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.
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.