Thursday 8 April 2021

The Question in Bodies #32: Neurodiverse part 3

May (2002)

[Many more spoilers, so do go and see May before you read this. Hell, go and see May even if you don't read this, because May is brilliant.]

The funny thing about characters coded as neurodiverse and called “weird” is that often the films in which they appear try to give us reasons why they are like this.

In Excision, Pauline self-diagnoses with Borderline Personality Disorder. In Lucky McKee’s phenomenal 2002 debut May, we see a sort of prologue where titular protagonist May Canaday, as a child, shunned by other kids because of her odd behaviour and the lazy eye which means she has to wear an eye patch. Her mother, who is also sort of weird, gives her a creepy doll called Suzie, which she has to keep in a glass box and never touch because she's fragile. “If you can’t find a friend,” says May’s mother, “make one.”

And obviously the proverb is the sort of thing you say to encourage a kid to be outgoing and friendly and decent but May’s mother doesn’t mean that. She means that she literally made herself a doll when she was a kid, and kept her in a glass box because that was her best chance at making a friend. The doll has to stay in the box, pristine and untouched and impossible to be played with, never more than the idea of a toy and the idea of a friend. This is in no way an example of a parenting strategy conducive to normality.

In the film, these brief minutes are supposed to give you an explanatory context: no wonder she grew up strange and lonely, you’re supposed to think, having been brought up by someone so uptight and emotionally distant. And of course that’s a cinematic shorthand for “weird childhood”. But because it’s a shorthand, it opens itself to interpretations which probably aren’t even intended by the filmmaker, but which are a credit to that filmmaker, because, again, if you are good enough at observing and replicating the look and feel of a thing, you don’t even have to know what that thing is.

Where did the home team go?

Neurodiversity runs in families. May’s mother might be signalled as emotionally unavailable, and “weird”, but as I keep saying, conventionally understood signifiers of “weirdness” are also signifiers of neurodiversity under stress. 

So, yes, Mrs Canaday reaching out to her daughter by giving her a thing precious to her and telling her the personal story attached to that object might not be the moment that equips her daughter to deal with the everyday world of social interaction (spoiler: it really, really isn’t), but that attempt at connection by sharing a personal story is exactly what a neurodiverse person would do. Neurodiverse people are often stereotyped as excessively literal, but we often connect obliquely, through our stories. It makes us look like we’re selfish and self-absorbed, that we are making things about us (it’s what the root of the word “autistic” means). But that isn’t it. We express common ground through parallel experience. I learned the hardest possible way that you don’t do it if you want people to like you.

May’s mother explains the phenomenon of her daughter in ways that extend beyond emotional distance, or “weirdness". Nothing she does in the film is exactly abusive. Far from it, it seems an attempt to show affection the only way she can.

But this isn’t a zero sum game. We mess our families up, and ourselves, and our only fault lies in having no clue what we’re doing. Our intentions are the asphalt on the road to Damnation. Not meaning it is no excuse. We can, through not understanding, do monstrous things out of love or the honest desire for it. And as we’ll see, neither love nor the genuine need for it provide an excuse, only, at best, an explanation.

And the result of Mrs Canaday's attempt at affection is damage, multiplied. And so May is unprepared for the world.

She grows up to be an awkward, lonely young woman (as played by the marvellous Angela Bettis) who works in a vet’s office and has a fascination with the inner workings of creatures. Her only regular conversations are with her doll.

Making friends proves to be very hard for May. May is starved for love. She is desperate for it. She has so much love to give, but no idea how to give it, and people let her down, over and over. Even before the film has begun, she has been let down. She seeks perfection in people, which already is a sign of something other than neurotypical thinking. And people are imperfect. And imperfect in ways that endlessly disappoint her. For May, friends are as distant as a doll in a glass box.

May: You know how you meet someone, and you think you like them, but then the more you talk to them you see parts you don’t like? Like that guy on the bench. And sometimes you don’t end up liking any parts at all.

People don’t understand May, nor does she understand them. She’s too intense, too much. She needs people but people find her hard work. In the end, she breaks, turning into something cold and hard and exactly doll-like, and she embarks on a spree of dismemberments, to gather the parts for the making of a friend.

Working out how not to be “hard work” is an exhausting and complex enterprise for those of us to whom it does not come naturally, and unless you commit to it obsessively, and continue to try despite the frustration of repeated failure and thwarted progress, you probably won't. And even when you do, it’s not a hundred per cent that you will always manage it. There are moving parts, things to remember, conditions outside of your control, things that cannot be predicted.

If I’d known that this conscious, tortuous system of learned behaviours was not in fact what everybody adopted in order to stand any chance of being accepted in social discourse, would I have tried so hard?

Push me down, push me down

the aesthetics of horror movies often hark back to the decade or so preceding their making. May is very much a film that reflects a certain sort of mid-nineties indie movie, the sort of movie where vaguely disaffected twentysomethings wander aimlessly through sun-wreathed urban streets, and have inconclusive and obliquely important conversations in laundrettes, while the soundtrack rings with the iconic electric rock of the nineties. In fact, May, a disaffected twentysomething, wanders aimlessly through the summer streets; the laundrette is a place where asymmetrically meaningful conversations drive the plot; most of the songs on the soundtrack are performed by Kim and/or Kelley Deal, the Gemini of the Classic Indie Rock Horoscope.

The genius of McKee’s movie though is that only some of the characters belong in this sort of movie. May belongs in this sort of movie about as much as she belongs in society: superficially she sort of fits, with her homemade clothes and her kooky demeanour, but she is as much a corrective to the so-called Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope as Ruby Sparks is.

On the other hand, Adam (Jeremy Sisto), the laid back hipster with the beautiful hands who works in the garage across the road, does belong in this sort of movie, and thinks that Manic Pixie Dream Girls exist, and he decides that May might be his, until he realises, a little too late, that she is something much less appealing.

May: You don’t think I’m weird?
I do think you’re weird.
I like weird. I like weird a lot.

Adam does not, we find, like weird. He doesn't really know what weird is until he meets it. An aspiring filmmaker, he imagines himself as a connoisseur of the strange, and has an inkling that a Manic Pixie Dream Girl with a strong stomach might be for him, but like a lot of really basic guys, he confuses things like liking Dario Argento movies with actually having an interesting personality.

He's selfish, self-regarding and charismatic enough to attract people and keep people even while treating them like shit. Like Adam’s actual squeeze, or friend-with-benefits, or kinda sorta girlfriend, Hoop (Nora Zehetner). When Adam abuses Hoop, she acts like she should expect it. When Hoop meets May, she does not understand in the way that Adam dimly does that May is dangerous (and of course Adam has told her about May, and they have laughed about her). Hoop seals both her fate and Adam’s by inviting May into Adam’s pad out of a curiosity-driven desire to gawp at May like she’s the freak Adam has told her about, but it is also almost as if Hoop feels that in directing Adam’s abuse at May, she might escape it herself. It’s a common technique of self preservation.

It doesn’t work, and it doesn’t save her from either of them.

Do you wish you here like I wish I was with you?

If everyone who disappoints May were as banal and selfish as Adam, the film would be much less affecting. None of May’s victims deserve to be dismembered really, but it is easy when you’re watching a horror film to invest in seeing a basic asshole of the sort we all know receiving a disproportionately horrible fate. It’s one of the cathartic pleasures of this sort of movie, (and one of the dangers, too, as a cursory look at the fan discourse surrounding Midsommar so ably demonstrates).

But what about Polly? Polly (Anna Faris) works with May for the same slightly incompetent vet – May is a veterinary nurse, Polly the receptionist. Polly is gay, and makes moves on May. Later, having had some fun with May, Polly introduces May to Ambrosia (Nichole Hiltz), a shallow blonde with spectacular legs, whom she is also cheerfully banging. May feels betrayed, and both Polly and Ambrosia wind up victims of her rampage.

But the thing about Polly is that Polly does genuinely like May. Twice in the film, May overhears conversations about herself. Adam talks with his friends about her; he is cruel and dismissive. But May also hears Ambrosia say to Polly, “I don’t understand what you see in her.” Which implies that Polly has told Ambrosia about her weird friend at the vets, and has said good things about her. Like Adam, Polly has no reason to lie when she does not know that May is listening.

Even though Polly is, on her own terms, absolutely clear about what she wants and how she frames her relationships, May does not understand it. Polly means no harm whatsoever – she just likes to have sex with attractive women as a fun pastime, and neither pretends that the sex is more than a fun pastime, nor that her nailing Ambrosia affects her regard for May. She is, frankly, poly.

Both Adam and Polly change the way May sees herself. They change the way she behaves. May takes up smoking because Adam gives her some smokes. And with Polly she notices that she is not straight. So apparently a disproportionate number of neurodiverse people are in some way queer, whether gay, or bi, or pan, or asexual, or gender-nonconforming or whatever. I wonder if it is something to do with that little switch that I’ve observed a lot of straight neurotypical people to have, the one that with an almost audible click turns on the repulsion reaction whenever polymorphous perversity is on the table (and incidental, even calling it “perversity” signals Freud as a Basic Straight, whatever else he was). I don’t have that switch. I've always been faintly bemused by its existence.

It’s hard to explain how abstract bodies are for me, how separate I feel from this skin. As a kid I would often build things out of Lego by pushing the plates sideways onto the studs of the bricks (which, incidentally, is officially considered “illegal” by the Lego company). I see bodies in the same way. They are just objects that intersect and click together and like Lego, you can link them in more ways than some people accept. I don’t know if that is the takeaway with May, but in having a sexual experience with another woman, which is signalled in the movie as being almost certainly her first, there are none of the usual “first gay experience” signals that you would usually have in a movie of this kind.

Pictured: queer Lego.

But then, May sees bodies as parts: Polly’s throat, Ambrosia’s legs, Adam’s hands, the Frankenstein tattoo on Blank (James Duval), the initially friendly punk rocker who May turns on when he's freaked out by her keeping a dead cat in her fridge.

And May isn’t into Polly because of the sex. Not really. She wants the connection. She wants a Best Friend who is not a creepy doll in a glass box, but does not understand how you take the doll out of the box.

It is not like Polly doesn’t spell out her terms – except she doesn’t spell it out in terms May can understand.

Neurodiverse discourse often centres around how neurotypical people never seem to say things directly, how they always dance around the point. But that is actually wrong. If you’re neurodiverse, and you have spent your entire life repeatedly going through the experience of working hard to say something clearly and succinctly only to be misunderstood again and again, you will immediately grasp how much more complex it is. Research in the last few years has shown how neurodiverse people intuitively understand each other far better than they do neurotypical people, and far better than neurotypical people understand them. Those intuitive leaps of communication that make us human really do exist among autistic people, because, notwithstanding a lot of social subtext, neurodiverse people are in fact human, but they are different leaps of communication. The links are not the same.

Polly couldn’t be clearer: she likes May, she enjoys her company, she enjoys having sexy fun times with lots of people, and May is absolutely one of those people. But May can’t see how she can communicate with Polly on Polly’s terms.

Polly is not a particularly clever or intuitive person (compare to Adam, who does eventually grasp that May is dangerous, for all the good it does him), nor is she particularly complex. But she’s happy, secure, open to new things and trusting in the goodness of people. When May sees the mole on Polly’s finger and asks her if she ever thought about getting it removed, Polly just replies that her mother told her that it is our imperfections that make us special. And that’s no more true than anything May’s mother told her but one of the hardest things for anyone to grasp in life is that you don’t always have to be right to be good. And Polly might, like May, have internalised pieces of homespun wisdom as true, but crucially Polly believes in the sort of homespun wisdom that is conducive to a healthy attitude to yourself and to other people, and to a belief that people are loveable. Polly finds people sexually attractive because she likes them. In the slasher film, of which May is an example, it’s the girl who puts out who invariably cops it, but Polly isn’t killed because she has a healthy and honest enthusiasm for a no-strings roll in the hay, she dies because doesn’t see that a person’s entirely sincere yearning to be loved doesn’t mean that they can’t be terribly, lethally dangerous. Her last words are, “I trust you, May,” and she means it.

The lonely desire to be loved is a dreadful, gnawing beast. Entire online communities exist that weaponise and exploit it, radicalising loneliness and turning it into violence. And the most tragic, horrific thing is that it doesn’t absolve you of responsibility for your actions. If your loneliness, your ache for connection, leads you to do a terrible thing, you know what? You did a terrible thing. 

And that’s on you.

You’ve loved me before – do you love me now?

May sees the school for the blind kids across the road and sees some commonality there. She even makes friends, and one kid makes her an ashtray with her name on it.

But May ruins it. She ruins it in an exquisitely horrible and irreversible way and it is because she can’t hold it in. Children are hurt and May’s doll is destroyed. And it is May’s fault, inescapably and entirely, and the fact that it was due to May’s inability to control her impulses and that she had no power to stop it does not mitigate that at all. In fact, you could argue that nothing that happens in the film is really anyone’s fault – even Adam, who turns out to be a pretty rubbish person, isn’t really responsible for what happens to him. Does he deserve bad things? Certainly. Does he deserve to die for his behaviour? No. Did he cause it? No, he didn’t, and in fact, the moment he realises he might be in trouble, he tries to extricate himself. It doesn’t work, but that is because he is hardwired with the certainty of the Mediocre Straight White Guy that nothing bad can happen to him, which isn’t something he can do anything about, even though it’s still his responsibility.

Fault and responsibility are further from each other than we think. Few movies demonstrate the difference better than May.

Suzie’s destruction is the beginning of May's final descent into violence.

May‘s most meaningful conversations in the film are with Suzie. Who can’t talk, because she is a creepy doll in a box. Suzie isn’t talking; May hears her talking. Which is all the more horrible because from what we can hear, May’s relationship with Suzie has gone very sour. Suzie is jealous and codependent; she undermines May. May’s dissociative identity is toxic.

After the escalating succession of painful, bloody events that leads May to collapse comes Halloween. May is not invited to Adam’s Halloween celebration, and is invited to Polly’s. She attends both and no one gets out alive from either. But she is not May. The Halloween costume that May wears is a Suzie costume. And May, wearing the Suzie costume, is functionally a different person – snarky, funny, confident, assured and uncaring of consequences. Few things are more conducive to charisma, especially among neurotypical people, than the tactical affectation of not caring. Which is of course why narcissists and sociopaths meet with so much social success, and why they’re so dangerous, because even when they are shown conclusively not to give a damn about us, we still convince ourselves that it is just an affectation.

May in the persona of Suzie is actually pretty magnetic, and the irony is that she has to be a serial killer to be conventionally likeable isn't so much on the nose as a bloody field rhinoplasty. It’s like a whole decade’s worth of neurodiverse discourse, summarised.

Either way, the film goes the full Frankenstein in its final act, with May using some of her trademark needlework, the parts of Suzie, the cat, her victims and her own lazy eye to make a friend, which she calls Amy, an explicitly scrambled version of herself.

Does it work? The film has had some low-key moments that might be defined as supernatural: the progressive cracking of the glass on Suzie’s box mirrors the cracking of May’s fragile composure. This mirrors what happens when Suzie finally comes out of the box: she falls to pieces, and so does May. The only explicitly supernatural moment comes in the film’s final seconds, where it seems that May’s failed attempt at making a friend might not be a failure after all. Is this in May’s head? I don’t know. The cracking of the box always happens when May is out of the room, and May doesn’t seem to notice it, which suggests that if it is at all in May’s head, it’s in her other head, in the persona of Suzie who shares May’s consciousness… but of course the biggest trap you can fall into in a work of fiction is caring about whether it matters or not. None of this matters, because it’s all fictional. What matters is what it says, what the story brings to us, and what comes out at the end of Lucky McKee’s movie is a grim joke: for some of us, the best we are ever going to manage is a thing we make ourselves out of the bits of our victims, a lazy eyeball, some handicrafts and a dead cat.