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.
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.