Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Autistic People Who Join Cults

I was recently listening to a podcast about the Heaven's Gate cult and its members' mass suicide. For anybody living under a rock or who wasn't yet born in 1997 when this was all over the news, Heaven's Gate was an offshoot of Christianity that taught its followers that the cult's leader, Marshall Applewhite, was the second coming of Jesus. They believed that in order to get to "the next level" (heaven, if you will), spaceships would come to Earth and pick up the followers for a trip to celestial paradise. But then when the comet Hale-Bopp was discovered, Marshall Applewhite came to the conclusion that the spaceship that was to escort his followers to paradise was trailing the comet. It would not land, and the only way to board the ship was to "leave one's vehicle"-- one's body. That is, commit suicide, so that one's soul will be sent to the ship.

On March 26, 1997, one of the surviving members anonymously called the police to report the mass suicide (he came forward later about his identity). The next morning, the story was all over the news. The Heaven's Gate website had so much traffic that morning that people often had to keep hitting "refresh" several times before the page would load.

I was sixteen years old when this story was in the news, and I was simply floored by it. How could anybody believe that committing suicide would send their souls to a spaceship trailing a comet? I remember that my dad commented that it's too easy to lead people down a path, that it's how Hitler was successful in getting people to buy into the Nazi ideology. Now that I'm older and have read a bit about evolutionary psychology, I have a better understanding why. There is no limit to what people will believe if a charismatic leader knows which buttons to push. Scientists, such as Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins, have hypothesized that this tendency to believe what your parents, tribal elders, or some other authority figure tell you helped our ancestors survive in the African Savannah, a setting that was rife with predators, disease, and rival tribes who would fight with you over resources. People who were skeptical of things like, "Don't swim there. You could be eaten by a crocodile" were less likely to survive and reproduce. And these people's brains didn't differentiate between the aforementioned sound advice and something absurd, such as, "If you don't sacrifice an animal for the gods, there will be a terrible famine."

Evolution, of course, did not account for the fact that by 1997, a huge portion of the world would be living in houses, have plenty of food at their fingertips, and not be in situations where there would be predatory animals that could eat them. In 1997 (and in 2019, of course) the human mind still carried baggage of its evolutionary history. This inexorable drive to believe the absurd claims of a charismatic alpha male and to cave into peer pressure was alive and well. It is one of those things that makes us unique as a social species.

That's why it shocked me when I recently found out that one of the members of Heaven's Gate was autistic (and to clarify, he had left the group itself before the mass suicide, but still maintained the beliefs. When he learned about the suicide, he killed himself so he could join his friends on the ship). Autistic people are less likely to follow leaders, to cave into peer pressure, to do the social dances that most of us take for granted. In fact, many of them will just see these dances as utterly absurd and ridiculous. What, then, would drive an autistic person to join Heaven's Gate?, I wondered. But after thinking about it for about five minutes, I realized that in a way it did make sense that some autistic people might join a cult. They're the exception, not the rule, of course, and they probably join for different reasons than their neurotypical peers. And when I generated my hypothesis as to why, it just saddened me.

I can't speak for the guy who joined Heaven's Gate, and in case his family is reading this, I don't want to upset them by speculating about the guy's environment (and I don't want to name him either, even though it is of course easy enough to Google). But in general I can see what might lead someone on the spectrum down this destructive path. I can see it from examples in my own life.

Think about it: You go through your entire life hearing the same damned mantra from well-meaning but tragically misguided family, teachers, and peers, "You don't know how to interact with people." "You don't get it." "You're inappropriate." "You make people uncomfortable." And so forth. You try hard to figure out the social rules, but they are not written in stone and are subject to change upon context. You deal with unbelievable anxiety. You are unintentionally gaslit by the same people, who tell you that you misinterpret friendly teasing as bullying (even though you know damn well that it's bullying), that someone who said something bitingly personal and nasty was "just frustrated and wasn't trying to be mean" (but you knew damn well that he was), and who even dismiss egregious behavior by friends as normal. Your life consists of internalized psychological warfare, and eventually don't trust your own perception in regard to the most mundane, everyday things. It's when I consider this that I realize that yes, of course, a cult might seem like it makes sense to someone in that position.

In cults-- or even some sects of mainstream religion, for that matter-- the rules of social interaction are highly regulated: Don't use certain words; eat this, not that; eat this meal at this time and say these words before the meal; don't interact in a particular way with the opposite sex until you're married; have children by this age; and so on. Or in the case of Heaven's Gate, sex is evil, so sterilization is recommended. Again, I don't want to speculate about the autistic member of Heaven's Gate in particular. But many of us on the spectrum are asexual on top of all the other crap that makes our lives difficult. Imagine, too, being told that your lack of (or relative lack of) interest in dating, sex, or both is wrong, unhealthy, a mental illness, etc. Even if people don't tell you these things, you might feel left out if everyone you know is running off to get married and have kids. Join this group, and you won't feel left out when you're the only person who isn't passionately screwing somebody. Not only will you not only not be expected to get laid, you'll be expected not to get laid.

The more I thought about the aforementioned as possible factors that would make an autistic person join a cult, the more sense it made. Although a vulnerable autistic person is in a much better situation if they're coming of age in 2019, in 1997 the Heaven's Gate member was living in what I call the Final Decade of the Dark Ages for autistic people, an era in which to most people "autistic" meant you didn't talk, and "Asperger's" was a virtually non-existent word. Not to mention, it was also an era in which an autistic person's eccentricities and difficulties were dismissed as "behavioral problems". I am sure that a lot of people are tempted to say, "Oh, you know what? Autistic people are just more gullible." Yeah, okay. Some of them are, about things like a kid trying to screw with you by sarcastically saying, "You're soooo cool!" (stuff like that never got past me, however; my radar was always finely-tuned to such things). But in terms of believing cult leaders? No. A lot of neurotypical people join cults, and let's not forget that many neurotypical people believe in some of the more absurd claims of mainstream religion, such as that a 600-year-old man built an ark that could fit two of every animal species on the planet. So no, please don't try the "autistic people are more gullible" crap to explain away why they might join a cult.

Thinking about these things made me angry, angry enough to put my fist through a wall. It's only been in the past decade really that mainstream society is starting to see the hurt they've inadvertently caused autistic people even when they meant to help them. It's only now that they're seeing the anxiety they cause when they try to make autistic people adapt to the neurotypical world, but never vice-versa. The story about the autistic Heaven's Gate member is really heartbreaking, but in hindsight it's not surprising.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Prosopagnosia (Face blindness)

Jeez, I can't believe how long it's been since I've written a post! I really need to write these more often.

Yes, it's been far too long! A lot has happened since my last post. For one thing, I'm no longer in Boston but in nearby Quincy. The landlord for my old apartment sold my unit-- which had been a steal-- and everything else in the area was approaching New York City prices. Quincy is expensive too, but still a bit less than Boston. It's also near the subway lines, so I moved to my new place-- a nice, one-bedroom apartment-- at the end of last October. I miss living in Boston proper, but at least I'm in a large apartment instead of a studio.

So, today's topic is prosopagnosia... let's discuss!

I am one of many people on the autism spectrum who also has prosopagnosia. Prosopagnosia is a neurological condition that makes it difficult for the afflicted to recognize faces. In my case, it takes me longer than other people to learn new faces. Some people have the condition so severely that they fail to recognize family members-- even spouses-- if they so much as wear a drastically different hairstyle.

I was only identified with prosopagnosia recently, but I long suspected that I have it. I am just terrible at learning new faces. When I was a teenager on my group trip to Israel, I made a friend on the first day. The next day, the friend changed her clothes and I didn't recognize her. This eventually passed, but it took a few days for me to be able to recognize her no matter what she wore.

Throughout my life, I've asked the same new people their names over and over again. It takes me a while to be able to recognize someone at work out of context. As a kid, other kids took advantage of this aspect about me by harassing me, knowing I could not report them because I wouldn't know who they were. Sometimes, my mother would ask me, "Who are these kids?" I would say, "I've never seen them in my life." Except I probably had, several times! When my parents would drop me off at a camp event during the school year, they would ask, "Do you see anybody you know?" I would quickly scan the area for kids in my group, because they were the only kids I recognized. Even if I didn't spot them, sometimes I'd lie and say, "Yes" because I knew that I was supposed to be dropped off at a particular spot anyway, and I'd find them. I didn't want to deal with my parents asking me why I didn't know if I saw other kids from camp, even if they thought such a question would help me.

Prosopagnosia can often be embarrassing. Even before I knew the word for it, I felt ashamed of my problem. Whatever it was, I knew it was an issue that other kids didn't deal with. Sometimes in school if one "friend" was gossiping about other kids, she would say, "Oh, so you know So-and-So?" I would say, "What about her?" And she'd say, "Well, do you know who I'm talking about?" I would lie and say, "Yes," just hoping that the friend would get the story over with. I felt like a complete idiot because I knew that whoever my friend was talking about was probably in several classes with me. But what could I do? The same thing that closeted gay kids did (and probably still do sometimes) when asked, "Who do you have a crush on?" They just play along, pretending to be what society deems "normal" so that they won't be humiliated. And when I worked as a children's librarian, I felt like a complete jerk for not knowing the kids' names. I knew that people probably interpreted that as me not caring. I think it's worse for a woman to have prosopagnosia, because in society women are expected to have the "nurture" setting as their default. That's not me.

And to be honest, while I do care about humanity at large and about individual people once I get to know them, at first glance human faces are all but meaningless to me. Until I get to know the person-- or at least something about them-- I see just a meat bag, a naked mole rat-- take your pick. And I actually wonder if this has something to do with my demisexual/demiromantic orientation. Think about it: Most people get into relationships after an initial attraction based on physical appearance. That doesn't work for me. It's literally impossible for me to think of someone as romantically/sexually attractive until I get to know them in some way. And if people are "meat bags" to me at first glance, why would I feel attracted to someone? As is with demisexual and demiromantic people, attraction is very rare for me.

But as for prosopagnosia as it affects my daily life, fortunately as society marches forward through the 21st century, there is greater understanding. People at work know that I have it, and they don't judge me if it takes me forever to learn new faces or if I get two new people mixed up. They understand and we laugh it off. I'm now comfortable telling people outside of work that I have this problem, and am glad to be living in a time where we can address these issues openly and frankly. There's less anxiety involved when I can just explain to people that, yes, I'm terrible with faces, and yes I will ask your name over and over.

Yes, and so what?

Thursday, October 4, 2018

A Final Act of Catharsis

Disclaimer: The following is inspired by information that I recently learned about my ex-best friend Melanie and wrote about here. It involves me showing up unsolicited at her house. It is a story. It is a fantasy. It is fiction. Please don't read into it as anything more than a work of catharsis, my own way of getting closure. I know that showing up unannounced at the house of someone you haven't spoken to in eleven years-- even if they owe you an explanation for hurting you and even if they had once been your best friend-- is creepy. This is not something I would do in real life. 

The names of the people in this post have been changed to protect their privacy.

I turn the corner and walk up to the tan brick house, my hands jammed into my pockets, my fists clenched to ebb the shaking.
The building is one of those small northeast Philadelphia houses where the first floor sits above the garage and the basement opens up to the backyard. The large maple tree from my past recollections still dominates the street corner, partially covering the front door and steps. I am brought back to memories extending through my adolescence to my early twenties.
I think about my first time there, in sixth grade.  Melanie and I had gone to a nearby carnival, and then came back to spend the night. The summers just before I would leave for seven weeks at camp, we ventured off to see the latest Disney movie together, followed by a swim in the above-ground backyard pool. There was an end-of-summer party where I met one of Melanie’s friends, Jenna. We hit it off immediately, and remained close for a few years before losing contact. I smile, thinking about coming here for Melanie’s high school graduation party and how excited she felt to be accepted to a local university, where she would commute every day to pursue a degree in animation. And even after I moved to Brooklyn to pursue my own animation degree, we still got together a few times a year for Disney movies and sleepovers.
I sigh.
I’ve parked the car a block away, despite there being ample room on Melanie’s street. At least I didn’t have to track her down to find out where she lived— I had heard that she didn’t even move out when she married Mark, let alone when they had kids. Had I needed to, well, I would have felt what I was doing was akin to stalking, and I am not certain that this doesn’t qualify.
It is a beautiful July day, not too hot, but just right for swimming. Is the pool still in the backyard? Some giggling and splashing comes from nearby. Yes, the pool must be there still. Melanie, Mark, their two children—and possibly Melanie’s parents, Mildred and Ben—are likely swimming in the pool. Maybe they’re even having a backyard barbeque with some of the neighborhood families. And perhaps tomorrow, Melanie, Mark, and the kids will spend a day at the Jersey Shore. Melanie and Mark will be holding hands as they stroll along the beach while their children collect seashells. And the following night, maybe a Pixar movie in Pennypack Park. Melanie will rest her head against Mark while the kids alternate between watching the movie and chasing fireflies.
And for a second, I bitterly wonder, do they have a white picket fence and a dog named Spot?
I pause at the foot of the stairs leading up to the front door. After ten years, I just might finally get a straight answer. I'm out of my mind for doing this, but I need to know. I remember when Melanie and Mark first met in late 2001 or early 2002, when Melanie was twenty-two years old. Mark was her first boyfriend. The idea of her dating was about as fathomable, well, me dating. But she found the right guy. I met him a few times and he was pretty cool. I was happy for her. A couple years later, the two of them were engaged. In 2006 or 2007, Melanie informed me that she’d set a date for the wedding: August 16, 2008.
But in mid-2008, I called my parents, upset that the date of the wedding was fast-approaching and I still hadn’t received an invitation. In fact, Melanie had stopped answering my calls, emails and hadn’t even accepted my friend request on MySpace. My parents, especially my mother, seemed perplexed that I believed I’d be at Melanie's wedding, let alone still friends with her. 
“I can’t believe she did this to me!” I exclaimed. “I hate her! She’s a bitch!”
"No, she’s not. This is what happens when people get married," Mom said with an air of authority. "Melanie is in a stage of her life where you're not invited."
"But we've talked about the wedding a number of times. She made it clear that she wanted me there." I said.
"Well, she obviously changed her mind."  Mom's tone indicated she couldn't believe she had to explain something so obvious. "And you need to learn to take hints. She's trying to tell you something."
"What?" I muttered, though I knew what Mom meant.
"She's not interested," Mom muttered back. I could practically hear her facepalming on the other end of the line.
Then, Mom said that relationships change, and you don't always have the same friends you had growing up.
But I knew the difference between a building collapsing due to lack of maintenance and a building collapsing because somebody had flown a plane into it. This was an example of the latter, and it was deeply personal. And I knew that what Mom had said was wrong, at least for a lot of people in the liberal, northeastern United States. A few of my peers had married friends, some with kids.
But I was different— always different. I was that weird girl with Asperger’s Syndrome who people constantly labeled as “immature”. I had come to think of many people I’d come in contact with over the years as being “Forbidden” to me: It was if I was literally not allowed to have friends who fit certain categories: older, married, or someone who otherwise had had “adult” experiences. It seemed that I had to all but formally request the privilege of even being in their presence. There was Carlos, a guy a year younger than me, who I’d met through Ann, a friend and co-worker at a summer camp. The three of us had spent a week together: a few days at my parents’ house in Pennsylvania; a few days in Washington, D.C.; and a few days in New York City. We got along great. And yet he had kept in touch with my parents instead of me.
“Carlos is an intellectual. He has traveled the world and speaks five languages,” Dad had said. “He has more in common with us.”
I supposed, then, that despite the fact that Melanie had never moved out of her parents’ house— not even when she went to college— she was an adult, just because she was getting married. I was still— and probably always would be—a child. She was living in a grown-up world that I was not an appropriate fit for, one that I might disrupt in the literal and figurative sense, starting with the wedding and continuing with the yet-to-be-conceived children.
            Like Carlos, Melanie had become Forbidden.
I stand on the front step of Melanie’s house thinking about how I learned through the grapevine that Melanie’s son is autistic. I hope he never has to go through the same traumatic social rejection that I did. I hope he never has to think of certain people as Forbidden.
What am I even going to say to Melanie? I've rehearsed this scenario in my mind countless times, but all that’s surfaced are raw accusations instead of adult-sounding questions: "Melanie, why the hell did you cut me off? Was I not good enough for you? How did you think I was going to react? Just shrug and say, ‘Oh fiddlesticks!’?” I know I can’t handle it like that. But in reality, I don’t know what I will say until the situation presents itself.
At the top of the stairs, the exterior door is open and only a screen door separates me from getting the answers I’ve needed. It is finally going to happen. Maybe the torturous, recurring dreams I’ve had over the past decade about running into Melanie only to have her freak out and bolt in the other direction will stop.
I listen to laughing out back. I hear a splash and calls of "Marco!" and "Polo!".
I raise my hand and slowly press my finger to the doorbell. Will they even hear it ring from the backyard?
“Come in,” calls a man— Ben, Melanie’s father. “I’m in the kitchen.”
I freeze. I didn’t expect this. Before I can say anything, Ben calls, “You’re here to fix the leak, right? Come in.”
I open the door and step over the threshold. I climb the small flight of stairs to the living room.
The room still looks more or less as I remember it, with a couch, a coffee table, a La-Z-Boy chair, television, and DVD player. But, now there is something else— children's toys. And from the looks of it, Melanie’s kids had been in the middle of an intense game before getting distracted by something else— a family afternoon in the pool, maybe? A toy canoe from Moana sits on the floor next to the coffee table. A Maui figure stands authoritatively on one end of the boat while a Moana figure stands on the other. She holds a paddle in both hands and her pet rooster stands beside her. Tamatoa, the giant crab, is near the boat, his claws raised menacingly.
I have some of the same toys.
“The leak is in the kitchen,” Ben calls, bringing me back from my thoughts. “Come in here.”
I turn and step into the kitchen.
“The sink is over—” Ben starts to say.
“Oh,” says Ben when I enter the room. “I thought you were the plumber.”
Ben sits in a kitchen chair, a cane in one hand. Right, because he’s fourteen years older than Melanie’s mother. He must be in his eighties now.
“Um, no,” I say, my hands once again having found their way into my pockets.
I see a hint of recognition in Ben’s eyes, and yet he’s not quite able to place me.
“I’m… I’m an old friend of Melanie’s. I’ve come to say hello.” I pause. “My name is Julie.”
Ben’s eyes widen. “Oh, yes,” he says, “I remember. It’s been a while. Well, I think Melanie’s downstairs taking a nap.”
Ben stands up. He looks a bit uncomfortable. Somehow, I know it's more than just the fact that his daughter's ex-best friend is in his house, but I don't know exactly why. "Um, let’s see if she's awake."
I look at my watch. It's going on 3:30. Why would Melanie be asleep?
Oh, right. She's a mother of two young children. Of course she's going to need a nap sometimes.
I nod and follow Ben down to the basement. It isn't nearly as I remember it. When Melanie and I had sleepovers, this was where we came to spend late nights watching movies and playing video games. There had also been a bar for when her parents entertained other adults. I used to play with this toy slot machine that sat atop it. The bar is gone, and in its place are a couple chests of drawers. Now there is a king-sized bed where the couch used to be. 
And Melanie is in it, wrapped tightly under the covers, her head facing the door to the backyard. I realize she must be sick, but I sense it isn’t some bug she caught from one of her kids.
My eyes are drawn to the nightstand, where a few half-empty prescription bottles sit.
"Melanie," Ben says softly. "Someone's here to say hello."
Melanie doesn't stir. I look at Ben.
"Um... this isn't one of her good days," he whispers, wringing his hands. "She… she has fibromyalgia..."
I freeze and stare in disbelief. I think about Jenna, the friend I'd met through Melanie at one of Melanie’s parties. We'd lost touch over the years until early 2015 when I reconnected with her— now them, as they've since come out as genderqueer—over Facebook. Jenna also has fibromyalgia. I cannot believe this bizarre coincidence.
I turn to the sound of the door to the backyard sliding open.
"Be-en," whispers a familiar soft, singsong voice. "Was that the plumber?"
I turn to face Mildred, Melanie's mother, her eyes wide open. "Julie, what are you doing here?" she asks.
"I— I just wanted to talk to Melanie," I stammer.
"Well, you can see that Melanie is asleep right now.”
“Huh?” Melanie mutters, her eyes still closed, her head now turned slightly toward me. “Who’s there?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Mildred says. “Go back to sleep. You need your rest.”
Melanie puts her head back to the position it was in just a minute ago, her eyes shut. But this time, they aren’t closed in the gentle, natural way of sleep.
They’re screwed shut.
Mildred stares at Ben.
"I just thought..." Ben whispers. "I mean, not many of her friends have come by in the past year."
Mildred shakes her head in disbelief and then nods toward me. “And she hasn’t been over here in God knows how long.”
And you think that was my idea? I want to retort.
But I say nothing. If Melanie is in a lot of pain, it would probably be cruel to bother her with the question, no matter how much I’ve been dying to ask it. Then again, she had no trouble being cruel to me ten years ago. But I doubt she is awake enough to even register my question, so asking would be pointless. Wait, maybe I could…
I turn to Mildred. “I just wanted to know why…” I begin slowly, but my words dissipate before I can get them out. It’s eerily like one of the recurring dreams I have in which I finally encounter Melanie, get ready to ask the question, to simply ask why, but when I move my lips, nothing comes out. Mildred turns to look at me. I try again. “I mean, all this time… I just need to know…”
But I am distracted by Melanie’s sleeping form, still amazed and disturbed by the coincidence that two of my closest friends from my teenage years now have fibromyalgia. I look at Melanie and think about the experiences with fibromyalgia that Jenna has told me about. They have told me that they have some days in which they can't even get out of bed, and other days in which they do get out of bed but are in constant pain. Then occasionally there are days when the pain isn’t so bad, and Jenna can go out with their friends. And for Jenna, sometimes medical marijuana is the difference between an intolerable and a tolerable day, as they’ve never found any prescription medication to be particularly helpful. Is Melanie having one of those can’t-get-out-of-bed days? How often does she have them?
            And I try again, the words leaving my mouth more quickly than I’d anticipated. “Why…why wasn’tIinvitedtothewedding?WhydidMelaniecutmeoff?”
            Mildred’s eyes widen. Did she even understand my question?
“Julie, you need to leave,” Mildred says. “Right now.”
At first, I don’t move, but then I head to the stairs. I stop and turn around when I hear the sound of the door to the backyard opening and closing again. A little brown-haired boy and a little blonde-haired girl, each in a bathing suit, run inside in fits of giggles. I look outside and see Melanie's husband, also in a bathing suit, his back turned to the house, looking off into the distance.
The boy, who looks about seven, rushes past me, runs upstairs, laughing and flapping his hands.
"Mommy, come play!" the little girl, who looks about five, shouts as she tugs Melanie's arm.
"Not now," Melanie mutters, her eyes still closed.
"Mommy, please!" the little girl says. "It'll be fun."
Melanie's mother kneels and grabs the girl by the shoulders. "Mommy isn't feeling well now. Okay? Go outside and play with Daddy." She pauses. "Goodness, you have mud on your face again. What did I say about keeping yourself clean?" 
I am still standing at the bottom of the stairs. This is a little girl! I want to shout. She's, what, five? It's summer and she's playing outside. Of course she's going to get muddy once in a while!          
But then I think back to when Melanie told me about the time when she was a teenager and was at a family gathering, playing basketball with some boys. Her mother, who had been sitting on a bench with some other middle-aged ladies, had called out, "Melanie, come sit with the women."
Mildred turns to face me. “Julie, you need to go.”
I nod, barely even looking at her. 
I begin to climb the stairs, and the little boy comes back downstairs, whooshing right past me, still flapping his hands as I press against the wall of the staircase. "I'm a bird! I'm a bird!" he shouts. "I can fly!”
I turn around to see Mildred take the boy’s hands in hers. "Mommy is asleep right now," she says. "And what have we said about 'quiet hands'?"
The boy stares at the floor.
I wish I could tell Mildred that there’s a growing consensus among professionals that in most situations you should not force an autistic child to stop stimming. Then again, if I—or anybody—told her, would it make a difference? I think about the time when Melanie and Mildred wanted to try a weight-loss plan which restricts carbohydrate intake for the first two weeks. This was not a diet created by a random person looking to get rich and famous, but a doctor, specifically a cardiologist. Mildred apparently knew better than this doctor: she told Melanie that restricting carbohydrates wasn’t enough, that they needed to also restrict fat during those two weeks. What was she supposed to eat, then? Grass? I remember asking Melanie if she and her mother had even read the book that explained how to do the diet. Melanie said that yes, she had. But her mother said that they were going to do it her way.
I can guess Mildred probably doesn’t allow medical marijuana in her house.
I continue up the stairs. I remember the very last time I saw Melanie, in the summer of 2005, when we met at Six Flags Hurricane Harbor in New Jersey. Melanie  intended to come back to New York City with me to spend the night, but her mother said no, that she already planned a girls' day out for the next day. And she also wanted her back home at eight that night.
Melanie was twenty-five years old.
As I head to the top of the stairs, I think about the grown-up, pristine, white-washed, even idyllic, adult life that I’d imagined Melanie having—despite living with her parents—all because she was married and had children. I realize I was not the only one who had imagined Melanie living this life. Her mother had imagined it, too—or more specifically, had planned for it. I remember how long before Melanie had gotten married, when she was working at Macy’s for $8.00/hour, Mildred was nagging her relentlessly about how she wanted to be a grandmother. Melanie had said that she wanted to have children. But now I wonder if she really did. Was she even aware that not having kids was also an option? Would she have explored both options had her mother not pressured her?
I realize something.
Melanie isn’t just a perpetrator in this story. She’s also a victim, specifically a victim of her mother, in this and in a lot of other things in her life. And on top of it, she has fibromyalgia.
I turn around one last time. I can't leave without saying something. I go back down the stairs with the intention of letting Mildred have it with both barrels, age-appropriateness be damned. I’m going to tell her, You've destroyed your daughter. You kept her under your skirt, forced her to repress her true self, and prevented her from achieving independence. For what? So she could be an extension of you? She had so much potential and you just squashed it. And now you’re doing it to your grandchildren.
I reach the bottom of the stairs, where Mildred glares at me. "Julie, you need to leave now."
I point a right index finger at Mildred and open my mouth, but all that comes out is a brusque, "I hope you're satisfied."      
"Julie, get out before I call the police," Mildred says, this time her voice raised.
I see Melanie’s eyes open very slightly. But then they close again.
"Hon, isn't that a little harsh?" Ben asks as I climb the stairs.
I can hear Mildred lecturing Ben, but she’s dropped her voice to a very low whisper and I can't make out what she's saying. I almost laugh as I open the front door. Funny Mildred should talk about calling the police. Ben is a retired cop. But that's the last thing the casual observer would suspect...
I shake my head as I open the door and step outside. I pull out my iPhone to send Jenna a text on Facebook messenger.
"You're not going to believe this. I just found out that Melanie has fibromyalgia."
Jenna asks me how I know. So I tell them about what I did.
Then Jenna says, "Honestly, I'm not interested in hearing about someone who cut me off without explanation."
I stop at the bottom of the outside steps. "What??" I text back.
"I thought I told you a while ago," Jenna says.
"No. What happened?" I reply.
As it turns out, around 2002 or 2003, Melanie simply stopped taking Jenna's calls, stopped answering their emails . . . and Melanie and Jenna had once been close, too. But I also remember asking Melanie around that time, "Do you still talk to Jenna?" and she'd said something, I forget exactly what, that made it sound like they’d merely lost contact.
I shake my head and I walk to the car. What I saw inside that house today tells me everything I need to know. I never got to ask Melanie why she ended our friendship, but I don't need to. Whether she thinks she just "lost contact" with me—and Jenna— or whether it had ultimately been her decision to end everything, I'll never know. But it's clear that she didn't do it in a vacuum. 
I get in the car and start the engine.  I pass Melanie’s street on the way out of the housing development. I briefly glance at her house, but then return my eyes to the road.

Footnote: Yes, I'm aware of the irony of using a fantasy to discredit another fantasy. But parts of this story are based on memories as well as a few things I've heard about Melanie through the grapevine, so it's not a fantasy in a vacuum. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

A Sad and Cautionary Tale that Makes Too Much Sense

Note: All names have been changed to protect individuals' privacy.

I've often written about Melanie, my ex-best friend who cut me off ten years ago when she didn't invite me to her wedding and stopped talking to me completely, all without explanation. If you're late to the party, you can find the first post about it here and the most recent post about it-- which also addresses its long-term effects on me-- here

In the second of those links, I tell the story about how an advertisement for a "Family Movie Night" featuring Moana was the catalyst for an elaborate and embittered fantasy that I concocted in my head: one of parents cheerfully taking their kids to a Disney movie, all the while having forgotten their identities and having excised their childfree friends. 

Indeed, this is the image I had harbored of Melanie and her husband and kids for the past ten years-- well, sort of. I had already known that Melanie's living situation was bizarre; I heard down the grapevine that she and her husband and kids were still living with her parents in their small northeast Philadelphia home. But aside from that, the otherwise pristine image of Melanie and her family remained in my mind... really, because of the way my mother initially reacted in 2008 when it had become clear that Melanie was no longer talking to me. My mother, who has since apologized profusely, had said these exact words: "Melanie is in a stage of her life where you're not invited." Mom went on about how this is what usually happens when people get married (years later I learned that she had told me that obvious lie because for some reason she thought it would make me feel better...uhhh??) and that I needed to learn to take hints. "She's trying to tell you something," my mother muttered (I could practically hear her facepalming at the other end of the line). "What?"  grunted. "She's not interested," my mother grunted back."

This conversation had made me feel inadequate-- even though I had known about Melanie's living situation and even that her mother was controlling (more on that later), I continued to imagine her in this mostly blissful, idyllic life: going to see a Disney movie in a public park on a warm summer night with her husband and kids; sitting on a bench at the playground with other mothers and talking about their kids' achievements while the kids played on the swings; having neighborhood potlucks with families that her family is close with... all the while having cast me off because I had been holding her down.

But I learned something interesting down the grapevine a couple weeks ago: Melanie has fibromyalgia. It isn't this information that shattered the "idyllic" image of Melanie's life (though it certainly didn't help). Instead, it was something else that I found out from an old mutual friend, Jenna, who I'd lost contact with around 2004 or 2005 and later reconnected with in 2015. Jenna hadn't been in contact with Melanie since about 2002 or so, and they (Jenna's preferred pronoun) also have fibromyalgia. I thought this was an interesting-- if sad-- coincidence. I told Jenna what I had found out, and they told me that they weren't interested in hearing about someone who had cut them off without explanation...

Wait, what?

Jenna said that they had thought they'd told me this a while ago. But they hadn't. Jenna then explained that around 2002 Melanie stopped returning Jenna's phone calls and emails and wouldn't even take their phone calls. What makes this even more interesting is that around 2002 or 2003 I had asked Melanie, "Do you still talk to Jenna?" I don't remember Melanie's exact words, but she said something that made it sound like she and Jenna had simply fallen out of contact. 

The fact that this has happened with at least two people who had once been close with Melanie is revealing. Why Melanie stayed in contact with me for a few years after severing contact with Jenna, I couldn't tell you. But I strongly suspect that this wasn't entirely Melanie's decision, and maybe not even hers at all. While I still think she's a jerk for doing what she did, I think her mother put her up to it, but perhaps not in an overt way. I think Melanie's mother gradually poisoned Melanie's mind against Jenna and me, and Melanie told herself that she simply "lost contact" with Jenna and possibly with me. But how would Melanie "not know" what really happened? Because, if my hypothesis is true, Melanie is also a victim in this-- a victim of her controlling mother. 

In other posts I've alluded to Melanie's mother being a control freak. She wasn't someone who I would call abusive, not by a long shot. However, she did shelter Melanie in bizarre ways, squashed her individuality, and did not give her any tools to function as an adult. Growing up, both of us complained about our mothers for similar reasons, often to the tune of, "I'm unconventional and my mom is trying to change that." In the case of my mother, she was trying to help me be happy but did it in a tragically misguided and ultimately hurtful way, which she now realizes and regrets. In Melanie's case, her happiness was not part of the equation: Her mother had an image in her mind of what Melanie should be like and was determined to realize it at all costs. How do I know that her motives were different? Well, technically I don't know that, but I look back at a lot of incidents from when we were kids that support this theory:

1. When Melanie was a teenager, she told me that she had recently been at a gathering in which she had been playing basketball with a group of boys. Her mother called out to Melanie and said, "Come sit with the women." Yes, Melanie. Stop getting exercise with kids your age and come over and sit with middle-aged people whose genitals look like yours (sorry, but that's what it comes down to). My mother would never have done that! In fact, she would have been happy that there were finally other kids who wanted to hang out with me -- regardless of what was in their pants -- and that I was getting exercise.

2. One time when I was seventeen and Melanie was eighteen, I said something about someone being a nutcase. Melanie told me, "Oh, I'm not allowed to say 'nutcase'. My mom says it's too sexual. She tells me to say 'nutball' instead." No, this absurdity was not a line out of Ralph Wiggum on The Simpsons

3. I wanted combat boots, and so my parents got them for me for my eighteenth birthday. Melanie wanted a pair too but her mother wouldn't get them for her because they were deemed too masculine. Never mind that plenty of teen girls in the '90s wore combat boots. 

4. When Melanie finally met the guy she ended up marrying, at age twenty-one, she had to sneak him up to her room to fool around because she wasn't allowed to have boys upstairs. That's right-- she was in her twenties and this rule was still there.

5. The very last time I saw Melanie was in the summer of 2005, when I was twenty-four and Melanie was twenty-five. We met at Six Flags Hurricane Harbor in New Jersey. Melanie had originally planned to come back to New York City with me (where I'd been living at the time), but her mother had already planned a "girls' day out" for the next day-- and told Melanie about it at the last minute. Additionally, her mother said she wanted Melanie home at 8:00. Yes, a twenty-five-year-old had a curfew

6. After Melanie had gotten engaged, her mother had started bugging her about grandchildren. I don't mean the typical, "Oh, are you going to have kids?" or even "When do you think you'll have kids?" It was relentless pressure to the tune of, "I wanna be a grandma!" Melanie's comments that she had wanted to wait a couple years after marriage before having kids apparently fell on deaf ears. 

You get the idea. Melanie remained under her mother's roof into adulthood. Even when she went to college, she commuted (I realize this could be a financial issue, but I'm not convinced of that in this case). She met a man, married him, and gave her mother the grandchildren that she'd demanded. Oh, sure, she and her family live with her parents, but otherwise she has found true happiness, right? And because she's married and has children, she must be a true adult, right?

No. I doubt that "true happiness" is the term to describe Melanie's adult life, and not because of the compromising condition of fibromyalgia either. The above examples strongly suggest that Melanie's mother not only groomed Melanie to grow up to be like her, but also that she probably expected Melanie to continue living in her childhood home through adulthood: At the time that Melanie's mother pressured Melanie about wanting grandchildren yesterday, Melanie had been working at Macy's for a mere $8 an hour.  

Melanie had complained about her mother trying to squash her unconventional personality over the years, but she stopped in her early twenties. In fact, when she first started dating the guy she ended up marrying, I saw a radical transformation: This rambunctious tomboy who'd been my best friend for years turned into a demure, 1950s woman who even said, "Oh, my sweetie knows about that" when I asked her what kind of computer she had. And no, I don't think this change was for her husband-to-be; I met the guy and I liked him, and I find it difficult to imagine him trying to make a woman into someone passive. Rather, I think Melanie did this for her mother. I think the message Melanie's mother had given Melanie was subtle but clear: She could either conform to her mother's expectations and they could have a good relationship, or she could tell her mother to fuck off and they'd have no relationship. One or the other. No compromise. Melanie did not want to lose her relationship with her mother, so the choice was very clear. Part of the choice involved cutting off any friends that her mother deemed "weird". I personally think her mother's issue with me was that she thought I was going to do something inappropriate at the wedding and also be a bad influence on the eventual grandchildren. She couldn't have me ruining the 1950s-white-picket-fence-wholesome image she was trying to create. She probably would have seen Jenna as a similar threat to that image.

Maybe you believe I'm overthinking this. I realize I very well might be. I could be wrong about a few things; I could be wrong about everything. I get that this is all speculation But despite my mother's initial comments ten years ago, you cannot seriously tell me that Melanie is an adult just because she is married and she has children. She has never left her parents' house, and I don't think it's for financial considerations either; her husband is a computer programmer. She is probably still under her mother's control and likely has adopted her mother's sociopolitical views simply because she hasn't had much exposure to anything else. She lives in Philadelphia, but it might as well be rural Kansas.

What makes my hypothesis, if true, even sadder is this: My mom believes that Melanie is on the autism spectrum. I'm not convinced that she is, but I think it's possible. I initially rejected that suggestion for a couple reasons: 1) People on the autism spectrum don't tend to be swayed by peer pressure, and 2) Melanie called me out on inappropriate behaviors a number of times when we were teenagers, and 3) Melanie had a lot of friends in high school.

My mother, who is a retired teacher, made me reconsider. She pointed out that while a number of her autistic students are very independent, there are many others who are just like their parents, but in a very superficial way that doesn't seem to reflect the child's true self. In fact, Tony Attwood, the kingpin of Asperger's experts, has pointed out that many autistic girls in particular mimic their peers or parents. They see that these people are socially successful and believe that in order to have friends and a happy life that they have to imitate them. The sad thing is that many of them, when they do this, end up repressing their true selves. In adulthood this catches up to them and leads to a major identity crisis. 

If this profile of autism does indeed describe Melanie, then it could be that she learned how to superficially mimic her peers in order to make a lot of friends in high school. It could be that she also commented on my behaviors simply because she saw that I didn't act like her peers, and yet her comments may have lacked any real insight. Or it could be simply that her mother told her to call me out on these things. It wouldn't surprise me at all. In fact, if I remember correctly, when Melanie related the story about her mother telling her to say "nutball" instead of "nutcase" because the latter was "too sexual", there wasn't a hint of irony in her voice. She said it matter-of-factly and with a straight face. It also makes me wonder: Did Melanie have kids because she honestly and sincerely wanted to, or did she just think she wanted to because it was what her mother and society at large expected of her? 

Melanie was a talented visual artist and singer. Even though the arts are not usually marketable skills, Melanie could perhaps pursued freelance work (at least prior to the fibromyalgia diagnosis, which I understand was very recent). At the very least, she and her husband could have moved out; her husband is a computer programmer and there are many affordable, nice apartments in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She could have found some other type of work and done her art on the side. But the last time I saw her, she was no longer drawing and I don't think she was singing either. Melanie had so much potential, but I think her mother crushed her.

Ultimately, I have a very different perception of what exactly happened between Melanie and me. While I do believe Melanie needs to take responsibility for what she did to Jenna and me-- she is an adult, after all-- I realize that it's likely that she is also a victim. It is indeed sad.

Parents of Asperger's girls, I'm watching you.