Frankenstein; or: The Autistic Self

I’ve been enjoying Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal by Anna Whateley, a YA novel which is part of the exciting new wave of Own Voices fiction starring autistic characters and written by autistic authors. Peta’s an Australian teen juggling an alphabet of diagnoses (ASD, ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder) and torn between the pressure to conform and the desire to be herself.

The latter might sound like a standard teenage problem, but for neurodivergent kids like Peta, the pressure of conformity comes particularly from the adult world of parents, teachers and therapists. So Peta spends her time repressing her instinctive responses to others, replacing them with rules drilled into her over years of therapy. All teenagers need to invent and reinvent themselves, and autistic people are famously prone to finding ourselves through fiction, so it’s no accident that Peta’s English class offers her the perfect metaphor for her life in the form of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or: The Modern Prometheus.

Peta likens herself to the monster: where he’s made of different people’s body parts stitched together inelegantly, she feels herself to be a collection of neurotypical rules given to her so she’ll fit in. Like many neurodivergent people (myself included) she constantly observes others, having to consciously pick up what’s instinctive for most, whether she’s caring for her baby cousin or supporting her best friend Jeb, who’s being abused by his alcoholic father. But rote rules can only take her so far in the real social world. Meanwhile, in Frankenstein, the monster quietly devours Paradise Lost and watches the family who live in the woods, learning from them the rudiments of human kindness. Can the monster emerge from the darkness and befriend the blind man? And can Peta let herself be fully seen by her new girlfriend, Sam, without Sam just treating her as someone who needs to be taught and cared for?

The novel ingeniously enlarges the theme it shares with Frankenstein of being misunderstood in the human social world, trying to do what seems expected by others, and being punished for it. Social ambiguities are exceptionally hard on neurodivergent people, and autistic women in particular can often imitate other people’s surface behaviour beyond our ability to tease out the implications of how we’ll be read in return. On the school ski trip, Peta discovers a new sporting talent, but also a complex social tangle. When her girlfriend assumes she’s flirting with attractive guys, the ensuing web of misunderstandings leaves Peta painfully alienated. Whereas the monster’s friendly overtures are seen as a threat, Peta’s are perceived by both men and women around her as sexual teasing. It’s a problem I encountered in my own teenage years, and which I never expected to see so clearly unfolded and explained in fiction, more than half a lifetime after my awkward, monster-obsessed adolescence.

The monster, having no body of literature written by others like him, can only define himself based on the ideas society gives him. He sees humanity’s ideals in literature, and how far short he falls in the eyes of people around him. That’s been the traditional fate of autistic people, with so much about us written by neurotypical people based on external observations, received “wisdom”, flawed research and – often epic – conclusion jumping. We’re told we universally lack empathy, that we are aloof, that we are antisocial. How often are we actually hurt, isolated and rejected? The monster seeks someone like himself, and though the things he does to extort a companion from Frankenstein are unforgivable, his desire to leave humanity behind and cocoon with his own kind is as painfully understandable as the more separatist fringes of autistic culture.

We all have to find an acceptance of ourselves that doesn’t depend on how well we can imitate everybody else. The monster, if transposed to a modern landscape of autism interventions, could do ABA for years and he’d still be different. He rejects society before it can reject him again. His maker remains an amoral, selfish and ruthless being, and the monster would have to transcend Victor Frankenstein to accept and share his own humanity. Likewise, Peta’s friend Jeb must overcome his fear of being like his violent father, and Peta herself has to confront her own darkest impulses, and her desire – all too common for autistic people in pain – to isolate from her loved ones. Peta and the monster each have to go to a place of ice and snow to find themselves. The monster’s tragedy is that he can never transcend his pain to make a new life. Peta’s triumph is that she does.

The monster’s maker, his father, rejects him despite being entirely responsible for his creation; autistic people are made to feel we are not acceptable as we are. Parents are urged by the behaviourist industry to put their autistic children through rigorous training in how to act neurotypical, cowed by the threat we otherwise have no future. Charities urge people to mourn their autistic child for not being the child they expected. Society rejects our autism, as if it were a thing that could be cleanly separated from our essential selves, like some unnaturally sewn on appendage. Whether we were identified as children or not, it is often the project of our adulthood to drop the neurotypical mask we’ve been given or fashioned for ourselves, and demand acceptance on our own terms. We find our passions and we find each other. More and more, these days, we refuse to apologise for ourselves, and we write books like Anna Whateley’s in the hope that the next generation won’t have to.

(Angeline)