should ideally consist of various kinds of stimuli, not just one. But if video games offer someone a place where they can finally shed their anxiety and have some much needed relaxation and fun, while socializing in ways that would otherwise simply be too overwhelming, frightening, or painful – I don’t know, who’s to say that’s wrong? But like I said, this isn’t the discussion I was going for. What I would like to talk about is the role that virtual worlds have in the lives of those who play it; the important role that is quite often misunderstood, and possibly unappreciated by others.

Tom Boellstorff is social anthropologist. Like many others, he has chosen to study a culture different than his own. It has its own rules, norms, values, and symbols. Like members of most other cultural groups, the members of his studied culture, too, have bodies and occupy a space. Except in this case, the bodies are avatars, and the space they occupy is the virtual world of Second Life. Years of bad rep by people who don’t quite understand this world have contributed to a conception of Second Life as offering a type of a shallow, worthless sociality; a fake. Boellstorff shows exactly the opposite: Second Life, and presumably any other virtual world, is as unequivocally social, and just as real as any other space where people live and act.

First, he says, let’s get rid of the useless distinction between real and virtual that only confuses things. Connections made online are every bit as real as the ones made offline; people make friends on chat rooms, meet life partners in virtual worlds, find support in discussion forums, and joke around with other people on twitter. What’s not real about any of these activities? Is it different than making a friend in a book shop, being on a date in a bar, or sitting in a therapist’s clinic? Of course it is different. But is it any less real? Nope. It’s mediated, yes. But hey, so is a phone conversation, and that hasn’t been said to be fake since probably a century ago. Once the landline has become widespread, and we became accustomed to it, we accepted it as a valid form of communication. Virtual worlds are not essentially different from the landline insofar as they are a means of communication; visually elaborate and creatively designed, yes (how is that a bad thing?), but merely a means of communications nonetheless.

So instead of talking about the real-world, when all we’re talking about is communication-that-isn’t-mediated-by-technology, let’s talk about the actual world instead, as the counterpart of the virtual world. Different as the actual and the virtual worlds may be, both are equally real.

So if we agree that the story is not that there is the real world on one hand and a fake world on the other hand, but that we are simply talking about two spheres of the real world, we might want to ask – what’s the relationship between the two? How does one relate to the other?

Try this explanation: the virtual and the actual are distinct, but they are not separate. What happens in the actual world shapes one’s experience of the virtual world, and what happens in the virtual world shapes our interpretation of the actual world. It’s basically a continuous two-way dynamic, with mutual effects. How is this outlook helpful? Well, we could say, for example, that Ben’s online experiences make him see his actual-life reality in a certain way – as compared to (compared to the virtual world, that is), rather than as simply is. This has both negative and positive consequences: it inspires in him hope, suggests strategies for improvement, and offers a reservoir of images for day-dreaming and fantasizing. But at the same time, it highlights reality (actual-world reality) at its poorest: a violent, cruel, uncompassionate existence, where people’s potential is not realized, and power is used for evil instead of good. At the same time, Ben’s offline existence affects his virtual-life: he uses his avatar to act out his emotions, to speak honestly to his friend, to exert courage, but also to show weakness.

In other words, Ben is not leading two separate lives; he lives one life, which is divided into two spheres. Ben uses relatively novel technology to do this, but other than that, is it really so unique? Think of a businesswoman, spending weekdays in the office and weekends with her family; think of an army commander who spends several months at home followed by several months in the battlefield; think of a football player – running and kicking on the pitch, then having dinner with his wife; think of how we all take holidays; isn’t it quite the same thing, at the bottom of it? Same world, different spheres of life; same person, different ‘selves’.

Also:

If Ben inhabits two spheres, and occupies two bodies, can he be said to be two people? Well I wouldn’t go that far, but I would definitely agree that Ben has two selves. Not a real one and a fake one, mind you, as we’ve already established that they’re both perfectly real. They are certainly different, though; so perhaps the better question would be to ask in what way his two selves are different. And in this respect, the most obvious difference between the living body and the digital body is that while the former can feel, hear, touch, taste, smell, and sense – the latter can’t; it is numb, indifferent, desensitized.

So the living body has the capacity for pleasure; but also for pain. We tend to idealize bodily pleasure, and lament its absence. But like Pink Floyd suggested, numbness can often be comfortable; particularly if the alternative is not pleasure, but pain and suffering.

Another important difference is this: there is only so much one can do to change their physical body; of course you can exercise, eat better, dye your hair, dress according to whatever fashion you like, and even have cosmetic surgery – but mostly, it’s a given. You keep what you draw. Your virtual body, on the other hand – now that’s just one big variable.  You can choose your gender (with the body parts to go with it), your appearance; even your species! Feel like a pixie toddler today?  A bi-sexual cross-gender giant? A carnivorous double-hump camel?  You can be that. And you can play the part with confidence, because no one will accuse you of acting childlike when you should be acting like an adult; for acting masculine when you’re expected to be lady-like; for making jokes when situations calls for serious behaviour – or the other way around. In other words, you can just be yourself – silly as that may sound – when you’re a made-up character. Self-fashioning – self-creation even – are real possibilities in virtual worlds. They afford a type of creativity that goes beyond drawing on canvas, or writing words on paper – they afford creativity that can be utilized to design your very self. And for some people, particularly those whose physical existence is an endless and futile struggle to either conform to, or reject their expected social roles – to finally be able to choose the role that suits you, down to the very last detail – how appealing is that?

 

 “In games you can be whoever and whatever you like. Here you can only be one person. The jerk you see in the mirror. I have to teach him everything. For example, I have to teach him to laugh. People like that. To ‘give them a smile’, as they say. Which means smiling when really there’s nothing to smile about. That’s how you create your own avatar.”

 

Get it? We create avatars in the actual-world all the time. Except it’s harder, and we get very little choice about what we want these avatars to be.

In his mind, Ben wishes for his two characters – his two selves – to unite. He can only fantasize how his virtual self would react in the actual-world events he is forced to cope with. If only Ben had Ben X’s strength, courage, swordsmanship, and way with words, his life would have been so much better. But he hasn’t; and it’s not. It’s as hard as anyone can imagine. Ben X might have it made; but Ben is miserable.

In one critical junction in the story, it seems as if at least one formidable achievement of Ben’s virtual self might finally be transported to his actual-world; the friendship and affection of his co-player, Scarlite. Her actual-world self is worried about his, and she’s coming on the train to meet him. But the embodied, actual-world version of Scarlite simply proves too petrifying for him to approach – he can’t even say hello. Then, at one tragic moment, the pain of Ben’s existence overwhelms him, and he decides to kill himself by jumping under a moving train. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I myself have confused the actual-world and the cinematic world, and cried “NO!!!” at the screen, with a very real voice, led by a very real emotion.

Ben doesn’t kill himself, luckily, though I dare speculate that his eventual decision to go on living was solely motivated by the movie makers’ concern for the intactness of their audience’s nearly-shattered hearts; not by any real motivation of the protagonist. In that sense, Ben’s delusion of Scarlite as a loving girlfriend is a classic Deus ex Machina (adequately defined in Wikipedia as “a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object” – isn’t that precisely what Ben’s delusion of Scarlite is?) In other words, if Ben were to kill himself, this would have been a devastating story, and yet a remarkably sincere one (it seems the true story on which the novel was based did, in-fact, end with suicide). Adolescent suicide is a real-world problem, so an honest cinematic depiction of it would not have been ill-suited. But as it happened, the makers of Ben X chose to convey the dangers and injustices of high-school brutality in a different way; through their protagonist’s somewhat playful ploy, tricking his community into believing he had committed suicide, and noting their collective conscience at work. To actually have their main character proceed to kill himself would, I believe, send the same message, but so much more powerfully.

But at any rate, Ben X offers quite a brilliant depiction, I thought, of an important part of the experience of being autistic. It’s not always charming naivety, childhood innocence, good-naturedness, and a wholesome dash of some much-called-for honesty; instead, sometimes, it’s about suffering, anxiety, depression, distress, loneliness, and even suicidal thoughts. Aren’t these very often what autistic adolescents must cope with, in a society where antipathy, intolerance, and plain cruelty are all too common?

“Then it was time for truthfulness. Shamefulness, painfulness.” Indeed. Sometimes it is.

What do you think?

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