Quite awhile ago, I discussed the “is Darcy shy?” debate that invariably crops up every few months. (And no, it’s not all the 2005 version’s fault -- my favourite reading of P&P, which dates from the 60s, invokes it as part of his argument. [This would be my least favourite part of it. But Babb is still wonderful and glorious!])
Anyway, that debate has a sort of kid sister: the “does Darcy have Asperger’s?” thing that also seems to crop up -- perhaps a little less frequently, but it also has an entire chapter of a book dedicated to it, so I think it’s got to come out about even.
Seriously, though, it does keep coming back. As with the shy thing, it’s not like calling Colonel Fitzwilliam Richard or Mrs Gardiner Madeleine: something that a few people came up with back in the day and then somehow it got adopted by the fandom en masse (i.e., fanon). It’s not fanon. It’s just something that independently strikes a lot of people, while just as many go “hell, no!”
Disclaimer: I am personally leery about diagnosing fictional characters with disorders that were not even conceived of at the time. Yes, it’s possible that a keen-eyed observer like Austen might very well have seen an actual person with actual Asperger’s and integrated her observations into her characterization.
However, that would require her famously nuanced characters to simply be expies of people she knew in real life (per Becoming Jane, which is … no, just no) or for her to be so keen-eyed that she could actually identify the features of the disorder well before anybody else had ever thought of it, separate them out from any non-Asperger’s traits, then essentially import them into her own characterizations. And she’d have to have some reason to do this, because otherwise focusing on the non-female underprivileged, she is not.
On the other hand, unlike many other popular interpretations, I don’t think this one actually contradicts his established character as such. So it’s sort of vaguely valid: I consider it less likely than “Darcy dotes on his sister” (duh) and considerably more likely than “Darcy is a sexual predator of any kind” (wtf?). I also think that the ubiquity of the interpretation comes from exactly one line and, in all probability, would rarely cross anyone’s mind otherwise.
Okay, back to the regularly scheduled programming. Back in June, it came up yet again. This time it was a discussion that I ran across a few weeks after the fact. I thought it looked interesting, so I clicked.
It was a little, I guess. The poster presented her creds: her husband and son have Asperger’s, so she
“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said Darcy, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”
This is generally interpreted as: I’m an introvert, so it’s hard for me to chat with strangers, and I’m an asshat, so I don’t bother trying; I just hate everyone and don’t put in the effort to pretend otherwise.
A more generous interpretation is: I’m introverted and socially inept, so it’s extremely difficult for me to talk with strangers, or pretend that I’m interested in them -- which I’m not, because strangers.
This woman, in common with the others on Team Asperger’s, reads it as: I have an as-yet-undiagnosable condition which makes social interactions, especially with strangers, a nightmare. It also makes me miss the tone of their conversations -- I know it’s a thing because I see other people catch it all the time, but I can’t. It’s the same with putting fake expressions on my face. I can’t do that, and I can’t work up interest in random strangers, so I’m screwed there too. Also I have numerous other difficulties that I won't mention just now.
More or less.
Anyway, the OP reads the line and, as with her fellows (and probably any number of therapists), the phrase “cannot catch their tone of conversations” rings every ASD alarm bell in her head. She reads the line to her husband -- who, I’ll remind you (yes, this will be important later on!), has Asperger’s himself.
The husband, we’re told, immediately assumes that Darcy is on the spectrum and sympathizes with him. With that tentative confirmation, the OP turns to her comrades in Austen fandom and poses the idea to them.
By and large, they are horrified. Not at the idea that Darcy’s manly perfection might be marred by teh autism -- of course not. No, it’s that (1) if Darcy had Asperger’s, his character arc would be about overcoming his disability, not about being a sometime-asshat and mostly stopping it, and (2) he doesn’t have the symptoms anyway, which they know all about because they have children or students or nephews/nieces/second cousins’ roommates who are diagnosed with Asperger’s/autism/something sort of similar.
And you know what? I don’t have children with anything on the autism spectrum, because I don’t have any children and I don’t want to have any children. I don’t have students. I don’t have nephews or nieces, just cousins twenty years younger than me, who don’t have autism spectrum disorders either. Yet I believe that I have every bit as much right to an opinion as these women do, if not more, even though (as far as I know) I don’t have a single relative on the autism spectrum. Because guess what I do have?
Yeah. Asperger’s syndrome.
I know, shocking1.
So, yeah. I may not have all the learnings (I am a humble psychology minor), but like The Husband, I do have the lived experiences.
Now, you may wonder, “why is she bringing all this up now? This happened all the way back in June.” Do I have an answer for this? Why, yes!
That’s how long it took me to calm down. That is, to calm down to the state you see here: less “FLAMES ON THE SIDE OF MY FACE” and more “tl;dr ranting.” I was furious. I very briefly mentioned it here and set it aside until I could organize my thoughts into something more coherent than RAAAAAAAAAAAEG.
There’s a lot of fail in Austen fandom -- a lot of fail in fandom, period -- but this was the first time it felt like it was pointed straight at me. You don’t need to tell me it wasn’t meant that way. I know it wasn’t. I know that these people didn’t go, “hey, how can we marginalize Elizabeth’s experiences today?” I know that they didn’t mean to be offensive towards people with Asperger’s, people on the autism spectrum, non-neurotypical people in general. Not meaning to be offensive, unfortunately, doesn’t mean diddlysquat. (Don’t say, “you’re just looking for reasons to be offended” either. I don’t actually do that. Does anyone do that?)
I’ve seen these same arguments go around plenty of times; this one wasn’t really any different. But it was in my fandom, and in a space I’m familiar with, and I’m tired of the stealth ableism. So I’m going to explain what’s wrong with it. And if you’re one of those nice neurotypical types who makes these arguments on behalf of poor, crazy people like me, I’m probably not talking about you in particular. You don’t need to defend yourself. Please don’t.
I’m going to discuss (2) first, because it's more straightforward. I’ve already addressed it, a little -- the “I know all because I know someone with Asperger’s or something kind of similar.” Frankly, other people in our circle of family-and-friends speaking for us rather than permitting us to speak for ourselves isn’t exactly rare. And that’s what’s going on here.
A number of people were very eager to say “it can’t be, because I have a [fill in the blank] with Asperger’s/autism/whatever and I have all the learnings,” completely ignoring the fact that the guy in the original post had Asperger’s. (I said that would be important!) This is not to say that he was automatically right, or that they were obliged to automatically adopt his perspective. What I found problematic is that all of these people speaking as authorities because of their experiences didn’t even address his authority, as a person who actually lives with it.
Even the awesome person who pointed out a lot of the problematic (by which I mean offensive) elements in their arguments participated in the erasure of actual people with Asperger’s, reinforcing her argument (more or less, “people with ASDs are not ambulatory autism”) with a friendly sort of “amirite, Aspie2 parents?”
That’s right. Don’t ask us -- what do we know? We’re probably just kids, anyway; autism spectrum disorders are the Trix cereal of the DSM. We disappear at the age of eighteen, or turn into unicorns. We can never speak for our own experiences, certainly not on the Internet. It’s our parents who should be appealed to as the ultimate authorities on our experience of the world.
No. You don’t get to claim trufax lived experience authority, and then blithely ignore others’ considerably greater authority. Maybe he didn’t get the context of the quotation. Maybe his wife was waggling her eyebrows meaningfully. Maybe he didn’t think about it. He can be wrong. I can be wrong. But every single person completely failing to address his authority? Not cool.
Moving on, let’s consider the actual statements made in the argument. I’m trying not to point fingers at anyone in particular, so I’ll just talk about the assertions generally. I’ve heard them dozens of times before, anyway, and I’m trying to criticize the arguments that keep repeating, not the various people who make them.
Completely True Facts About Asperger’s Syndrome and the People Who Have It
(1) We have special interests that we are incapable of shutting up about. Yes, regardless of age, situation, education, or any other particular circumstances.
Do I have the interests? Yes. This post is itself an example! Do I talk about them a lot? Yes, clearly. Am I capable of doing otherwise? Yes. In my day-to-day, meatspace life, I rarely mention my special interests to anyone but my parents. If somebody mentions Jane Austen, I’m most likely to say “oh, I love Austen” -- and that’s all. If I’m feeling adventurous, I might add “just the books, though, the movies annoy me a bit. How about you?”
The thing is, the media always seems to treat people with Asperger’s, especially teenagers and adults, as if we just woke up one morning and there it was. It was hiding under our beds the whole time!
Newsflash: it’s not like that. I’m twenty-five years old. I’ve lived with this just about every moment of every day of my entire life. Sure, I didn’t know what it was because I went undiagnosed for most of that time, but I had to find ways to cope with it.
For instance: At some point I realized that other people found my manner of expression to be annoying/hurtful/disturbing/various other unpleasant things. The thing is, it tends to be either far in excess of what’s normative -- talking REALLY LOUDLY when I get excited, or laughing long past the point when everyone else has stopped -- or far below it. My mother talked about my lack of gratitude or surprise, people would constantly ask me why I didn’t think X was funny, my friends told me that my inexpressiveness made me seem kind of bitchy, blah blah blah.
You know, I got the picture eventually. People seem to think aliens came down, kidnapped all of us, inserted the Autism Data Chip into our brains to control our every moment, and sent us back. No, actually, that never happened.
So no, I didn’t get out of bed one day and bam! Asperger’s. After several years of “what’s wrong with your faaaace” I didn’t go “what is this thing you call a facial expression?” I’d lived among mostly-neurotypical humans for years and I knew what expressions looked like, even if they felt weird on my face and I couldn’t read them very well. So guess what I did?
I found a mirror and started practicing facial expressions. Yes, it was hard, it took forever, I’m still not especially great at it (back then they’d often be ridiculously exaggerated), but I’m no longer expressionless unless I’m really tired and just don’t have the energy. In fact, I’ve done it for so long by now that I don’t usually have to think first.
An adult who’s lived with this for 20+ years is probably going to have found some way to make existing in the social world of human beings a little less painful for themselves. Having Asperger’s is not like being frozen in time with no ability to learn, adapt, or simply fake things.
(2) We never process language normally (or “normally”) and when subjected to complex conversations, require considerable time to formulate responses. That’s just how our brains work and they are stuck there forever.
Fun story: I had mediocre grades in school, for a number of reasons, most of which had much more to do with my immune system than my brain (no, not every single aspect of our lives, experiences, and personalities can be traced back to our “disorder”; more on this later). I only managed a scholarship, university acceptances in the US, and invitation to a summer program abroad3 because I got 800 Verbal.
My life is endless tragedy.
So, in regard to that last point, allow me to repeat: There is no data chip. There are any number of things that are beyond my capabilities, but I am not controlled by the Great Puppetmaster of Autism.
In regard to the general linguistic capacities of people with Asperger’s: no, you’re wrong. This is simply not the case and I don’t really understand why anyone with Google at their disposal would think so. Why? Because the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s includes the absence of clinically significant delays in language, cognitive development, and adaptive functioning. No, really. It’s in the DSM. (Which sucks, but that’s a discussion for a different day.) If you have Asperger’s, BY DEFINITION you do not have significant linguistic delays.
Moreover, that whole thing about needing time to come up with replies is really odd to me in light of (1). Yeah, when I’m with my friends, not worrying about presenting as normal while they have their complex conversations, I never instantly respond with entire monologues. Nuh-uh. Just ask hlbr and tulina -- they can tell you how much I don’t launch into diatribes at the drop of hat.
But maybe this conversation is just too complex for me and you should give me another ten minutes to think about it.
(3) We lack curiosity and always will.
Apparently, I didn’t annoy everyone I met by asking for explanations for everything (remember that annoying “but whyyyyyyy?” stage? that’s pretty much my entire life). They just imagined this little girl trailing after them demanding to know how the universe worked. Okay!
(4) If someone with Asperger’s is a snobbish jerk, it’s because they have Asperger’s.
And this is where we hit the Unfortunate Implications jackpot. On the face of it, it may seem one of the less offensive remarks, but this is actually the thing that bothers me the most about these discussions, and inevitably always comes up.
See, the basic argument on the Asperger’s side is that Darcy is awkward, withdrawn, inexpressive, has difficulty reading other people’s emotions, diatribes about philosophical questions are his idea of small talk, he uses long, formal words and involved phrasing and is highly articulate, and particularly dislikes, and is naturally bad at social interactions involving (1) dancing, (2) strangers, or (3) both -- because he has Asperger’s.
Now frankly, this argument has some pretty severe drawbacks, such as “...so, basically he’s a geek?” I mean, his interests seem to be socially acceptable things, like landscaping and interior design (really: he tells his sister he loves her THROUGH
All of that said, however, what they don’t usually argue is that “Darcy is inconsiderate because he has Asperger’s” or “Darcy is a snob because he has Asperger’s” or “Darcy is selfish because he has Asperger’s” or “Darcy has any-of-his-numerous-personal-flaws because he has Asperger’s.” They’re saying that his canonical difficulties with social interaction come from Asperger’s, not that Asperger’s is the font from which every aspect of his personality and character flows.
It’s their opponents who seem to be saying that, if Darcy has Asperger’s, his arrogance comes from having Asperger’s, his snobbery comes from having Asperger’s, his selfish disdain for the feelings of others comes from having Asperger’s, his everything comes from having Asperger’s. Or, to rephrase, if someone has both Asperger’s and the above traits, and you say that those traits must be traits of the person’s Asperger’s, you’re saying those are traits of Asperger’s.
Maybe not in every case and in every person. Maybe you’re not talking about me, personally. But in a general way, yep, people with Asperger’s are apparently arrogant, snobbish, selfish, inconsiderate jerkasses (with requisite hearts of gold, of course).
So, supposing Darcy has Asperger’s, and does not become less formal, less inclined to four-syllable-words, less inscrutable, less my-way-or-the-highway, less incapable of catching tone, or less remote in uncomfortable situations, but does abandon his snobbery and tries to consider the feelings of others (however stiffly), he is not experiencing personal growth but simply overcoming his mental disorder.
Um. Let’s suppose, as is most likely, that Darcy doesn’t have Asperger’s and is simply a classic INTJ or whatnot. In this scenario, he dislikes dancing and basically anything that involves a bunch of people he doesn’t know. He’s formal, prolix, remote, unfriendly and all of that. He makes bad first impressions, doesn’t catch the tone of conversations and is inexpressive, especially when it comes to emotion he doesn’t actually feel -- because he’s an introvert.
Okay. But of course it’s ridiculous to say he’s arrogant, snobbish, and often selfish because he’s an introvert. So he has a number of qualities that are related to his basic temperament, and he has a somewhat smaller number that are related to his being a privileged asshat. It is quite clear that they are separate and at most, his introversion affects the way his arrogance etc expresses itself, not its existence.
Nobody thinks that Darcy ceased to be an introvert -- and an introvert of his particular type -- after Hunsford. Seriously, nobody. It could not be more blatant. Nobody thinks that the effort he’s making is anything less than a struggle for him, or, as far as I can tell, that it’s even got appreciably easier. The overwhelming consensus that I’ve seen is that the difference is that he’s now making the effort because he no longer thinks everyone is beneath him, however much it personally sucks. Not that he’s overcome his innate introversion.
Therefore, to sum up:
-- if Darcy has Asperger’s and is also a jerk, then ceases to be a jerk while retaining the (supposed) signs of Asperger’s, he’s now cured himself of his horrible debilitating disorder.
-- if Darcy is an introvert and is also a jerk, then ceases to be a jerk while retaining the signs of introversion, he’s now an introvert who is not a jerk.
No unfortunate implications at all!
(5) Asperger’s is a biological condition that determines our behaviours.
Look. My entire identity is not consumed in it, nor controlled by it. It’s had a tremendous effect on my life, some of which has been unpleasant and some of which has not. It influences me, but it is not everything I am. Let me put this as clearly as I can:
Nothing singlehandedly determines our behaviour. We don’t need you to strip us of all responsibility and personal agency (poor dears!). We don’t need you to go on about how we’re destined by our biologies to be unlikable, empathy-less arrogant snobs. We don’t need you to talk about us like we’re less able to make choices than your household pets are. Stop it.
1 No, it’s not the “icky” self-diagnosed kind that neurotypical people take such pleasure in vilifying. My latest psychologist noticed it after I went on a rant about Why Social Stuff is Really Really Really Hard For Me that just happened to coincide with almost every known symptom of Asperger’s. Surprise! Only not. Except apparently it is a surprise that we’re out here, hanging around in fandom, having opinions on things to do with Asperger’s. The world, what is it coming to.
2 Please don't call me an Aspie. I don't know exactly why it bothers me so much, but I don't like the word and I don't want it used for me.
3 At Cambridge, if you're curious. I've always wished I could have gone, because it sounded awesome. I, ah, might have kept the letter.