Today’s Book: “Experimental Film” by Gemma Files
The Plot: Lois Cairns, a Canadian film critic, stumbles upon an antique film that could make her career – but the film’s supernatural connections prove to be more than she bargained for.
Autistic Character(s): Several, as described below.
“Experimental Film” is a complicated book. It’s a horror novel, to get that out of the way; it’s a book in which people are messed up and bad things happen to them. The most obvious autistic character, mentioned in the back cover copy, is Lois’s son Clark. Clark is a whirlwind of energy who speaks mostly in echolalia, but before we talk much about him, I want to talk about Lois.
Lois begins the novel in a fairly traditional posture, for an autism parent – exasperated and worried by her child, pessimistic about his prognosis, and generally stressed and exhausted. The first scenes in which Clark appears are difficult to get through, because of some of Lois’s negative mental comments about him. But the scenes also introduce a complication that the back cover didn’t mention:
But my version of fucked up was never going to be enough like his to help us meet in the middle; I come from the other end of the spectrum. And I remember sitting next to my mom, going down the list of Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis points one by one, showing her how much they reminded me of how I’d been as a child, an adolescent, before socialization kicked the worst of it out of me. “Little Professor Syndrome,” check. Rabid enthusiasms, check. Inability to converse without monologizing, check. Vocabulary far exceeding normal age standards, check. Frustration, check. Inability to form friendships, check. Violent tantrums, check. Self-harm, check. Check, check, check.
“Don’t you see?” I asked her. “This is why this happened. Because I’m just like him, except it’s all on the inside.”
She looked at me then with what might have been sympathy, but what I read (at the time) as contempt, the way I’m prone to do. Because – another check – I’ve never really been able to tell what other people are thinking just by looking at their faces, unless their faces are up on a movie screen.
“Come on, Lois,” she said. “It’s bad enough as it is. Don’t try to make this all about you.“
What the book shows about Lois confirms that she is, in fact, autistic. She is fixed and fanatical in her interests. She comes of to other characters as strange, prickly, difficult to deal with. She is easily overwhelmed, shutting down and dissociating under stress. She is confused about human motivation, or sometimes fails to take it into account at all. Lois’s narrative voice is not the stereotyped “autism voice”, but it is a voice full of intense detail, dense information, frequent asides to passionately explain something – a voice that rings very true to me, as an autistic person.
So – this is important. “Experimental Film” is marketed as a book about an Autism Parent, but it’s actually a book about more than one autistic person. Lois – low-support, depressed, passing for abled, and additionally disabled with more than one form of chronic pain – experiences her autism in one way. Clark, who at this point in his life cannot possibly pass, experiences it in another, and Lois doesn’t always know how to deal with him appropriately, any more than an NT mother would.
Lois does several things right. She never denies her child’s humanity or devalues his life. There’s no mention of ABA or any other abusive therapy. Lois consistently pushes back against people, including her own mother, who suggest that Clark should simply be trained to parrot the correct response. She knows very well that Clark needs to be accepted for who he is, and is extremely critical of her own failures to do that.
Because Lois does fail in many ways. She barely pays attention to Clark for the first hundred pages of the book. She says negative things in front of him that she assumes he will not understand. (And is called on it – rightly – by her husband Simon, a very sweet and patient man who seems to do most of the childcare.) Clark is shown being clearly affectionate to both parents, but Lois insists that she cannot know he loves her, that his echolalic statements about it somehow don’t count the way they do when they’re directed at Simon. Her general pattern with Clark is one of distance:
But I have to protect myself, first and foremost: not from him, but from my own… disappointment in him, over things he can’t even help… I have to keep myself just far enough apart from him to be able to love him at all, knowing it’ll never be as much as he deserves to be loved. And that’s not because he’s broken, no. Not at all.
That’s because I am.
Did I mention Lois is depressed? Lois is really depressed. She is consistently even more critical of herself as a person than she deserves. She is also so consumed with interest in her work – which is, of course, an autistic trait – that she barely has patience for anything else. She consistently pushes herself hard enough that it actively worsens her pain, her sleep patterns, and her relationships with her family. And that’s before the supernatural horror aspect of the novel kicks into high gear.
When we try to think of good representation, we are so often thinking of role models. Lois is not that. She’s also not a stereotype, not a plot device, not a supercrip or Evil Disabled Person. She’s a flawed, complex, breathing human whose flaws and complexity are fully portrayed. She is not sugarcoated, and once I got used to her level of internalized ableism – “A defective person, raising a defective child“, as she calls herself at one point – I appreciated that.
(I’m reminded of a Short Story Smorgasbord I did a while back, when I said that I didn’t object to having unlikeable autistic protagonists, I just didn’t think the one in that particular story was done well. I guess it’s time to put my money where my mouth was: Lois is an unlikeable autistic protagonist, done right.)
I mentioned supernatural horror. The vintage film Lois discovered was made a century earlier, by a woman named Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb, whose life strongly parallels Lois’s. Both are subtly autistic, depressed women, possessed by an intense vocation, and struggling to care for an autistic son. Iris’s son Hyatt is described in obviously autistic terms, but the references to Iris’s autism go by so quick you could almost miss them:
“People understood,” Moraine said. “They knew she had more than enough on her plate to deal with already. She was eccentric, sad – special, just like her boy.”
So that makes four autistic characters. (Lois suggests at one point that Simon is also on or close to the spectrum. I’m not sure about that one.) But Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb’s life is also haunted by a spectre known as Lady Midday – a murderous god demanding worship from anyone unfortunate enough to look at her.
We are first introduced to Lady Midday in a fairy tale: she approaches people out working in the fields at noon, and questions them. The way to survive an encounter with Lady Midday, according to the tale, is to be humble and courteous, to insist that you are happy working, to refuse all offers of rest or water – and, above all, to avoid looking at her. As in many fairy tales, characters who behave properly are rewarded. Characters who fail get their heads cut off.
Iris sees her compulsive art-making as work assigned to her by Lady Midday, work she cannot stop. We find out later in the book that Lady Midday was actually worshipped, pre-WWI, by certain European villages. They, like Iris, see her as gifting certain individuals with work assignments that they can never stop, no matter how long they live. These villagers would also perform human sacrifices in Lady Midday’s honor, burying alive their elderly parents and “changeling” children. Sacrificing, in other words, the disabled to her.
(I have to break in at this point. I was VERY WORRIED that this novel was going to go the child-murder route. It does not. Murdering disabled children is mentioned, briefly, as a thing that people did in the historical past. But that’s all. At no point in the book is any named character tempted to be violent to their child.)
Lady Midday is an elusive figure, one who defies precise definition – after all, that would be looking at her. But inasmuch as it’s possible to assign meaning to her, I can’t help but view Lady Midday as an avatar of ableism. She predates capitalism, but she personifies the capitalist view in which a person is only a vector for work. One only has worth if one is working, without end, hiding and denying whatever toll it might take. In which the people who cannot do this work might as well be dead.
Lois, a driven Aspie longing for professional recognition, hating herself for human weakness, pushing incessantly past her health problems, and terrified of how her colleagues will treat her if she falters, is perfectly positioned to fall under this spell. She is also perfectly positioned to thwart Lady Midday, in the end – not by abandoning her work, but by radically reconsidering what is important to her as she does it.
As for Clark, he’s not given the detailed treatment that he would have if he were the protagonist. There’s a limit to what can be shown of him given that the entire novel is written in the POV of his mother, whose statements about Clark are often unreliable. Within those limits, though, Files shows us strong hints of who he is as a person. Clark is enthusiastic, affectionate, and quite loud; his speech is almost entirely echolalic, but a meaning can frequently be discerned. His role in the plot is not particularly active: he’s first a distraction from Lois’s work, then a source of eerie foreshadowing, then a child actively endangered by supernatural phenomena, before he finally returns to a Lois who has learned to appreciate him a little more. I might have liked to see more agency from Clark, but given that he is a child, and given the kind of story he is in, I really don’t know if anything could realistically be changed.
Reading this book and talking about it with a few of my friends, I’m struck by how little we have in the way of language for people like Lois. The abusively ableist “Warrior Mother” schema is not appropriate for her. But we have very little language for her in the autism self-advocacy movement, either. We pay lip service to the idea that autistic people can be autism parents. But in practice, we tend to assume that a given parent is either for us or against us. We don’t make a lot of space to discuss autistic parents’ internalized ableism, overload, social pressure, conflicting support needs, or the many other factors that can make parenting a challenge – even for someone who intimately understands the spectrum and is not at all interested in excuses for abusing their child.
“Experimental Film” begins to create such a space, not by making Lois a role model or by talking about what she ought to do, but by letting her struggle. By showing the struggle in unapologetically intimate detail – and by showing Lois, by the end of the story, begin to make small steps forward.
“Experimental Film” is a book about multiple flawed and struggling autistic people whose lives catastrophically intersect. It is a book in which ableism is literally the villain. It shows the very ugly ways in which internalized ableism poisons our working lives, (paradoxically) our health, our ability to treat other disabled people properly, our relationships with the people who matter most to us, and our relationships with ourselves. It sugarcoats nothing. But it shows, in the end – without any quick or magic fixes – characters beginning to learn that there is another way.
The very ugliness of the internalized ableism, especially in early chapters, will make this a book that not every autistic reader can stomach. But for others, “Experimental Film” may be the book that they didn’t even know how desparately they needed.
The Verdict: Recommended
(Thanks are due to Rose Lemberg in particular, and also to Elizabeth Bartmess, A.C. Buchanan, and Bogi Takács, for a conversation that helped me solidify my thoughts about this book. All opinions expressed here are solely my own.)
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