Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 5: The Lark and the Wren

(First published June 21, 2013. TW for sexual abuse/assault in this one.)

Today’s Book: “The Lark and the Wren” by Mercedes Lackey

The Plot: A young violinist named Rune runs away from home and has adventures.

Autistic Character(s): Maeve, a kitchen drudge at the inn where Rune lives and works at the beginning of the story.

Let me say one thing up front: I didn’t read this book for the autism. It wasn’t on my list of planned Autistic Book Party books. It was a book my partner lent me because he thought I’d like it. Maeve appears only peripherally and only in the first few chapters, before Rune runs away. She is so minor that, even if her character was handled wonderfully, I would hesitate to recommend the book just for the autism. It’s a very small part of what the book is.

Autistic Book Party isn’t just about recommending books, though. It’s also about “what not to do”. So here’s how not to write an autistic minor character:

Told to sweep out a room, she would do so. That room, and no more, leaving a huge pile of dirt on the threshold. Told to wash the dishes, she would wash the dishes all right, but not the pots, nor the silverware, and she wouldn’t rinse them afterwards. Of course, if anyone interrupted her in the middle of her task, she would drop what she was doing, follow the new instructions, and never return to the original job.

When Maeve follows instructions in this manner, instead of correcting Maeve and giving her better instructions next time, Stara (Rune’s mother) makes Rune pick up the slack. (Not that giving her better instructions occurs to Rune, either.)

Other characters describe Maeve various ways. “An innocent.” “A little simple.” “A great lump.” The word “autism” isn’t used because it would be anachronistic, but with the literalism, the inattention to others and apparent emotionlessness, the constant tuneless humming, and other stereotypes, autism is the best word I can think of. If she isn’t autistic, she has a related developmental disability, and the same “what not to do” arguments apply.

The point of Maeve existing, as far as I can see, is to add to a list of problems in Rune’s life before she runs away. She has to do chores all the time instead of playing her violin; people look down on her because she’s illegitimate; her mother bullies her; the local NT girls bully her; the local boys both bully her and try to sexually assault her; and her co-worker is a disabled girl who doesn’t pull her weight. Oh, noes. *eye roll*

How Maeve feels about her duties at the inn is never addressed. I don’t mean we never find out; I mean it never occurs to anyone that Maeve has feelings in the first place. She tends to be expressionless and not to speak (I’m not sure if she’s actually nonverbal, or just doesn’t talk much), so everyone assumes she doesn’t have any emotional reaction to anything. Including the following:

But no call came, only the sound of Stara scolding Maeve, and Maeve’s humming. Rune sighed with relief; Maeve never paid any attention to anything that wasn’t a direct order. Let Stara wear her tongue out on the girl; the scolding would roll right off the poor thing’s back – and maybe Stara would leave her own daughter alone, for once.

(Out of context, this can be read as Stara giving a relatively mild reprimand. But every time Stara criticizes Rune, she uses very harsh and unfriendly words and Rune whines in the narration about how mean Stara is, so I think we can assume that whatever she’s saying to Maeve is at least as bad.)

Two comments on that:

[1] You can’t be intelligent enough to understand specific instructions about household chores (even in a very literal way), yet not intelligent enough to notice when someone is chewing you out for doing your work wrong. Language understanding doesn’t work that way.

[2] Just because an autistic person has no clear facial expression doesn’t mean they’re not feeling anything. Our facial expressions and other nonverbal communication tend to be weird. In fact, NTs often have as much trouble reading autistic body language as autistic people do reading NTs.

[3] Most people feel bad when being chewed out for doing their work wrong. It doesn’t take a lot of psychological study to realize this. Knowing that you slacked off or misunderstood something and being called out for it feels bad. When you try your best, followed the instructions carefully, and still get yelled at for doing it wrong, even though you don’t understand what you did wrong? That feels even worse. Especially when it is something that happens again and again, and you can’t figure out how to fix it, and you clearly must be a bad and defective person because you can’t stop getting it wrong and being yelled at. Ask any autistic person about this feeling, seriously.

Lackey seems to assume, not only that Maeve’s lack of expression betrays a lack of thought, but also that she isn’t thinking or feeling anything even when she does what she is good at:

There wasn’t anyone in the common room but Maeve, who was sweeping the floor with a care that would have been meticulous in anyone but her.

But it gets worse.

Check out this line on page 7, shortly after the part with the yelling:

For there was a race on to see who’d snare Jeoff. Mave was no competition; the girl was plain as well as simple – although it was a good thing she was plain, or she would have been fair game for any fellow bent on lifting a skirt.

Um, no. Also, whaaat.

Being not socially competent enough to fend off unwanted sexual advances is not the same as being “fair game”, whatever that means. Actually, I have no idea what that is supposed to mean. I want to give Mercedes Lackey the benefit of the doubt, which means assuming that she phrased this sentence very badly by accident. She probably didn’t mean to say “it would be okay for everybody to sexually assault her if she looked appealing” which is the literal meaning of “fair game”. She probably meant to say “a lot of people would sexually assault her without many repercussions if she looked appealing, and that would be bad.”

Anyway, trying to give Mercedes Lackey the benefit of the doubt commences. And lasts exactly fourteen pages, which is how long it takes us to get to this gem:

Some of the men from the village, who a month ago would never have dreamed of taking liberties, were pinching and touching Maeve, their hands lingering on her arm or shoulder – or, when they thought no one was watching, her breasts. Maeve seemed oblivious as usual. And neither Jeoff nor Stara were doing anything about it. Now, more than ever, Rune was glad she’d made herself less of a target.

If you aren’t already yelling at your computer screen at this point, let me point a few things out:

[1] The continuity here is really lulzy because this is literally the next day after the previous quote. If this sort of thing isn’t what Lackey means by “fair game” then… I just don’t even.

[2] Okay, a more serious point than [1] – consent is a social skill. Let me say that again in all caps. CONSENT IS A SOCIAL SKILL. Lots of autistic people with much better verbal and social ability than Maeve do not learn how to object, or even that it’s okay for them to object, when someone touches them in a way they are not comfortable with. Yes, we have “stranger danger” lessons in schools now, but Maeve probably didn’t – and even for those of us who have the lessons, there are lots of subtleties the lessons do not cover which autistic people often need spelled out for them.

For instance: this stuff happens with people who aren’t strangers, too. Also there are social mores, especially for women, against doing things that seem rude or confrontational. Lots of sexual predators know how to set things up so that there is no way to resist their advances without seeming rude, or if you do try to resist, they’ll just lecture you on how you’re being rude and they were just being friendly/affectionate, then they will try again. Autistic people are particularly vulnerable to the “rudeness” argument because in most cases we have already been heavily trained not to object when uncomfortable (say, with our sensory environment), not to move or make sounds in a way that feels natural to us, etc, because that’s rude. This is just one aspect of rape culture that is bad for NT women and even worse for autistic women, I don’t feel like going through them all.

So, “autistic person being unable to enforce their physical boundaries” is realistic, but upsetting, and more so when it’s seen as a background event that no one, including the autistic person, has much reaction to.

[3] “Maeve seemed oblivious as usual” whaaaaat. Go and look at my points in the “being yelled at” section again and come back. It is not okay to assume that someone is all right with uninvited physical contact because they’re not making a facial expression. It is double not okay to assume this when the person (because of autism, or otherwise) is normally expressionless anyway.

[4] Please note the way that Rune’s concern in this scene is for her own safety and not Maeve’s. Granted, Rune is not in a position of power herself – she is almost as low-ranking at the inn as Maeve, is not generally listened to, and has recently escaped an attempted rape herself. Realistically there may be little she can do for Maeve. However, Rune is generally highly sensitized to these issues as a narrator and is always noticing when men take advantage of women or when women make sexual choices she doesn’t agree with, often ruminating on it for several paragraphs. (She gets more relaxed about this later in the book, but in the initial chapters it is very noticeable.) Here she does not even spend a moment wondering if Maeve is might be less okay with this than she looks, feeling bad for Maeve’s safety, or wishing there was something she could do. It’s pretty much just “Wow, there’s a lot more sexual assault around here than there used to be – good thing I’m protecting myself!”

There’s a reason people summarize a lot of women’s safety advice as “make sure he rapes the other girl.” Hey, everybody – here’s the other girl.

We don’t really hear about Maeve again for the remainder of the book. I mean, who cares? She’s not the special protagonist with the special violin.

*massive eye roll*

So that’s what not to do.

The Verdict: Not Recommended

For a list of other past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.