“All of us have moments in our childhood where we come alive for the first time. And we go back to those moments and think, ‘This is when I became myself.‘” – Rita Dove
This is part two of a two part post. You can read these separately, but this post will make more sense if you’ve read On Childish Things I first.
[Content Warnings: mentions of Abuse, ableism, denigration of “childish” behaviors”, sibling's internalization of abuse/ableism]
The year that Rick left was the same year that I read the Harry Potter books. At first I had been reluctant to even read them for the same reasons I had avoided other fantasies people my age were reading. But then I read Prisoner of Azkaban.
I hadn’t sought it out. My cousins from New York were visiting and my Aunt Lisa over heard me complaining that I was bored and wanted something new to read. She went to her van and dug out one of her son’s books and handed it to me. I think the most effective way to explain what happened is to say Collin never got his copy of PoA back. (Cousin, I owe you a copy if you ever read this.)
Within a few months, everything in my life became about Harry Potter. It was mostly internally, as we were too poor to afford any merchandise. But every moment, every safe hold, was wrapped up in this special interest that was blossoming within me. I dreamed of leaving Rick and therapy and censure behind, to go to a school- not a magical school, I knew that wasn’t real- where I would have to stay in a dorm, as safe from it all as Harry seemed to be from his Aunt and Uncle. Indeed the moment when I truely came to love the SCA was when, during my first Pennsic, the only comments I got to sitting to read in a public thoroughfare were comments from adults asking me like an equal how I liked the latest book.
Rick finally left that fall- and we got internet for the first time. My struggles with being around others my age had developed to a point where, combined with behaviors at home, the choices were a residential placement or the newly emerging cyber school programs. We chose cyber school. That first year of internet was covered through that, though I learned more from my “recreational” time than I had from the official curriculum. Searching for more things on Harry Potter, I found the Fandom community.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Fandom. I think of it a bit by taking apart the word parts. Like in a kingdom, all things were centered on what the thing we were fans of in place of a king’s will. It’s like a community where a shared interest- or, not uncommonly it seems, special interest- is where everything is funneled through. I learned so much there- how to have friends, how to maintain coversation, even how to write and articulate my thoughts and feelings beyond inept, purely practical communication.
Being a part of this community was just as “magical” as Hogwarts itself. The elusive concepts of community and fellowship that I saw others have little trouble with became real things. Connection to others suddenly had a real value. I could go on, I think, for a long time about how Fandom changed me, gave me elusive skills, and even healed some parts of me that abuse and mistreatment had damaged. (Indeed, Fandom and the vast joy it gave me allowed me for the first time since early childhood to reclaim that oft repressed joy of flapping.) But Fandom’s healing powers has only a tangiantal connection to what this post is about.
Until after I graduated high school, Harry Potter and its fandom were my primary interest. I ate, slept, and breathed it, I did my homework at school instead of reading in my down time there so that I would have more time for it at home. I excelled in it. When I finally returned to public school after a year at the cheapest private school in my area- an evangelical school- I had a focus that allowed me to ignore the other students for the most part. This focus on fandom and my fandom friends also allowed me to follow my mother’s advice of just trying to be painfully nice to others, which meant I did eventually gain a limited number of friends.
At the same time, though, the other things that I had avoided continued to be things to avoid. While some of the other fans my age were also into books like Animorphs, I secretly looked down on them. (I now recognize how horrible this is, and wish to appologize to my friends who I secretly held this interest against.) Though my brother’s skill at video games and my own enjoyment of RPGs existed, I tried to focus on more mature stories ranging from the Final Fantasy series to fairly- though not explicitly- adult themed tabletop gaming. Other stories were terrifying to me because of the childish associations I had for them. Indeed, though I did play Pokémon in private when no one was around, I didn’t allow myself to talk about it. I didn’t allow myself to fix the names in my head of the various creatures and towns for fear of anyone actually knowing that I could enjoy it.
While my interest in Fan art and geekiness allowed me to gain an interest in the art and style of Anime, I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy any of the stuff marketed to teen aged girls. Indeed, even though a distant cousin of mine shared an interest in anime I couldn’t deal with being around her for very long, as her love of Sailor Moon left me conflicted and a little scared. It was firmly, to my mind, in that realm of childish things. Even though my primary tormentor was gone, the fear of being seen as a child and as incompetant remained.
The effects of how Rick used this to divide my siblings and I remained too. My brother was 16 and I 17 when he decided he couldn’t handle living with me anymore. My behavior at home, though much better, could be set off by taking away my special interest. I was using up my energy and self control at school and in public, and couldn’t handle being parted from my interest for most things that my brother saw as “normal.” Honestly, I don’t know to this day what he thought would be better or more normal. I have no idea what else someone with very few friends- most of whom I didn’t do anything with outside of school or organized activities until the end of my Senior year- was supposed to be doing. I did know that I had something that brought me joy, and that taking it away brought me distress.
Having internalized the idea that I would never be mature or competant, my brother couldn’t take it any longer and moved in with the family of one of his friends. Though he is not as avoidant of me as he once was, he never lost the idea of me as incompetant. The idea that I would never be competant to fully understand things never left him. To this day, I do not feel safe holding any opinions when I am around him. I am not skilled enough or fast enough with putting things into words to defend my opinions, and when I become frustrated he brings up that I’m too emotional, stupid, or even incapable of understanding things to hold a proper opinion. Indeed, even those times I have prepared myself he will point out that in his opinion since I’m Autistic, what I have learned about social dynamics, politics, and even social justice are invalid or just not true. That my reasoning automatically must be immature and incomplete. I my mind, he has assumed the role of Rick’s enforcer, even if he doesn’t mean to.
Before Will left, my sister had her accident. Her own judgement centers had been damaged by her Traumatic Brain Injury, and this left her with following impulses. Unfortunately, this meant that I lived through a period of several years where she took advantage of how easily upset I was. However, she had been too young to have the full force of Rick’s influence and she eventually matured. At first, she still thought my uneven skills meant I was being stubborn or lazy. After my niece was born, though, she dated a young man who had 4 step siblings who were all somewhere on the Spectrum. Seeing that wide display of what Autism could be, her approach towards me changed. I’d never say she treats me perfectly, because she’s still herself- a proud bitch by her own labling. (I only use this word for her because it is how she describes her self when she’s short tempered.) But she treats me as an Equal in a way that accomedates for what I do need accomedated for. When I need her help, she no longer holds it against me. While she is still hard on me, it is more of pushing me in my skills than accusing me of anything. She treats me as much as an equal now as she treats anyone, really.
Years have gone by. I’m 24 as I write this; it has been more than 11 years since Rick left. While I hope, I doubt that I will ever reach the day where the things he left behind in my head are ever completely gone. Afterall, milder forms of what he has said are riddled throughout our society. Careless ableism, paternalism, and fixation on the pitiable and perpetual child with disabilities are unfortunately a deeply ingrained thing for the West. But I take hope, I think, from the little buddings of Autistic Community Building. It’s not just the community itself, of course- community alone is something I could seek out in fandom- but a community that recognizes and reclaims the things we’ve been told to hide.
Some of my friends haven’t felt forced to give up childish joys. I wish I were one of them, but I am not. In spending time with my community, particularly members my own age range, I am surrounded by reminders of what I had forsworn, of joy. But for me, reclaiming this part of who I am is harder than reclaiming the joy and releasing the shame of stimming. Rocking and flapping in public is no where near as terrifying for me as openly taking joy in childish things.
I wish I had a better way to word all this. To uncover all the parts of that terror. In fact as I type this, my throat is tightening with anxiety. If I reclaim my childish joy, a part of me thinks, am I affirming that idea of being stuck a child? Am I admitting to being that child in an adult body that is bandied about with pity? Do I become not an adult with their own interests but a child stuck on the past?
I know that these things aren’t true. I no longer feel shame for or superior to my friends who continue to take joy in Muppets or My Little Pony. I no longer avoid conversations where my partners linger on Pokémon or Sailor Moon (which it turns out is pretty cool.) I’m slowly taking steps to explore those things that I had discarded in fear.
But my doubt in myself lingers, and I find it so hard to join in joy easily, myself so out of practice at the words and flow for these sparks of childhood that I mumble or stay silent. I have to tell my dearest friends aloud that I do enjoy listening to them talk, and to pardon my silence because it’s too scary, my toungue too trembling, to join in their words. I beg of them to indulge and keep talking, because I still love some of these things but am not yet past my fear enough to speak that love aloud.
A friend recently was talking to me about the new Muppet movie and their excitment over it. Eventually they took notice, though, that I only hummed along to their singing and smiled and nodded to their reiterations of facts. Like many members of our community, they had been taught that a shortcut to figuring out if someone isn’t as interested in a conversation is if they do the smile and nod. Trying to explain this whole thing to them was difficult- they had never been made to feel as I had. Eventually I just told them I’d be writing this post, and we continued on walking.
A block later, I mentioned having enjoyed the muppet babies cartoon when I was very little, and how I had liked the peanut butter and bananas sandwiches that one character had been fond of. It was a short sentance, but it was something. Some sort of tiny step forward.
This week, I have plans to try and see the new Muppet movie. I don’t know that it will happen- my mother is a bit unreliable for recreational plans- but it is a plan.
My three-year-old niece, too, has been a catalyst in re-examining these things. Last week, my niece and I started watching a children’s show called Ruby Gloom. The day after she left, I was still at my mother’s. I turned on the Xbox, and I sat down and watched an episode, just for the Joy of it.
Progress is slow, but it’s never too late to make a little more.
“It is never too late to have a happy childhood” – Tom Robbins
This post is dedicated to my best friend. Their interest in things I had put away initiated my thoughts, and their joy made me re-explore my own shame.
[Content Warnings: Abuse, ableism, spiritual violence/abuse, misapplication of biblical concepts as justification, denigration of “childish” behaviors”, mention of disordered eating]
“The things which the child loves remain in the domain of the heart until old age. The most beautiful thing in life is that our souls remaining over the places where we once enjoyed ourselves.” – Kahlil Gibran
When I was a kid- and I mean between the ages of 8 and 13- I was desperate to get away from anything I liked that were “childish things.” Cartoons? Muppets? Books with pictures in them? All became objects of shame. For me, though, this was not triggered by an internal dislike. Here, I cannot speak to the lives of other Autistics. I know a number of my friends and collegues who never faced this particular pressure, even if they faced the same taunts. The same use of “childish” as a dirty word.
My mother’s second husband, Rick, was a big man, and a bully. Speed, attention, interests- all were made into critical faults in me. Even hunger after school was pointed to and mocked when my mother wasn’t around, fostering an unhealthy relationship with food I still haven’t been able to shake. His treatment of me was often explained away by two interconnecting concepts. The idea that as a child with disablities, I both needed treatment and couldn’t accept it as “right” was a big one, but the other was the concept of “The Willful Child.”
“When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I grew up, I put away childish things.”- 1 Corinthians 13:11
Today, I may be Jewish. I’ve even taken on my ethnically Jewish stepfather (my mother’s 3rd husband)’s last name, Breakstone. But at that point in my life, my immediate family all practiced some variation of Christianity. I could talk about specific denominatons or sub-faiths- from Dutch Reform to Jehovah’s Wittness- but in truth, what was held in our home had less to do with a denominational affliation and more to do with Rick’s idea of using biblical teachings to his conveniance.
One of his favorites when it came to me was the concept that some of you may be familiar with of “The Willful Child.” James Dobson’s books on this idea- The Strong-Willed Child- may be fairly known now, and maybe they were at the time as well. What I do know about how they were used at this time was how they were used at my house- the same way the bible itself was used, at least when my mother wasn’t home. The principles were twisted to Rick’s convenience. (My mother and I personally found that “The Explosive Child” by Ross Greene worked a lot better for me in the end.)
While at the same time encouraging services and at home abuse as “needed treatment,” Rick also labled my behaviors as that of the willful, sinful child. I was told that I was everything that a good “Christian” child was not, be they actually backed up by biblical text or not. Resistance to abuse was also framed as childish, and as willfulness. Both typical behavioral censure and spiritual censure were used against me for things as simple as wanting to continue playing with something or not cleaning up fast enough. (In retrospect, it is no wonder it took me so long to admit that even as a child- and I hope not to offend my Christian friends and readers- I found the concept of a risen Christ improbable at best.)
Perhaps most devestating in the long run was how this censure was used to divide me from my siblings. Today, I have a supportive relationship with my sister. But at the time- and to this day with my brother- this was not true. My behaviors, my failure to live up to Rick’s idea of an obediant young woman, were held up to them as a model of everything they ought to strive against being.
I think my Catholic friends might be familiar with what my behaviors were labled under different names. Lazy (Sloth) was a big one because of my lack of speed and efficiency. Angry or even violent (Wrath) when I was reduced to lashing out as resistance. Fat, chubster, and so forth (Gluttony) for hunger and later hoarding behaviors. While I avoided the traditional concept of vanity being played against me until my eating disorder had excelerated, elements of it cropped up in accusations of selfishness (Greed) and willfulness whenever I attempted to establish boundries about my self, my privacy, or my belongings. Indeed, my distress when several things I had charished as perhaps only an Autistic can were lost in our move to Pennsylvania were added to my greed and willfulness. The only “Cardinal Sin” I was not accused of in some way was lust, though I’m not sure if it was through the non-consensual labling of PWD as asexual (as opposed to labeling one’s own orientation as such) or if it was my age.
I could- and perhaps someday I will- write a full length book about the things that happened when my mother was not at home. I want to reaffirm right now that other than her obliviousness to what was happening my mother did right by me in every way that she could. I believe that in part the spiritual abuse she was facing- an abusive form of complementarianism combined with a religious bigotry against divorced individuals- combined with her own ADHD that allowed things to be missed. Additionally, Rick’s articulate dissmissals over my barely articulated- if you could even call it that- complaints of “unfairness” would be hard to dismiss in our society even without the abuse she was facing.
When I started this post, I didn’t realize how much spiritual abuse played into this, nor how much “willfulness” and “childishness” had been conflated. In any case, they were conflated and tied together. Indeed, any sign of so called willfulness were pointed out as evidence of why Rick’s claims that I would never grow up, that I would be perpetually incompetant to make my own choices just as a child would be. I became desperate to prove somehow that I wasn’t childish- that I wouldn’t stay a child forever.
Unable to eliminate my “childish, willful” behaviors despite my own best efforts and Rick’s “treatment,” I searched for other ways to escape this censure. The only thing left to me was to eliminated the outward trappings of childhood as much as possible. Things that I enjoyed became things to avoid at all costs. Cartoons were an especial target, even if they weren’t designed exclusively for children. We didn’t have TV- we couldn’t afford cable, and there were no channels that we recieved reception for- but we did have VHS tapes.
No longer could I enjoy, for example, the animated Hobbit and Return of the King. I forced myself to bury my distress at having lost my Disney movies (they were among the things that were lost in the move), and struggled when my brother’s interest in Beauty and the Beast and The Nightmare Before Christmas flourished as we entered our teens. Even my enjoyment as a child of puppet based television such as the Muppets or Fraggle Rock were to be eliminated.
Toys, too, became objects of dirision, even ones that were educational or even deemed “age-appropriate.” I had never really played with my toys the way some children would- I stacked my dolls or created displays of them unless another child was present to direct play. But now even creation of toy based dioramas was taboo. My drawings became focused on more mature subjects and styles. I began to draw, for example, scenes of the slave trade instead of costumes when my interest in history shifted to the Civil War era.
Indeed, I struggled even with my special interest in history. While it can be a mature and sober pursuit, it had initiated via a children’s book on dolls from the Victorian period. My readings turned from child appropriate texts to thick novels and non-fiction accounts. I think I would have turned to them even without this pressure, but I don’t think I would have been so strident in avoiding books written for children my age. Perhaps I wouldn’t have mocked them as harshly.
My own sense of aesthetics was also to be challenged anytime it might co-inside with “childish things.”
One thing I couldn’t rout out, though, was my interest in fantasy and magic. I did try to limit it to “classics” of the genre though- instead of contemporary young adult fantasy I read T H White, CS Lewis, J R R Tolkien, and similar almost exclusively. The exception was in the school library, where I read every vampire novel I could get my hands on. Even there, though, I tried to form a preference for classic, genre development specific stories such as Carmilla. I don’t regret this, as it did eventually develop into my sub-interest in Gothic Victorian Romantacism which I indulge in to this day. I did take joy in it, but I trained myself to limit my expressions of that joy.
Fairly early on, before things became more obviously abusive, my expressions of joy and comfort were limited. If seen on a timeline, this was the “first” target, though it is one that regretfully many parents of Autistics target. Flapping was eliminated. Bouncing was frowned upon. Toe walking was framed as inappropriately timed and poorly executed “ballet” play. (I was interested in dance when I was very young, but by this point I was not.) Wiggling my fingers was wrong. Even those “allistic stims” of leg jiggling or finger tapping were a basis for censure, pointed to as proof that I was unthankful, impatient, and willful. The only acceptable forms of joy were smiling and sometimes- and only when deemed appropriate- laughter. Seeing as how smiling wasn’t an automatic thing for me, especially when feeling simply happy, this didn’t become terribly common.
Children need models rather than critics.
– Joseph Joubert
This post has gone much deeper and longer than I ever thought it would. It has been harder to write than I truely expected, even after thinking about it and predrafting it in my head for a month. I’ve decided to save the second half for another post, which you should expect tomorrow. It covers the working through and reclaimation of joy, among other things. EDIT: The second post, On Childish Things II, has been posted.
This post is dedicated to my mother. Without her, I would have been forced into institutional settings and would never have been able to move beyond this to reclaim joy.