Monday, April 27, 2009

He's Not the Same

[Note: After watching considerably more of this show, I've found out that I really misunderstood the vampires. Angel was not Spike's sire, Spike, as far as I can tell, didn't actually know Angel before he got his soul back, and Spike didn't really like Angel when he was soulless.]
I've been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer a lot lately. And I've noticed something interesting about that show.
In that series, when a person becomes a vampire, in addition to changing quite a lot physically, xe has a significant personality change. This is explained as losing xyr soul. One vampire, Angel, had the reverse happen to him as well, because a spell done on him restored his soul to his body. At that point, he had a major personality change as well.
How do loved ones react to that kind of change? There are two examples I've seen so far in the series:
Xander and Jesse:
In the very first episode, Buffy befriends two boys named Xander and Jesse. These two are described as having been good friends for a long time. During a vampire attack, Jesse gets kidnapped, and by the time Buffy, Xander and another friend come to rescue him, he's been turned into a vampire. He's not overly mean to Xander after that, but makes it quite clear that he's siding with the vampires against Xander and Buffy.
Buffy, who wasn't very close to Jesse, immediately turns against him at that point, telling Xander to 'look at him not as your friend, but as the creature who killed him'. Although Xander finds this very difficult, he accepts her advice and ends up killing Jesse*. (It is possible, however, that Xander wasn't actually very close to Jesse, because he is never mentioned again in later episodes.)
Spike and Angel:
Angel, before he regained his soul, turned Spike into a vampire. As Spike's 'sire', therefore, he is very important to Spike, basically the vampire version of a parent. Then a spell restores Angel's soul, and he turns against Spike, even helping Buffy when she tries to kill Spike.
Spike, unlike Xander, does not turn against Angel. Although he takes measures necessary to ensure his own safety when Angel is a danger to him (by hitting Angel and pushing Angel away from him), Spike makes it quite clear that, even quite awhile after Angel was affected by that spell, Spike still cares about him.
The idea that someone has fundamentally changed as a person, to the point that they're no longer the person they used to be, is not only seen in fantasy. Many real people are viewed this way, such as developmentally disabled people who experience regressions, people with certain 'mental illnesses' such as schizophrenia, and people with brain injuries. And loved ones often treat the person who's changed fairly badly, in ways that they'd never have treated that person before their change (in another Buffy episode, Xander gets possessed by a hyena and they end up locking him in a cage and refusing to let him out). From the perspective of the person's loved ones, this is 'for their own good', and the unpleasant things they do to the person who's changed are really being done to the illness or whatever that's changed them (just like how Buffy rationalizes killing Jesse in her discussions with Xander). But from the perspective of the person who's changed:

"'I want the real you back' prompts the questions, 'Do you know me? Would you love me if you found out this is the real me? Aren’t you supposed to love who I am, not who you imagine?'
By the way, this is even true of changes that are traditionally viewed as very negative. I have known of many people who, after brain damage, have all their friends say they want them to be the person they were before the brain damage. It doesn’t happen. It’s not real. It hurts them. It’s not that they wanted to get knocked on the head, it’s that who they are now happens to be a person who got knocked on the head, not the imaginary person that didn’t."

Ironically, in this particular way, the vampires in the Buffy series (except for Angel) come off as morally better than the humans. Spike and the other vampires who knew and cared about Angel before he got his soul mostly treat him fairly well. Darla, who I suspect was Angel's sire (I read a book about Angel before, but don't remember much of it), was trying to coax him to drink blood with her. Spike hits Angel when Angel tries to trick him in order to help Buffy, but makes it quite clear that if Angel wants to have a real relationship with Spike, he'll welcome that. They don't seem to be doing things to Angel that they'd have been unwilling to do to him when he didn't have his soul - unlike the humans in the story. Because the vampires in that universe are bad in many ways, but they are certainly capable of being loyal to a loved one.

* Not entirely intentionally, though. He was threatening Jesse with a stake, trying to kill Jesse but hesitating because it felt emotionally like killing his own friend, and then someone bumped Jesse from behind and pushed him onto the stake. However, it's likely that if he'd had more time to decide, he would have killed Jesse eventually.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How Can I Try?

In response to my recent post that Willpower is Not Enough, one commenter said that she'd thought from the title that it would be about executive dysfunction, since so often people tell a person with executive dysfunction to try harder, or assume their lack of output is deliberate.
But I don't think I'd put it that way. It seems to me that rather than willpower being something separate, that can or can't affect one's executive functions, it's actually something that is determined, at least partially, by executive functioning. Executive functions affect how hard you can try, how much willpower you have, instead of being affected by those things.
So, instead of the phrase 'if you tried hard enough, you could overcome executive dysfunction' being similar in meaning to telling a blind person 'if you tried hard enough, you could stop being blind', it's more like telling a them 'if you could see well enough, you could stop being blind'. In my view, willpower or trying hard isn't something that is always under conscious control. Not for neurotypicals, and especially not for the people described as having executive dysfunction. You can influence it to varying degrees (and this differs from person to person) but you can't fully control it.
Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadyay, in his book The Mind Tree, has a poem in which he asks someone to teach him how to try. That's what executive dysfunction is - difficulty trying, not because you choose not to try or you have some kind of emotional block, but because your frontal lobes can't marshall the rest of your brain in the right way at that time. Amanda Baggs has a good analogy for it: she compares herself to a stork, because storks mostly fly using thermals instead of flying on their own power. As a result, if the thermals aren't going the right way, they will have a hard time reaching certain destinations. What makes it more confusing for someone on the outside is that thermals shift around, so while one day it's much easier to go from points A to B than A to C, it may be the exact opposite the next day.
Other people who have more control over their own output are like geese - power flyers, who mostly flap instead of gliding. They're more consistent. They're slower than a stork using the thermals (and they tire out more easily), but much faster than a stork trying to fly somewhere without the right thermals.
And willpower, or motivation, is a part of that. When properly motivated, we can be pretty close to unstoppable. But we might not be able to become motivated (even if you threaten us) if the circumstances aren't right.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

It's Only Us

One thing I really hate is when some minority group acts as if the particular kind of discrimination their group experiences is unique, and no other group experiences that particular kind of dynamic. Recently, I found a pretty extreme example of this at a website called TVTropes, which describes patterns found in TV and other media (such as the bad guy turning good). The particular page that I'm talking about is called Have You Tried Not Being A Monster, and since it's a wiki and therefore subject to change at any moment, I will quote the bit I'm referring to here:

"There's a certain group of people. They have a normal childhood, to an extent, but somewhere along they way, they discover they're different. Not like the other children. Not like their parents. They're something unusual. Something that means they can never fit in. They hide their differences deep away from themselves, but it eats away at them.
Then they find others like them - also living in secret and ostracized from society. A subculture, upholding a masquerade of being normal by day, but living out a secret lifestyle in seedy bars and locations. They might
ask their family if they would still love them, chances are if they ever tell their parents, acceptance will be hard, and they'll inevitably be asked, 'Have you tried... not being a monster?'
You thought we were talking about gay people? Don't be silly! We're talking about mutants! Er, no. Wait, we're talking about vampires. And werewolves. And
fairies . . .
There's a subculture of supernatural beings who basically have the same exact culture and society as gay people, and go through the same experiences. Basically, this culture appears to be normal, lives in human society, but is in some way supernatural. They have to participate in
The Masquerade, but if they come out as monsters or wizards or vampires or aliens, they face prejudice. To drive the point home even more, they may have Muggle parents who reject their freakish children.
Much like Fantastic Racism allows writers to feel like they dealt with themes of racism and discrimination without actually including characters of colour into their work, this trope allow writers to introduce gay themes into a plot when they're too cowardly to introduce actual gay characters or when they feel that allegory or metaphor will be less likely to be censored. Some writers go farther and do have gay characters, sometimes making the metaphor explicit in the text."

Whoever wrote this seems to be suggesting that the typical life experiences of gay people are so unique that even fantasy minority groups who have the same kind of life experiences are clearly a reference to gay people. (Never mind that anyone who writes good fantasy will echo real life in many different ways, especially in the emotional experiences of the characters.) As many autistics know, it's not just gays who gradually realize they're different from everyone they know, hide their differences for fear of being rejected, and finally find a subculture that accepts them. If you read pretty much any autobiography of an autistic person first diagnosed (or told about their diagnosis) in adulthood or late adolescence, you'll find the same basic story.
Pretty much anyone who is raised by typical people but has some kind of difference that isn't readily apparent and is taught that difference (or their difference in particular) is a bad thing will have this experience - and that's a large and very diverse group of people. People with a wide variety of cognitive differences, including gifted people, autistic people, ADHD people, highly creative people, etc etc. Gay people and other sexual minorities. Many transgender people. The list goes on and on.
People seem especially prone to saying this about gay people, because among the groups most widely viewed as discriminated against, gays are somewhat unique. Women and ethnic minorities both typically grow up with adult role models and are readily recognized as belonging in the discriminated-against category. (Although there are interracial adoptees and mixed-race people who can pass, both of those people have some experiences in common with gay people.) But I've seen the same thing said by other minorities. For example, one Deaf woman whose blog I read (unfortunately I can't find the link, it was in one of the disability blog carnivals) said that while most disabled people are pitied, they don't experience the same kind of intense push to eliminate the disability that deaf people experience. I commented on her blog saying that, in fact, that was pretty much the classic reaction to autism and many other disabilities.
What all those people don't seem to realize is that although there are differences in experiences of discrimination, there is no form of discrimination that is exclusively applied to one group. It seems to me that instead, there are broad categories of discrimination, such as the 'you and your ancesters are discriminated against' pattern seen in racism, classism and so on, or the 'you're different from everyone you know and they don't realize it' pattern experienced by gays, invisibly disabled people, and so on. (Or the one where someone who obviously belongs to a certain minority group grows up with no contact with that minority group, such as many visibly disabled people.)
And when you see the parallels, it's much easier to figure out exactly what causes a certain experience. For example, from talking with a lesbian who thought crushes on girls were simple liking and simple liking of boys was actually crushes helped clarify exactly why I so often misperceive my own way of thinking and feeling - because the possibility of being different was never presented to me, since I a) lacked any role models of people like me, and b) did not get any feedback from others that suggested that they thought I would be different from them. (I did get punishment for being different, but the punishment implied that I really could be the same as them.)

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Willpower is Not Enough

My brother and I are really into the Pokemon series. For me, it's all about the Pokemon - I really don't care much for the human characters, although some are interesting or funny or whatever. For example, there's a gifted child in the story named Max, who is the younger brother of a Pokemon trainer. But if it weren't for their Pokemon, I wouldn't have any interest in the series.
Anyway, I've watched enough of the series to notice a cliche. It's the same cliche seen in a lot of anime - the ones that are more 'adventure' than 'introspection' type stories. (I love introspective type anime, like Spirited Away or the Mokke series.) The cliche is this: if you have enough willpower, you can achieve your dreams.
This isn't just present in Japanese culture. It's quite obviously present in Western culture as well. The classic idea of the hard-working, clever person making it rich is an example of this. It's also obvious in how people view weight - if you're fat, you must not have dieted enough, or stuck with the diets long ebnough. If you had more willpower, you could be thin.
The big problem with this idea: it's not true.
No matter how hard you try, you may never achieve your dream. And what if you don't, and you're looking back on a life spent chasing something you never actually found? A life spent postponing your life for after, and after never came?
And sometimes, there's no happy ending. You're beaten by overwhelming strength, and even if you fight in the seas, on the beaches, in the fields and streets, you might still be beaten. It might be that you are helpless to stop them from winning, no matter how hard you try. And what do you do then? How do you survive? How do you get others to recognize that it could happen to them, no matter how much willpower they have?
Now, this doesn't mean you should give up before you try. It might be that you have a decent chance, or you don't know how good your chances are. It might be that if even though you can't achieve your dream, trying to can make things better than they'd have been otherwise (we still don't have sexual equality, but look where chasing that dream got us).
But there comes a time that you must face reality, and know that you're not going to reach your dream. And what you have to do is live your life, and settle for something that's good enough for you. I want to make everyone accept autistic and other atypical people and truly consider them just as valuable as neurotypical people, but I can't make that happen. What I can do, if I try hard enough, is make it easier for the ones who come after me, so that eventually, generations from now, that dream can be reached by someone.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Autistic Prosopagnosic

Prosopagnosia is a neurological condition in which there is a specific difficulty recognizing faces. It can be acquired (due to brain damage) or congenital. The congenital form, researchers have been discovering lately, seems to be quite common among autistic people (to the point where some guys, apparently unaware that non-autistic congenital prosopagnosics exist, have suggested that it's the root of the social differences in autism).
I am pretty sure I'm prosopagnosic. It's a mild form - I can actually recognize people by their faces, if I know them well, they look weird, or I've concentrated on trying to learn their face. But I can't recognize people as easily as most people do. For example, I had a counselor for several months, and never learnt to recognize her face - I recognized her as 'the person who comes up to me in the waiting room and leads me into her office. She was young, and I think she had long blond hair, but that's all I remember.
I'm not sure if being autistic makes it easier or harder to cope with prosopagnosia. On the one hand, autism interferes with a lot of the work-arounds for prosopagnosia. I can't keep track of a lot of personal details about different people, so if someone mentions their husband Bill that usually isn't much help. I don't know how to get people to say something that gives away someone's identity, without revealing that I haven't recognized them. I also don't pay much attention to how people look, so hairstyle, accessories, clothing are not as much of a help for me as for non-autistic prosopagnosics.
But I have absolutely no interest in gossip, so when chatting with people I talk instead about ideas, and the person's identity is not as important for that. I don't make friends easily, and don't mind being alone, so I don't need to keep track of as many people. In crowds, I'm usually not looking at other people, so my lack of recognition of someone could be attributed to not having seen them. I'm more often in the company of my parents, because I have trouble with things like traveling alone by bus, so my parents can help me remember who a person is.
And more importantly, I don't seem totally normal like many prosopagnosics do. I can pass for normal, to a certain extent, but anyone who knows me more than superficially knows that I'm pretty weird. And I'm one of those 'extremely out' autistics who tends to tell everyone I have a decent-length conversation with about my diagnosis. The fact that I fail to recognize people on occasion, therefore, gets seen in the same light as not knowing what time of day it is, not realizing two people I know very well are in a relationship together, or not understanding a bit of slang. The fact that I have so many more quirks than a simple prosopagnosic means that people are less likely to forget that I'm different or not believe me when I tell them I have a disability.
In that sense, then, it's easier to deal with prosopagnosia if you're autistic. Although high functioning autism is called an 'invisible disability', it's more visible than prosopagnosia is, which means people are more likely to understand and set aside normal expectations.