Friday, April 15, 2011

"Asperger's and Death Part II" or "Confronting Your Own Discomfort"

Due to the popularity of my "Asperger's and Death" (it gets the most hits besides the intro page), I am going to address death again, and this time by talking about a famous person.

Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

Yes, Dr. Kevorkian, infamously known as Dr. Death for his in-your-face advocacy of voluntary euthanasia as an option for suffering, terminally ill patients. If anybody has ever watched interviews with him or seen his biopic, You Don't Know Jack, you know that he is a very odd, intense, and hyperfocused man. 

Could he have Asperger's syndrome?

Obviously, I don't know as I've never even met him. But let's take a look about what we know about him from television. I won't lie-- I find him brash and tactless in some of his interviews. I don't always agree with what he says either. For the most part, however, I think he is one of the most brilliant thinkers of the past hundred years, has a lot of good things to say, and is tragically misunderstood because his fascination with death is considered taboo.

Dr. Kevorkian rightly points out that many people are ludicrously uncomfortable with the subject of death, be it in the context of his euthanasia advocacy, his wonderfully disturbing paintings, or the fact that as a young man he did a research project in which he learned that he could determine the moment of death by looking into a patient's eyes and observing the changes.  

Kevorkian has many interests- art, music, and so forth- but he also seems to be very hyperfocused on death. This, combined with his intense facial expressions, mannerisms, remarkable talents (engineering, art, music, foreign language, and, of course, medicine) difficulty connecting with people during his teenage years, and according to friends, a minimal social life and lack of common sense, makes me think he may have Asperger's syndrome.  Many parents and friends of people with AS seem to experience inordinate discomfort about an AS person's obsession, even if with something as benign as trains. Why? I guess because they're not used to it. What happens, then, when that topic is death? 

When I first learned about Kevorkian's eye study, I was intrigued. Then I felt guilty, like I was "supposed to" cringe because if I reacted otherwise it meant something was wrong with me. The problem is that people think that if you're fascinated with death then you may be someone who wants to kill people. This is nonsense. If someone is fascinated with indigestion, does that mean that he cheers for joy when someone pukes on the floor? Being fascinated with the PROCESS of death can easily be completely divorced from the emotional reaction to the loss of a friend, family member, or even a perfect stranger. 

I confess to having a slight fascination with death, but I'm also fascinated with a lot of natural and medical processes. In my first "Asperger's and Death" post, I confessed that when a friend died I not only cried but also researched the decomposition process. Yes, it was my way of dealing with this tragedy, but I would be lying if I said there wasn't a bit of scientific curiosity involved too. What's wrong with that? Guess what? Dr. Kevorkian confessed to crying at some of his patients' assisted suicides which he otherwise approached in a nonemotional manner. 

How many people out there have a fascination with death and are afraid to admit it? Am I more honest about it because I have Asperger's syndrome? Is Dr. Kevorkian? Or are people like us the exceptions, not the rule? I don't know. But I do know that neurotypical people often keep more secrets about "taboo" interests than those with AS because they're so worried about what everyone will think.

You may not agree with Kevorkian's stance on euthanasia, and that's okay. I completely understand that it's a difficult issue for many people (just so you know, he turned away about 97% of the patients who told him they wanted to die). However, I think what we may all be able to agree on is that he has raised consciousness by exposing the absurdity of taboos. Sometimes, probably more often than you think, responding to someone's concern about a friend or child's fascination with death ought to be an emphatic, "So what?" 

Indeed, sometimes it takes someone with Asperger's-- or, at least, someone a little odd-- to make us question our assumptions and the rationality behind our knee-jerk reactions. That opportunity is here now. 

Do it.


  1. Very thoughtful and thought-provoking. I confess I'm as wary as any neurotypical person of death as an interest---I'd probably think of someone who professed having such as morbid or maladjusted. I wouldn't jump straight to "Oh God, he must want to be a serial killer" or something, but I'd probably be uncomfortable. And it's on that front that you raise an interesting point. WHY are we uncomfortable about this? I can't really articulate it, even to myself.

  2. Well, as I said, many NTs seem to be uncomfortable with their kids being obsessed with something in general. It seems to go beyond the "I'm tired of hearing about that."

    Anyway I hope you realize now that there really is no rhyme or reason for the reflexive discomfort about a fascination with death any more than the process of indigestion. And anyway, what about forensic scientists? I bet a great deal with them are fascinated somewhat with death!

  3. Watched the Kevorkian biopic last night and, wondering whether he had AS, came across this blog today.
    I can't help but wonder whether fascination with death is taboo because we are all fascinated with it, but in the sense that we fear it. How many people are religious because they have need of a belief in an afterlife, because they cannot accept the finality of death? Does that make church every Sunday and daily prayers their (socially sanctioned) obsession?
    And perceiving a preoccupation with death in those around us, I suppose it's because most of us are unable to distinguish the preoccupation of a serial killer from that of the merely curious. How many people testify that they had no idea that the quiet gentleman next door had 8 bodies buried in his backyard? And so we fear the interest.
    Just musing. Glad I came across your blog, thought-provoking.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Curious, what tipped you off that he might have had AS?