Friday, February 12, 2016

Independent Lens: Autism in Love

This is going to be a little more personal than most of what I write here.

As a teenager, I was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a diagnosis that officially no longer exists and is now part of a wide "autism spectrum", possibly because of the Internet.  There's a history of autism on both sides of my family, and the shoe seems to fit personality-wise, but it's never been a part of myself that I've felt very comfortable with, and these days I mostly don't think about it.  Part of it is that most autistic people I've met seem to be worse off than I am, and adopting it as an identity makes me feel like I'm co-opting their disability.  Part of it might just be that I don't want to be disabled, and that if I squirrel into my own little world I can pretend that my behaviour and desires are normal, or at least a normal part of the spectrum of humanity (and, of course, they are).  The public image of autism, when not a quirky TV detective, is that of a mute child who inflicts noble suffering on their family, the type of child who can perhaps be eliminated by fun-runs or vaccine boycotts.  Who would want to identify with that?

With that in mind, I approached "Autism in Love" -- a part of PBS's Independent Lens series -- with equal parts interest and caution.  I may have been able to suppress thoughts of my own autism over the years, but the topic of love cannot be suppressed in a society obsessed with it, and in particular love that takes the form of sexually monogamous cohabiting couples.  For the autistic it can be difficult navigating friendships, let alone romance, and a relationship can seem like a danger to our self-sustaining routines.  Recently I've been wondering if coupledom and romantic love are even things that I want, and if it might make sense to identify as asexual.  This is immediately followed by the idea that such thoughts are nothing more than sour grapes, sops for my own inability to get a date.

"Autism in Love" sort of deals with the issues that have been on my mind recently, and sort of doesn't.  All of the autistic people profiled seem to have clearly decided on romantic love as an important goal, even if this goal leads to anguish for at least one of the interview subjects.  The film profiles four autistic people with different relationships to love and at different stages of their lives -- one searching for love, two in a relationship with an uncertain future, one at the end of a long marriage.  They also span the spectrum of sociality, from the presentable if slightly icy Lindsey to the almost-stereotypical Stephen, who speaks like a child but can bark out answers to every question on Jeopardy!.  This could all feel a little schematic, but there is a tenderness to the film that insists on its subjects' uniqueness as more than data points on a spectrum or different stages in one over-arching narrative.  If you haven't seen it, the film is available at the address below for those in the US:

The autistic couple, Dave and Lindsey, are the closest thing to normal we get.  Both are young people with jobs, living together and pondering their next steps.  Autism is presented as a sort of obstacle to both people expressing themselves, but for the most part these are perfectly mundane relationship issues -- one partner wants more commitment (i. e. marriage), while the other is in love but unsure.  It's just that this time there are analogies to quantum physics.  If anything, their blunt and analytic modes of expressing themselves leads to less evasion of the central issue.  This storyline ends in a happy resolution, with Dave proposing marriage at the end of the film.  There's a sense of hope in this scene, not just for Lindsey and Dave but for all autistic people and the very possibility of autistic love.

The presence of the camera seems more uncomfortable in this storyline than the others.  Whereas Stephen and Vinny largely address the camera, we see several scenes of Dave and Lindsey interacting with each other as though the documentary crew wasn't there -- Lindsey coming home from work, her meeting with a friend, and of course the climactic proposal scene.  Of course, documentaries have long employed similar techniques, but the switches between fly-on-the-wall and fly-in-the-soup are noticeable.  Perhaps it is because Dave and Lindsey, rather than being questioned by the filmmaker, question each other about much the same subjects.  Still, perhaps the most formally intriguing moment in a film that is generally formally conventional is when Dave, after repeated questioning by Lindsey, says that he doesn't want to have this discussion on camera.  It's a moment that makes you abruptly aware that these people are being filmed, and raises the question of how much is not being discussed on camera, and how much should be.  Like all documentary subjects, Dave and Lindsey are showing a certain part of themselves for the camera, and the inclusion of this one small line is a quiet but needed awareness that this is definitely a partial view.

The proposal scene, however, is when this staginess becomes a benefit.  After all, a marriage proposal is always a spectacle, and one that is always informed by the countless proposals with swelling music we've seen in movies and TV shows.  So Dave stages this scene, but it is filtered through the autistic communication barrier in a frankly beautiful way.  The two begin by having the same kind of abstract conversation about their relationship we've already seen a couple times, one that threatens to end in the same stalemate.  Then Dave gets down on his knees and manages to get out what he had decided to see.  Lindsey takes a seemingly agonizing time to respond, and one remembers her note to the interviewer at the beginning of the film that she might take a minute to think before answering any question.  And then, finally, she agrees.  Director Matt Fuller notes in an interview that this scene, as neat a resolution as it offers, happened organically.  Even so, it's a nice synecdoche of the hope that the film offers -- that despite all of the barriers and inability to say what we mean, love is possible.

Stephen's story is not the beginning of a love story but the end of it.  When we first see Stephen, he appears every bit the autistic man we expect -- living with his parents, able to vocalize only simple thoughts, working a simple job at the post office.  It is only later, when we return to Stephen that we learn that he has been married for over a decade to a fairly neurotypical woman named Gita.  There's a bit of cruelty to this reveal, as its shock value rests on our assumption that someone like Stephen could being in a relationship is extraordinary.  The relationship seemingly violates our cultural idea that the two sides in a marriage should be equal -- Gita admits that part of the attraction of Stephen is that she feels like she doesn't have to work as hard to maintain their relationship.  In this sense, this is a genuinely non-normative relationship, and one that's refreshing to see on TV, especially between square middle-aged people.

It would have been nice to see some of the normal, everyday coexistence between Stephan and Gita, but by the time the film begins Gita is already in the late stages of cancer treatment.  As such, this plotline becomes a tragedy, with the happy life lived between people of different neurological stripes visible only through remnants and now-empty apartments.  The pathos here probably shouldn't feel so earned, but it does.  Late in the film, Stephen manages to choke out "Gita is dead.  Gita died", and for once his linguistic difficulties appear as an entirely comprehensible difficulty with the world.

The third story of the film, dealing with a single young man named Lenny, is perhaps more heartrending.  Lenny's difficulties are not holding onto love but finding it, and a possibly unhealthy fixation on getting a girlfriend as a way to demonstrate his normality.  These are difficulties that many autistic young men (like myself) can empathize with.  And yet, Lenny is a difficult character to embrace.  He acts hostile to both the people around him and his imagined lover, insisting that he would have to be superior to any girlfriend.  He despairs about his condition and wishes he had never been born autistic.  He is not about to be the posterboy for either the charities or the activists.

And yet it is precisely this aspect that makes his story the most fascinating.  Lenny is the dark side of autism, the one who suffers from his condition and the one who says the things others don't want to admit they think.  After all, how many men have a conscious or unconscious desire to dominate and feel superior to their romantic partners, but simply know better than to admit it?  How many people with physical or mental disabilities quietly wish to themselves that it was otherwise?  Lenny is the uncomfortable presence that forces us to admit truths that do not easily fit into narratives about disabilities -- including the fact that people with disabilities can sometimes act like assholes.

The filmmaking in this segment feels the roughest, the closest to cinema verite.  Lenny's long rant before his institutionalization, which the camera observes without comment, feels more film festival than PBS.  (Of course, the Independent Lens series theoretically encompasses both).  The resolution is not happy or hopeful -- while we may find the glow of love amidst sadness in Stephen's mourning for Gita, Lenny's new job at a grocery store doesn't feel the same way.  Maybe the thing that is most forbidden to admit about love is that some people never find it.

In the end, Autism in Love didn't really resolve my own questions and anxieties about love.  It demonstrated that love for autistic people is possible, but frequently treacherous -- although, is that really that different from love for neurotypical people?  Does one aspect of my self determine my relation to the world of romance?  This deserves more introspection, or maybe less.  But what Autism in Love did help me examine was autism, a part of my identity I find it hard to embrace.  The film highlights both the bright and rough parts of autism, and ultimately suggests a way through the difficulties to happiness.  Whether or not that happiness is love, I think that this hope is valuable.