[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.