Tuesday 6 April 2021

The Question in Bodies #31: Neurodiverse, part 2

(Wait, I hear no one say, what happened to #30? Where is Neurodiverse part 1? It's on my Patreon. It's not a film piece. It's personal and it's a bit more sensitive, and since the internet is making me aware of its nature with crappy comments in the moderation queue, you only get to read that one if you give me money, because I am nothing if not mercenary.)


But when all life gives you is a starchy tuber ripened beyond the point of being edible, you might as well cut it into a potato print and make something, I suppose.

I hope at least that some of this excruciating and perhaps negligibly relevant personal disclosure does put into perspective why I am writing about identity horror. And also, why writing about it has proven so elemental for me.

One of the subthemes of identity horror as a potentially mapped out genre, I think, is the attraction of monstrousness. Or perhaps, not so much the attraction of it, a sympathy with it, a feeling of mutuality with it, an experience. Of being a monster. Horror often plays upon things we are afraid of, and the best sort plays upon our sadness, too; its catharsis comes from experiencing terror, shock and grief in a controlled, finite form. The specific frustration of being unable to connect is, as I hope you might expect, one of my most profound and consistent sources of fear and grief.

This is quite separate from the trope of “Cringe Comedy”. Shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm (1999-2020), the British iteration of The Office (2001-2003) and The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel (2017-present) all depend on comedy drawn from excruciatingly awkward situations caused by characters who miss some social cue, some nicety of interaction, that means that offence is caused and social bonds are violated.

I find this sort of comedy almost impossible to watch. Often I have to leave the room until the offending scene is over, and it’s worse because it’s not really about the person causing the awkwardness. In each of these shows, the clueless protagonist – (the fictionalised version of) Larry David, David Brent, Midge Maisel – is presented as a callous, almost sociopathic narcissist, a horrendous bully who brings calamity on themself but almost invariably does so by bringing worse embarrassment or distress to the people around them. 

The Marvellous Mrs Maisel
The Marvellous Mrs Maisel.

Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), the title character of The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, is a particularly apposite example. Midge is a New York stand-up comic from the 1960s very loosely based on a young Joan Rivers, and Midge’s schtick is that her off-the-cuff standup routines are often wildly, painfully inappropriate. They often humiliate and embarrass the very people who asked her to perform, as in the episode where she wrecks her friend’s wedding with a bridal toast where she makes jokes about the bride being pregnant (which the bride in fact is), or the one where she publicly outs the famous crooner she’s supposed to be the warm-up act for to thousands of people while performing on stage at the New York Apollo. Although this behaviour is supposedly to be considered as self-destructive, and notwithstanding her all-encompassing awfulness as a person, all her friends nonetheless love her and continually tell her how special and important she is. Never mind the consequences that befall now everyone in that friend’s conservative Catholic family now knows it’s a shotgun wedding. Never mind her colleague who has to weather the professional repercussions of being revealed to the public as a gay black man in 1960s showbiz. That's how you laugh at it, though: the person causing things to kick off has to be only comically monstrous, and the consequences visited on the true victims must, in most cases, be elided. 

Horror, comedy and tragedy are closely related. Horror is often funny, and comedy is often horrific. It's often a matter of degree, a matter of tone and direction.

The movies I'm looking at here are actually pretty funny, if your sense of humour is so inclined, but they draw from the well of sympathy, pity and revulsion. They aim for catharsis (aiming is not the same as hitting, of course).

We are often invited to sympathise with the protagonists in these films, even while they’re presented as monstrous and while their behaviours and desires are “weird”. Often, they’re young. They are unable to read social cues and have difficulty expressing themselves in ways that others will react to positively. They have an unusual fetish or interest that is again signified as monstrous and likely to bring others to reject them. Eventually, their behaviour – and the reaction of the social connections they have – leads them to act out in usually violent ways, and whether they triumph or not, blood and death results.

These characters are almost always coded in ways that suggest they have autism. This is also almost always accidental. But decent directors and decent actors have a shared talent for observation, and it quite often happens that you can quite accurately portray how a thing looks without even really knowing what it is you’re looking at. More movies succeed accidentally at their enterprises than you might think. They catch lightning in a bottle.

Maybe it’s to do with the way in which I spent so long being entirely aware of my own difference without knowing what the name for it was (and the way I spend so much time now wishing I still didn’t know). And it should be noted that the last thing I want to do is to fall into the infuriating trap where I've had the label for not even twelve months and suddenly I'm an expert in all things neurodiverse (and it starts to be the only bloody thing I ever talk about). Maybe though, that's the point.

But it seems to me that the most interesting thing here is that movies and TV shows where the protagonists are (most probably accidentally) coded as neurodiverse often do a better job of presenting neurodiversity than movies and TV shows that want you to know that their protagonists are neurodiverse. Partly that’s simply to do with how what we generally think of as “weird” is in fact the fairly usual behaviour of neurodiverse people in stressful situations. And on the other hand, I think that’s partly to do with the way that dramas and comedies that present people with autism, ADHD, or whatever mistake inclusivity for just being a bit patronising.


Consider the Netflix dramedy Atypical (2017-2021). Its protagonist, Sam (Keir Gilchrist) is roughly the same age as some of the characters I’ll be looking at here, but is only “weird” in that he is openly declared autistic. Every one of his offbeat behaviours is autistic. He has an obsessive interest, but it’s a benign, gentle obsessive interest – he really likes penguins. The show leans hard into the “savant” narrative, the idea that being autistic, is, for all the difficulties it presents, nonetheless a sort of superpower. Sam is not played by an autistic actor, and Sam’s default expression is one of brow-knitted perplexity.

Atypical isn’t even that bad a show (seriously, compared to Sia's movie Music (2021) it's a work of compassionate perfection) but sometimes Atypical nonetheless feels like a checklist of Autistic Things that have to be pointed out in each episode, as if the show is saying to you, “Look! Here is an Autistic Thing that our Autistic Protagonist, who is Autistic, has to deal with because of his Autism.” This is standard. Whenever a character in a drama or comedy is called out as autistic, the action, desperate to win approval, becomes about their autism.

You wouldn't think that the “weird” protagonist whose interests and obsessions lead to horrific consequences is a shining example of representation. But in being accidentally coded that way rather than explicitly labelled, these characters can be characters. And character, in order to be rounded, in order to include the range of human experience, sometimes has to admit monstrousness. And personally speaking, I've spent most of my life saddled with monstrousness. In the world that inhabits me (rather than the world I inhabit), I see the characters in these films in a painful, personal way. And sometimes I find myself thinking, this is what it is like.

Excision (2012)

In Richard Bates Jr’s 2012 debut Excision, we meet Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord), a high school senior with agonising coldsores and no social graces. Her fondly held and, we are told, probably futile desire to become a surgeon seems to come more from the erotically charged obsession she has with blood and viscera, which she generally gratifies with complex and surreal masturbatory fantasies. The film repeatedly shows us Pauline's imaginary tableaux. In a brightly lit and clinical setting, glammed-up versions of Pauline enact scenes of blood bathing, evisceration and decapitation. The glam versions of Pauline more closely reflect the images of McCord you’d more typically find on Google – as opposed to Pauline, who is hardly what you'd call ugly, looking like AnnaLynne McCord without makeup or filters and with a couple of skin blemishes. In fact, about the time she was filming Excision, McCord joined the ranks of those celebrities who did the “this is what I look like without makeup” thing on social media, so you could see what she looks like when she is being what Liz Hurley used to call a “civilian”, which I suppose has an interesting path to a discussion about artificiality and fantasy in the way we construct our self image, which I expect I'll get back to when I talk about Starry Eyes.

Excision in fact begins with one of Pauline's fantasies, where two duplicates of her sit facing each other on high stools. One is bleeding to death, and it is not easy to discern which of the two Paulines is deriving more pleasure from this. The fantasies Pauline knocks one out over might be bloody, but they're oddly antiseptic and unemotional. They are dissociative: she doesn't really participate so much as observe. Criticisms of Excision zero in on Pauline's private brain-porn as excessively cerebral, as artificial and contrived, but at the risk of outing myself as some sort of sociopath, I think that these are clearly the criticisms of people whose adolescent imagination was not dissociative. I see in Pauline's fantasies some of the character of my own (very different) formative imagination: the unemotional detachment of it; the character of watching a scripted tableau; the haute couture idealisation of the protagonists; the impossibility of the scenes. 

(This is further underlined by AnnaLynne McCord herself going public with her diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder, and her recollection that filming Excision affected her so profoundly that she apparently had trouble getting out of character.)

Some of Pauline’s very personal fantasies end in dismemberment or death but the finality of them, their irreversible nature, is of course a phantom, because they are fantasies, and no more permanent than the moment where a kid falls down dead in a playground pretend game, of which this is a more complex, eroticised form. And the horror comes in the place in the plot where the fantasies bleed into the real, which is a thing that people who don’t understand how these fantasies work generally suspect will happen. And it becomes the reason why, when you are a “weird” teenager with “weird” fantasies, you quickly teach yourself that these are fantasies you really should be guilty about. They are not “normal”.

And Pauline does just that. She's from a churchgoing family – unable or unwilling to afford a shrink, her mother even takes Pauline for counselling to their pastor, who is played by none other than John Waters. (Allow me to digress for a second to just comment on the cast in this thing, which also features Matthew Gray Gubler, Malcolm McDowell and Ray “Leland Palmer” Wise as members of the school faculty. Everything about the cast screams “cult movie” and I'm not sure if that really does this film a service.)

Church has had its expected effect on Pauline’s imagination. From time to time, we even listen in on her prayers.

Pauline: Dear God, one thing I really don’t get – the whole thing about relatives watching over you after they die really rubs me the wrong way. I do a lot of creepy shit when I’m alone and I’d appreciate some privacy. I don’t wanna sound presumptuous but if I do get into heaven, and my relatives have been watching over me, a lot of relationships will have been compromised.

A lot of Pauline’s neuroses clearly come from her family. While Pauline’s dad Bob (Roger Bart) is, if a bit ineffectual, nice enough, her mother Phyllis (trash cinema goddess and sometime BDSM chanteuse Traci Lords) is uptight, conservative and domineering. Phyllis is aware that she's probably being too hard on Pauline, and expresses to Bob that she's afraid of becoming her own mother. Bob reassures her that if she was, he would have divorced her long ago, but that oddly equivocal statement suggests that actually… maybe she is. 

Pauline’s sister Grace (Ariel Winter) is, unlike Pauline, conventionally feminine, sweet-natured, and the apple of everyone’s eye. She is the only person who Pauline feels a deep emotional bond with. She is Pauline’s touchstone, and the sisters, although very different, love each other deeply. But Grace is also dying. Grace has cystic fibrosis, and Pauline’s complex system of desires, fantasies and – somewhat more wholesome – wish to enter medicine are clearly arranged around her relationship with Grace’s mortality, since surgery has been talked about for a long time. It’s always on the table, so to speak.

Grace accepts Pauline entirely as she is. The sisters love each other and even though Pauline struggles to display affection in the way the people around her might expect her to, her sister is her world, which makes what happens to Grace at the end that much more tragic.

Pauline’s outcast status is not predicated on her being bullied, really. At school, she inspires fear and revulsion rather than mockery. This seems to suit her. When she approaches Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), the evidently manipulable boyfriend of one of the school Mean Girls, gives him her phone number and tells him in a matter-of-fact fashion that she would like to lose her virginity and he seems a reasonable candidate, he does not, as one might expect, throw it back in her face, but acquiesces.

Pauline approaches the whole thing as an experiment. If Adam was expecting her to treat him with more care than his girlfriend, he is out of luck. He buys extra large condoms, and Pauline tells him they are too big, but never mind, she is taking the pill and it will hurt less. During the act, she imagines killing him, and makes him go down her, having timed this whole event to coincide with her period. But of course he isn’t prepared to share her fetishes and when he gets blood in his face, the whole thing ends abruptly.

Nonetheless, Pauline, who never had any interest in Adam’s gratification, describes the experience as “everything I’d always dreamed it would be.” You could deduce that Pauline was just a psychopath from that, and she self-diagnoses Borderline Personality Disorder, but neither psychopathy nor BPD are really explanations for who Pauline is. 

Pauline’s lack of filters has her earning the wrath of the mean girls. The wrath of the mean girls has Pauline beating the shit out of them. And then Pauline gets expelled and won’t graduate high school. And she will never be a doctor. And her sister is dying. And Pauline snaps.

Here is where Pauline really does something terrible and final, that drives it outside the realm of the reasonable and into the realm of the horror film: she sedates her sister, and the kid across the street, and takes them into the garage and performs a lung transplant, except she doesn’t really know how to perform a lung transplant, and you definitely wouldn't do it in your garage, and she falls into a fugue of denial that it has failed and she’s killed two people.

And obviously, this is where even accidental representation of neurodiversity falls apart, because no one actually does this. But then, this is a horror movie, and horror movies are full of things no one actually does. But that basic disconnect where you try to put things right without really having gotten to grips with what the rules are – and without even knowing what the game is – and without anyone having told you what the game is – is real. And the horror of the amateur lung transplant is only multiplied by the horror of not being able to see that it is a thing that you just do not do.

I feel for Pauline, because Pauline is subject to that same glass wall that disconnects her from the affect of the “normal”. I feel for her because in some way, I was lucky enough not to wind up like her.