In Praise of Hannah, Julia and Maggie

I’ve been waiting some time now for a character that I enjoy watching.  But, like buses, three (well, let’s call it three) came along at once. While I was waiting, my imagination burnt off frustration by inventing the women I’d like to write, create, bring to life.  They live in my thoughts, these unnamed profiles, these clusters of habits, running havoc in snatched moments then lassoed back to earth by the shitty, gritty reality of working single parenthood.

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Act, reflect and keep going: What we can learn from Constance Chatterley

For Dan x

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to browse Netflix and on a whim, spotting the face of Holliday Grainger, familiar from Strike, I decided to try Jed Mercurio’s 2015 adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.   I read Lawrence’s novel years ago, hot on the heels of studying The Go-Between, keen to see what Lawrence did to deserve the infamous obscenity ban.  Lawrence’s novel significantly precedes Hartley’s, though it was published afterward.   As the novelist Ali Smith ponders, perhaps ‘(The Go-Between’s) appearance ... and its boldness then with the more surface issues of class and sexuality are partly responsible for Lady Chatterley’s Lover finally seeing unexpurgated publication...’.  However, Mercurio made clear his focus before the screening, noting that his focus was the ‘love triangle’ as ‘swearing and sex scenes don’t excite (him)’.  His adaptation studies in quiet depth  Lawrence’s great fascination with social class and nature, as well as the intense inner conflict of Constance Chatterley. 

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Amongst my thoughts, in the hours that follow watching the film, I am reminded of the value of returning to art, to literature, as we grow older.  As a student, my interest lay in the shock value, in understanding what society wanted to conceal, what it perceived to be corrupting.  Yet, I question now, whether the purpose of the ban went beyond the mere sexual.  For Lawrence upturns more than bodies, he strips back class, social position.  As a successful writer he moved in privileged literary circles, yet he never forgot his working class, rural roots.  In this day and age, where evidence shows that children who come from lower social economic classes are at a disadvantage  when starting school; and furthermore that the education system wides that gap, we must continue, ever louder, to question why.  Similarly, we must pursue educational equality for those who are not neurologically mainstream.  We can generate meaningful and meaningless data and plan purposeful and pointless interventions but this doesn’t challenge the attitudinal chains and bounds of perception that persist in 21st century Britain.

Constance Chatterley will not be kept in her place: not by marital bonds nor social disapproval.  In yoking Constance and Oliver Mellors together, Lawrence is able to acknowledge and explore our  human connection with nature and sexual desire, which in turn serves to catalyse a deeply personal study of society and social class.  The contemporary corollary we now have are the studies which demonstrate the intrinsic importance of green space upon our mental and physical wellbeing; the green space itself being of increased value as it decreases, victim of careless consumption, the housing crisis, shopping centres and fuel for industry.   On the other hand, sexual desire is well documented and widely accessible, no longer fleeting, illicit images on cards or magazines, these images are on screen, limitless, irresistible to curiously tasteless connoisseurs who in turn are no longer aroused by real bodies.  It feels as if we’ve ill-used the gains we made and instead formed a myriad of new bad habits.  We live in a world of ambiguity, where it becomes increasingly difficult to discern right from wrong, where the most powerful manipulate the least powerful, harnessing the mass of their electoral might.  In the microcosm of the novel, Clifford’s power – his wealth,  his class, his gender, ultimately don’t save his marriage.

I found Mercurio’s re-imagining of Clifford and Constance Chatterley a particularly engaging relationship to watch for both are morally ambiguous: you cannot say either is the victim or the wrong-doer.  A sophisticated, well drawn character can and will shift from being likeable, deserving of sympathy, to one who is unkind, cruel, drawing our condemnation.  That recognition and juxtaposition of good and bad within all of us is what contributed to the critical success of The Wire, which pored over the economic and social deprivation of inner city Baltimore with a fine-toothed comb.  However, Oliver Mellors, WW1 cannon fodder and gruff gamekeeper, is less ambiguous: he follows the agreed social codes, aware of the dangers of speculation.  He is intelligent and understands his position – which isn’t to say he accepts it.  Clifford, in contrast believes in social propriety, imposes these codes of conduct with self righteous privilege, not questioning their social parity.  Clearly, the rules serve to maintain the life style of Clifford and the wider upper class at large, (the most ridiculous example is the laboured passing of a letter, from Oliver, via a butler’s silver tray, to be offered to Clifford) as such Constance benefits from these rules and yet she deliberately rejects them, as deliberately as one might choose to undress, she rebels with her body, her sexuality and lastly steps out of her marriage. 

In a pivotal moment, we see Clifford’s motorised wheelchair get stuck in thick mud and Oliver is called upon to help.  In this moment, the dynamics of economic power, social privelege and sexual desire intersect and each individual is sharply aware of their part in the triangle.  Constance is told by Clifford she cannot help in ‘her condition’, perpetuating yet another ill-founded belief that pregnant women are fragile, delicate creatures and ought not to exert themselves at all.  Constance obeys him in this matter, though perhaps more wary of Oliver’s emotional intensity than her husband’s propriety.  Thus, she stands by awkward, anxious, painfully aware that the man she loves is hurting himself to help the man she is married to.  I felt it was a nice touch that Mercurio had Constance run off, anxious for Oliver’s health, elevating an already rebellious act to one which also demonstrates a physically robust side to her determination.

In a key moment later on in the drama, Constance confronts Ivy Bolton, Clifford’s servant.  Mercurio coaxes from Lawrence’s threadbare characterisation of Mrs Bolton a slender but sinuous part which runs from the coalmining incident at the start, through Clifford’s tortuous transition back into civilian life, up until the tense final moments.  Ivy believes that Constance has taken sexual advantage of Oliver - her reaction implies that she is much less bothered by the sexual scandal than she is by the power imbalance she perceives between the upper and working classes – not only do the likes of the Chatterleys control and dictate the working lives of her and those like her, but now she perceives Constance has the audacity to take the most basic thing and claim it as her own.  The energy of her anger and humiliation is swiftly extinguished by Constance’s heartbroken tears, replaced by the burn of regret and genuine empathy for a woman she now sees is as trapped as herself.  In a servant’s corridor, Mercurio presents these women as the equals they are – and above all, he gifts them the chance to feel it and believe it themselves.

In writing this, I’ve read numerous reviews and most feel profoundly superficial, focusing on the loyalty of Mercurio to the original, providing a summary of how much you actually see, nod, nod, wink, wink.  The better reviews spoke of overarching themes, did at least namedrop social class.  Curiously, all were written by men.  Perhaps I could spend time mulling over that fact, except I’d prefer to return to Constance and her character and make up for the media preoccupation over how much flesh Grainger would reveal.  For she, Constance, is a sophisticated female character who is both constant to herself and inconstant to her husband;  both constant in her love for Oliver, yet inconstant in maintaining the commitments demanded of her as a woman by society.  In Lawrence’s novel, she goes to live with her sister whilst Oliver seeks to finalise his divorce.  Mercurio’s adaptation sees Constance dip to her knees, in supplication, appealing to Clifford’s better, kinder, nature to grant her a divorce.  Clifford is given a redemptive moment – despite the humiliation imposed upon him by societal standards he is able to discern that refusing to grant a divorce brings him no advantage, he has nothing to gain from denying her this. 

In the closing scenes, Constance is pictured, being driven away by Oliver, she carrying his baby, either madly, bravely, or both, departing from the conventions that have provided for her and protected her.  She seeks a new identity for herself, new definitions of love and security, one can only hope that she and Oliver are able to find the means to happily support themselves and raise their child.  Of course, Mercurio has the creative right to leave the viewer on the cusp of that hopeful journey, the practical implications which crowd my mind say as much about me as my joy in watching a woman liberate herself from unhappiness. 

With the internet illuminated by recent WAAW posts, it may seem like an overly late jump on the bandwagon to consider autistic women at this stage in my blog, yet... the journey one takes as an autistic woman in this current period in time, shares similarities with Constance’s struggles, difficulties, joy and hope.  For Lawrence truly wrote about perceptions and expectations – which is at the crux of what autistic individuals struggle with*.  Mercurio’s Constance demonstrates an ability to self determine, to connect with her own innermost feelings and needs.  As autistic women, it is truly important that we allow ourselves to determine what our needs are, to acknowledge our own feelings.  For many of us, this is so diffiicult to do, as society is stacked against us.  We define as women, we are autistic, many of us are mothers, we may have either co-morbid mental health conditions or ones brought on by a lack of diagnosis or support.  We face increased challenges due to the multifaceted nature of our neurological condition – caught within a complex tangle of intersecting socially generated expectations, perceptions and stereotypes. 

What can we do? Well, I think Constance shows us that society likes nothing less than a happy woman because a happy woman is a powerful human.  A happy, confident, autistic woman?  Well, she is one who can identify her own feelings, is perfectly capable of empathy and is extremely sensitive.  She is likely to be guarded or conversely unexpectedly brusque.  But then, she experiences life at its extremes for she teeters between being gifted and overwhelmed by a flow of details, information, and sensations, that stream in;  vacillating between intensities that range from the exquisite purity of child-like joy to a discordant cacophony – and can find herself unexpectedly accelerated from extreme to the other. 

Like Constance, a happy, confident, powerful autistic woman is able to make change.  She may not require a gamekeeper for this purpose (though who I am to judge!?) but she would certainly be able to trust and follow her gut instinct.  Like Constance, she would permit herself to feel, to take actions which please her, actions which speak louder than words.  As I believe a man once said, and I paraphrase:  if you believe you are right and your actions are for the best, it’s better to act first and apologise later.  I’d go one step further and simplify this process: I’d urge autistic women in this complex world, to act, internally reflect on whether it was for the best, then keep going.   It is so important that we don’t overwhelm ourselves with anxiety connected to social propriety: it literally depressing and suppressing us.  I have read so much online, so many heartrending struggles centred around social interaction, friendships, relationships, families, and it seems to me that we’re being kept in our place by perceptions.  Furthermore, seeing many of us still like to exert our power and privilege over fellow humans we perceive as weaker than ourselves it is imperative that you do what you must and be ballsy about.  After all, if you’re going to do a Constance – allow your true feelings, act on them and then be exposed for it – do so with the happy confidence that it was right for you.

*It would be pertinent to acknowledge Lawrence’s limitations – his views on certain sexual acts are outdated and smack of sexual inequality – but Lawrence cannot be expected to be faultless in all domains (besides, Mercurio makes amends by having Oliver enthusiastically perform said act, in the rain).

Zoe Vail Smith hails from London. She blogs on all things autistic and artistic for Mainspring Arts.

The Making of Madness

This month has been difficult.  Females and madness have been flavour of the month* and so it is that I find my mind drifting back to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, not mad but most definitely vilified for her gender and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella The Yellow Wallpaper in which a male doctor prescribes a cure worse than the condition.  These women have been brewing in my mind and from this witches’ stew I’ll attempt to spin some wisps and strands into a blog.  I hope it makes sense: my self doubt has billowed in the face of instability, but I am a determined spirit and I hope you will enjoy this tardy October offering.

                                             '...a cure worse than the condition'

                                            '...a cure worse than the condition'

So let’s begin with a woman who undoubtedly knew her own mind but was let down by the men around her: Hester Prynne, Prynne-rhymes-with-sin – it’s hard not to think it in a singsong voice!  For the uninitiated:  Hester unwittingly commits adultery in Puritanical New England (bad choice, trust me) and consequently she is required to wear a red capital ‘A’ pinned to her chest to denote her sin.  Of course, Hester doesn’t take this lying down (pun unintended): as she emerges from prison with her baby, Hawthorne describes a woman not ‘dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud...’ but one whose natural beauty and grace is so powerful that it ‘(makes) a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she (is) enveloped.’  Her ‘attire’, handsewn by herself while imprisoned is notable for its ‘wild and picturesque peculiarity’: here is a woman who is unafraid to stand out even for the wrong reasons and how I admire her. 

Hester Prynne is like Series 1 Doctor Foster except it’s society that’s screwed her over and she decides to ignore the bastards and get on with her life.  She utilises her significant skills as a seamstress to maintain a role within the community, her beautiful stitching and garments coveted, and paid for, by many.  In doing so, she retains her dignity, her daughter Pearl, and allows the man she once thought she loved to reveal himself as firstly not worthy of her love and secondly to die miserably: better than poor old Gemma by the end of series 2.

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In the fullness of time, Hester becomes the consummate figure of strength and humility.  Hawthorne gifts her the resilience to outgrow her ‘scarlet letter’, her label if you will, and instead become far more than the original connotation attached to it.  For the letter was chosen to symbolise her adultery and mark out her mistakes – yet in time, Hester’s graceful force transforms the meaning: ‘...the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too.’ 

In Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, the author draws upon her own experiences to produce an unsettling and finely-wrought novella.  The female protagonist follows Gilman’s own postnatal descent into depression but is then pushed further, then a little further, into the realm of horror by a writer determined to challenge the effectiveness, appropriateness and not to mention humanity of the treatment prescribed by Silas Weir Mitchell, a leading (male) specialist in women’s nervous disorders.  Whilst Gilman herself reached rock bottom (by her own account, she crawled under her own bed clutching a child’s doll) she managed to retain the sufficient wits to reject the recommended treatment and therefore recover in her own time under her own terms.  One can only deduce that Gilman’s own husband was considerably more respectful and caring than either the fictional spouse or Mitchell.

The novella is narrated by the female protagonist therefore we, as reader, are dependent upon her version of reality.  Gilman elegantly exploits the device of unreliable narrator to heavy but justified effect in order to explore the interplay between subjective perceptions and mental illness. As the narrative progresses, we are forced to question and decide upon what is real and what is not.  For example, the narrator and John, her husband, have a conversation in which he states she is doing well and that she must remain resting.  The unnamed narrator attempts to voice an alternative view, ‘Better in body perhaps –’, but is silenced with his silence ‘...he sat up straight (...) with such a stern, reproachful look that I could not say another word.’  Of course, the missing word is mind, she knows that her mental state is insecure and she tries to communicate this but is thwarted, yet again, by an entitled male response.  ‘My darling, said he, I beg of you, for my sake and for our child’s sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind!  There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours.  It is a false and foolish fancy.’ 

John’s response is so entitled by his own perception of advantage and superiority that he cannot allow his wife her own opinion instead muting her with his silent disapproval before addressing, to his own satisfaction only, her concerns.  It is tempting to draw strong parallels between Gilman’s experience and those of autistic women.  The problem Gilman was determined to challenge was, in essence, one which many autistic and ADHD females experience today.  If a woman’s perceptions are discredited by those around her, or furthermore those in positions of professional authority, then the progression of clinical and societal understanding will always be hamstrung.  Gilman uses a marital relationship in order to encapsulate the frustrating power dynamic which goes against women;  using the narrator’s decline to unpack the unpleasant consequences borne by women at the hands of a society which grants male opinion more worthy than female. Gilman’s exploration of perception and reality will always retain value for the themes and power-play exist, indeed overarch, their socio-historical context, examining with raw emotional honesty the pitfalls of perception and the perils of assumption.

 

On reflection, I consider these fictional 19th century women then I look forwards across a 21st century landscape and see a proliferation of women who are trapped by perception, by their own doubt or the doubt thrust upon them, by a lack of confidence which undermines the capacity to know and express their own minds.  I’ve come to consider Gilman’s novella as an act of generosity – for cannot a warning be a generous helping hand?  It is said that Mitchell adapted his treatment and Gilman came to know of at least one woman who received better care as a result of her fictional cri de coeur.  In the era before the internet allowed global support networks Gilman set out to influence through the only means available to her: literature. 

Returning to Hester, I see a woman who is able to able to forge a future with her own skills and innate aptitudes. Hawthorne creates Hester in such a fashion that the indiscretion she commits becomes questioned, transforms into a product of perception, manifest within a specific social context.   Her mistake is no permanent reflection upon her worth, as a mother, nor human spirit.  Hester pays for her error of judgement but she is allowed to move on from it and as a consequence her daughter is gifted a happy life, where both love and coincidentally money are not lacking.

As I watch the guttering candle within the hollowed-out pumpkin, I know I must somehow draw this month’s thoughts to a close.  Casting an eye around me, there are dirty dishes which signify a fun afternoon, there’s dried washing on an airer that suggests sloppy housekeeping but in fact represents a tidier garden.   If literature has taught me anything it has always suggested that meanings are multiple, ambiguous and subjective; that life itself is comprised of manifold perceptions.  Every now and then, it is worth indulging in a little reading with a more critical mind-set for the pages of fiction are but a safe playground within which to contemplate life and all its meanings.  Gilman’s novella becomes richer with contextualisation, whilst Hawthorne’s novel is within its own right is a tour de force in being a strong and independent woman.  With both women in mind and a generous glass of red wine in my hand I salute the end of October and welcome a fresh month.

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*I could claim the New England setting reminded me of the Salem Witch Trials therefore forging a Halloween link but that wouldn’t be true.

Zoe Vail Smith hails from London. She blogs on all things autistic and artistic for Mainspring Arts. 

About A Boy

Today, my son was diagnosed with ADHD, in addition to his autism spectrum condition (ASC).  This blog is for all the individuals who love both children and adults with these conditions.

It was a fresh autumnal morning today and as we drove into the grounds of Springfield Hospital my anxious eye was drawn to the architecture scattered throughout its sprawling campus.  There are the modern ‘investment’ buildings, characterised by their mix of soft wood and warm brick, sitting alongside older clinics of concrete grey, but above all I was struck by the imposing Victorian grandeur of the former Surrey County Lunatic Asylum.  Most of this vast building appears to be maintained, but certain wings are derelict, their exacting rows of wired-up windows containing the  ghosts of the misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and broken spirited. 

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I suppose it was something to do with my own recent history of undiagnosed Asperger’s, the fact we were there for my son’s assessment and the long chilly shadow of my father’s fear that my younger sister, with her learning disability, epilepsy and autistic traits, would – in the not so recent past as well as the 19th century – have been incarcerated in such a place.  As an autistic woman, I am aware that far too many of my autistic sisters have been, and continue to be, misunderstood, ignored and misdiagnosed.  The fear of institutionalisation haunts many at society’s most vulnerable cross-sections: the elderly; the mentally ill; the disabled.  Thus, with my own brain wiring (diagnosed autistic, self-diagnosed ADHD) the mere act of walking from car park to clinic lit up many different areas of memory, light and dark, in my brain.  The thoughts danced in and out of focus, before fading into the ether as we entered the clinic and hard reality pushed its way to the fore.

The psychologist was full of warmth and welcoming, her heavy Spanish accent charming.  She observed our son whilst conducting conversation, note taking, making marks across her assessment papers; a process that I suspect she made appear deceptively easy.  In the course of the history taking several examples were clearly overt indicators – anecdotes which made her look just a little more keenly, write a little more urgently.  We spent some time describing how we had read to our son from a very young age.  As the day has gone by, I realised how precious these memories are to me and how this habit, established young, for varied reasons, continues to offer its original benefits and comfort, even as our son grows older. 

You see, from a young age, I read a lot to my son.  This wasn’t about early literacy or being a pushy mum: no, no, no!  It was to stop him moving.  Our little boy probably didn’t realise when the stork briefed his baby cohort about developmental milestones that they applied to him also.  My son commando-crawled quite happily, then at around 10 months went from lying on his belly to standing up in one disconcerting week.  Unsteady steps followed shortly before he launched himself fully into his toddler career as a directionless human cannonball.  Ricocheting from exhausted to Duracell bunny mode he was a child of extremes: no middling for our son, an average-averse child.

 I left the house armed with the usual toddler accessories and supplies, additionally weighed down by various books (toys and puzzles too!).  These books were appliedjudiciously, urgently,  frequently, in a bid to reinstate balance in an off kilter world.  Have you tried reading when stress makes you shallow breathe and grind your teeth?  No, me neither – because you can’t.  Reading demands an unclenched jaw and steady breathing, which felt (still feels) like the tide turning: from on-edge overwhelm the chemical tide would gradually recede, in both my son and I, through the physical presence of one another, he under my arm, our breathing would regulate, our lives slow down to a comforting pace.  As the familiar patter of a well loved story moved from my mouth, I grateful for the shape and taste of every syllable, and fell into his still, quiet ears, we made ourselves a shelter from the fractious chaos of life, gently held in beautiful balance by a good book.

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The acquisition of books was also a pleasing activity for my son and I, a trip out that worked for us both.  We regularly visited the local library: I studiously and anti-socially avoided Rhyme Time and coffee mornings, preferring to visit at unconventional times when I could encourage my son to be quiet, act appropriately, seek books that interested him and sit – his white blond mop of hair hanging into the welcoming V of an open book.  Those brief moments afforded me a gasp of time to indulge in my own passions and interests – for after all, it doesn’t take long to grab a novel with an attractive cover, or a hardback with glossy photos.  Greedily, I’d gather a small stack of Mummy Books and we’d make good our escape before that balance began to turn, before the negatives outweighed the positive gains. 

But what did we read?  Well naturally, there was plenty of Julia Donaldson but there was plenty of Shirley Hughes too – Alfie a firm favourite.  The only book signing I have ever attended was to meet Shirley Hughes and there is no star in Hollywood whose signature I’d prefer!  Having been introduced to the delightful illustrations of Inga Moore via ‘Six Dinner Sid’ I found ‘House in the Woods’ which is a strong personal favourite and one which I am resigned to eventually reading purely for my own pleasure!  The TV show Abney and Teal led me to Joel Stewart’s enchantingly quirky stories  ‘When a Zeeder Met a Xyder’ and ‘Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie’.  My son was, and remains, very interested in trains and so Benedict Blathwayt’s ‘The Little Red Train’ series provides a real visual treat as well as some nice little touches of dry humour.  ‘Frog on a Log’ by Kes Grey was a birthday present that makes me laugh every time I read it and maintaining an amphibian theme Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad stories are just perfection. Last but not least, I must namedrop the now sadly closed Lion and the Unicorn bookshop in Richmond which provided us with ‘The Noisy Book’ by Soledad Bravi.  An instant hit, due in part to its bold colour-popping graphics and the repetitive structure ‘The snake goes hiss... the owl goes twit twoo...’, it proved as satisfying for our son to listen to as it was easy and comforting to read.  The spine eventually broke; at present, I believe the replacement purchase is in a similarly critical condition on a bookshelf somewhere in the children’s bedroom.   

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As we left the clinic today, our son walking between us, I looked at him and realised that as his mother I had known him all along.  I could ‘read’ my own son.  Yet, crucially, I needed to understand and furthermore have the conclusions we, as parents, had drawn: to be validated by the process of an official diagnosis.   Both ASC and ADHD comprise traits and behaviours which are part of the human condition itself,  yet if an individual has a sufficient quantity of those traits their experience of life becomes quantifiably different (the outward indicator being their behavioural response to their life and its challenges) and chances are they will benefit from being diagnosed.  As I watched my son, it dawned upon me that he is, simply, his own unique little person – as are we all – and that allowing him to march to the beat of his own drum is perhaps the most loving thing I can do for him. 

 

Zoe Vail Smith hails from London. Recently diagnosed as autistic, Zoe blogs about the arts, the world and family from her neurodivergent perspective. 

 

 

 

'I found that having your own voice was perfect' - A blog from Sarah, a Square Peg Stories participant

As I start to write this blog post I try to think about what people would want to read about the Square Peg Stories Project. And to be honest my only reaction is that I have one thing to say about it and that’s that it has changed my life. Why? Because it made me see myself differently. It made me realise that I could achieve my dreams. I found a community within Square Pegs that made me smile and made me want to leave the house, which as anyone who knows me could tell you, is not easy for me to do. 

Starting Something New never comes easily to me: the new environments, the new people, the new routine that has to be established. It all makes me anxious and scared. In years past it has stopped me from going out of the house for over a year. But even when you try not to do anything new, you’re inevitably faced with something. So, when that scary New Situation came into my life, I would go through the following: I would start by discussing the endless possibilities of what could happen if that new thing came into my life and what the possible consequences are to each of those possibilities. Imagine just for one moment, if you were the person I chose to talk to about the possibilities of going outside. For one thing I would take hours possibly the whole day to tell you everything that could happen. Oh, and secondly I am more than likely going to end up having a panic attack, so good luck with dealing with that. Meanwhile I am still in my head going through all the possibilities not listening to you. I would forget to breathe, and you would tell me to breathe, but I am not listening to you. I will end up thinking I am having a heart attack. The result of this has been that I avoid new things and stick to my routine. But with Square Peg Stories I did Something New.

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It all started with a story that I wrote about a dog and an email about an opportunity for autistic adults to take part in creative writing workshop with the result of getting published. I decided to apply for it as I love writing and I had just written this story that I wanted to share with the world. I didn’t ever think I would actually get in to the Square Peg Project, so I never actually worried about it.

But I did. On the day that I got accepted I told my mum as we were on our way to the hospital. She was very proud. I started my usual nervous tendencies and discussed all the possible outcome that could happen. I had made the decision not to go for this opportunity, as I was so worried that I would ruin their workshop. My decision happened pretty quickly after receiving the email. My biggest worry was people would read my work, and the consequence was people would not understand me, and think I am stupid or silly. I also worried I would get told off from by my father, who doesn’t support my writing.

But at the hospital we were told the news that Mum had cancer. My decision was reversed: I was going to do the workshops because it was going to make Mum so proud, and she said it would help her. The panic set in for the month leading up to that first day, and my mum and aunt helped me through.

My first day on Square Pegs again consisted of experiencing my nervous tendencies on the train and the walk to the workshops. I went in and was greeted by smiling faces and the journey began. I sat next to new people and I didn’t run away. I just sat and listened to the inspirational people giving a workshop on writing. My brain instead took over with my ideas. I started my lists in my head about all the stories that I wanted to write when I get home. Each workshop more lists were created, more stories were written. I came across a problem: I had a deadline and I couldn’t find one of my stories that I wanted to give to people to read, let alone judge in some way. I knew that one of these inspirational workshop facilitators was going read my work and give me feedback and so I knew that it had to be the right story.

After panicking for a week I decided that I had to choose the story that came from my favourite workshop. In one of the workshops we had done this exercise where we wrote from the point of view of an object. I loved thinking about how this object would perceive the world. I remember that all the way home I looked at everything, from the road, the wheels, the animals that I saw and eventually a tree. So the story that I chose was about a tree I saw in the park every time was on my journey to Mainspring’s workshop. With the help of the other workshops I was able to input all the facilitators’ collective wisdom into this story. It went from one type of story to another and eventually it ended up to where it is today.

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Throughout all the workshops and the mentoring that I had, I was able to see my story come to life and I was able to feel slightly more comfortable with the fact that someone was reading my work. I found that my mentor never judged me and it made me realise that mostly I was judging myself, and that this had led me to believe that others would think the same as me. As I saw they didn’t I began to question my own thoughts about my writing. It made me think more constructively about myself and my writing. I found a writing buddy in this team of creative geniuses and he helped me see my story in a different way and I found that having your own voice was perfect.

 The participants hard at work in a workshop

The participants hard at work in a workshop

Every part of this journey has been new. I have found some of it painfully difficult but I wouldn’t change any of it because I made a friend, I was happy to have someone read my writing and I felt like I made my mum proud as I let now let her read all my stories.

 

 

'...to write and read comes by nature' - Shakespeare and escaping the world through fiction

 

‘How do you think you’ll feel about that?’ the counsellor asked, in his usual thoughtful manner.  In this instance, my actions spoke before, and more clearly, than my words.  From my seat, I could feel the intense delight and awkwardness move through me and activate my body: my legs curled up so my arms could embrace them, I squirmed, squinting through the gap between my knees, ‘Like this,’ I said, ‘I’ll feel like this!’  He looked at me, ‘You do realise,’ he said carefully, ‘You’re describing positive sensory overload.’  I took in what he had said, then my body unfurled and the pleasure in what I had discovered began to slowly sink in.

The reality was, as I watched my short play be performed, the excitement, concern and exposure were so excruciating that  I sat so hunched forwards as to be almost folded in half! I was a cocktail of both pleasurable and adrenaline-fuelled anxiety: I wanted the audience to like my play, I felt devoutly grateful to the individuals who’d made it happen and I simply wanted it to be over!  It was, soon enough.  Thus it was the creative arts were drawing me towards the positive end of the sensory overload spectrum and this was my first outing.

Fast forwards a few months and I found myself in Waterstones one warm, wet weekend afternoon.  This has been a difficult summer and the toll of solving complex problems has pressed hard upon my energy, stirring up anxiety and heightening sensory issues.  It’s a complicated game, caring for oneself admit internal and external storms.  But this afternoon was leisure: coffee then a browse through the sections that most appealed.  Despite my urgent return to reading fiction (the sublime ‘Mrs Hemingway’; JK Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’; Robert Glancy’s excellent ‘Terms and Conditions’, next it is Patrick Gale’s ‘A Place Called Winter’.  Again, I give thanks for public libraries), I didn’t fancy browsing novels… instead, I gave myself the gift of time to both wander and wonder… what was it that I feel like?  As my mind was free to drift, it led me towards the comfort of hardback books, the luxury of detailed photographs, the subject matter ranging from crafting, to gardening and upcycling. 

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The longer I browse I feel my body relax as my mind absorbs the plentiful detail, page by page, idea by idea, soothing my troubled mind and turning the tide from uncomfortable, fretful anxiety, straight through neutral and into excited, hopeful inspiration.  It’s not easy, living along the outreaches, with a brain which chemically catalyses such speedy emotional switches and contrasts.  Suddenly I’m stood in the centre of the store and I feel overwhelmingly faint.  The irregular rushing of my heart (an intermittently intrusivesensation that has been bothering me for some days) becomes central to the empty feeling flooding through me, gravity offering me the chance to float.  I know these palpitations are the side effects of over-strenuous anxiety yet they are still upsetting – a clarion call I must address the imbalance.

A gentle arm leads me to the side, guides me to the floor.  I kneel, head lent against books and wait.  I can’t speak, I will my tongue to move, my hands to reach out.  It has scared me more when I didn’t understand what was going on… Eventually the moment passes and I seek fresh air, cooler temperatures.  What has just happened?  A collision, I believe, in emotional extremes: a bedrock of stressful exhaustion is juxtaposed by positive overwhelm – the moody black of a stormy night blasted apart by persistent fireworks.  We are not built to weather such extremes although we can if we must.

Another few weeks pass and I am presented with the wonderful opportunity to see ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at the Globe.  Every step of this day was a discovery: under the high blue summer sky I ventured to be true to my autistic self, to allow it the chance to flex its underworked muscles and explore the positive parameters of life.  As my companion and I stood at the stage’s edge, elbows resting upon the stage like children slouching at the tea table, I felt at ease and simultaneously enervated by the experience.

 photo credit: Zoe Vail Smith

photo credit: Zoe Vail Smith

The play itself?  Well, I must admit the cynic in me felt that the Mexican setting was an astute marketing ploy designed to return a successful summer run.  It’s probably unfair, but the broad mix of accents made the Mexican costumes little more than fancy dress to my eye.  Of course, there is plenty to enjoy about the vivid colours, swirling skirts and excitable fiesta catcalls of a Mexican setting I just can’t help unfavourably compare it to my memory of Tamsin Greig’s commanding Beatrice in 2006’s outstanding Cuban set production. 

However, a Shakespeare play is always about the language and unless the lines are truly murdered by inexperience then there is joy to be taken: by the anticipation of familiar passages and in the recognition of treasured phrases!  For the slight lack of conviction and verve there was the magnificence of the venue, the novel intimacy of standing, the open air above our heads. What I would truly love to see is an ASC friendly performance at the Globe.  I attended an ASC friendly matinee of War Horse in 2014 and I would urge anyone who truly loves theatre to experience a showing which embraces honest, human responses.  It was not stiffly quiet and dark – the occasional movement and call-outs added substance to the experience not detraction from it.  I couldn’t help but think that had the Globe audience been predominantly neurodiverse the wonderful and rousing whole cast finale would have got the whole yard dancing too!  It ought to have done – my word, I was tempted – yet the pressure of dull convention kept me in a metaphorical corner.

 photo credit: Zoe Vail Smith

photo credit: Zoe Vail Smith

As the summer progresses, I am writing fiction for the first time with a flow and intensity I haven’t felt before.  Who knows where it will go, how it will finish?  I have finally slipped free from the tricks played by my inner perfectionist and it is with joy I am constructing my own protagonists; learning to utilise the imagination that has previously generated too many hypothetical anxieties.  It seems that I can build fiction also and no matter where it leads I shall enjoy the safe haven it provides my mind.

Zoe Vail Smith hails from London. She is Mainspring Arts' monthly blogger, bringing a fresh autistic perspective to the arts. 

 

The Great Dinosaur Dupe

I read it over and over again, enthralled, legs hooked over the armchair, feet swinging.  The old letter linking the modern writer to the long dead explorers (that spectacular revelation!)… I pored over the beautiful illustrations – a predominantly natural palette of greens, blues and ochre – apart from the opening plate which depicted the moment the writer stumbled across the long forgotten letter, tucked away inside the pages of some dust crusted text.  That page filled me joy and curiosity for it revealed the innards of the British Library and promised smooth wood, polished brass and many, many beautiful books.  I was transported by this fiction as far as the earliest ambitious travel writers had imaginatively flung their armchair readers!  Very much safe in my home in London, England, I was now very much aware that somewhere out there, across our vast globe, was a forgotten place where dinosaurs still roamed.

Of course, at some point this unfortunate misapprehension had to come to light.  How it did I can’t exactly recall, but chances are, propelled by over-enthusiasm, I would have started to regurgitate a torrent of details about the book at my parents, keen for them to share in my delight.  Naturally, it can’t have been long before they saw my predicament – I had been gulled by literary trickery.  After the brutal realisation, I sobbed and sobbed, humiliation cut through with abject disappointment at the fact that the letter was not real, therefore the events did not happen and the dinosaurs were never discovered.

The images and fragments of plot remain very vivid to me, yet its title slipped away years ago. Nor can I remember how old I was… yet, I do recall strongly thinking that I was old enough to have known better, that I shouldn’t have been taken in.  I took it very hard and the truth sunk deep down into my heart – that the artful composition of words alone can create realism and authenticity, yet things aren’t always what they seem, that fact can in fact be fiction.  In some small way, a twig had snapped, trust cracked.

During my relatively brief stint teaching, I encountered the same literary device used to engaging effect in the opening pages of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.  The letter serves to introduce the reader to the world of the novel by sketching out, with a deft touch, the history of their relations, passing the responsibility to he, Hawthorne, to capture the delicate nature of the events.  The students were in a general statement of confusion over Hawthorne’s archaic English.  They momentarily questioned if the letter was real – no, it’s not – and then passed on, unbothered by their confusion, blaming it on the author and his old fashioned prose.

Over the past year, global politics have reminded me why the study of literature and language is so critical.  The fictitious examples above use letters (historical artefacts) in order to induce authenticity within the narrative – in other words, to make the story more real.  Although we know, as readers, that it is not literally real – our brains lean towards that interpretation as it is what presented so persuasively.  Indeed, some of us will take that interpretation a little too literally.  It is crucially important to develop the critical skills to prise apart the fact from the fiction, to understand that complex circumstances offer many truths, from many angles.  I believe that it is our moral imperative as adults, parents and educators, to ensure that our children aren’t gulled by the unscrupulous motives of those in power.  It is one thing to be confused by a story, quite another to duped by political linguistic power play. 

 

 For years, I was overwhelmed by my brain’s ability to see multiple interpretations.  My self-confidence a tattered flag, I felt buffeted by the prevailing winds of others – I was too keen to please, too keen to assimilate.  In that chilly and confusing gulf, I was drawn to the notion that there is a right or a wrong answer, I conned myself into seeing life as a black or white experience.  In time, I have been able to find a medium point, where I am able to experience the ocean wave of myriad interpretation without it scaring me into reductive thinking.

In hindsight, I see that my autistic wiring has always been at the forefront of my functioning.  I can smile a wry smile at how it presented itself as a very able English student: it was a quest to understand language (communication) underpinned by a refusal to trust and accept anything.  Unlike my son, who is extremely vocal in his unwillingness to accept anything other than a proper reason, I was the underground resistance fighter, allowing my restlessness to manifest only in certain contexts – presenting fierce ideas in A level English Literature was about the closest to being true to myself that I ever got.  When it came to literary criticism I could deploy my vocabulary knowledge and analyse each sentence, phrase, singular word, for its meaning (denotation), its connotations, what other sense of meaning could be inferred or gathered from its usage.  I over-thought, and I was rewarded for it. 

Of course, applying this strategy to broader adult life was never going to work: this process cannot be done in real time.  The constant flow of data would mean that I am immediately behind, an instant processing backlog.  Therein lies the crux: place me in one environment and my strengths will shine, place me in another and I will seek the shadows.  Of late, my thinking habits have slowly changed, their old etched pathways finding new richer courses; my feelings, previously simmering away, have become part of the flow. My emotional state is nothing other than intense and I’ve learnt to construct analytical scaffolding around them, in order to acknowledge and consider them, yet resist being overthrown by them.  At times, the emotional and the sensory data feels like a chemical intrusion and the effort required to stay balanced is exhausting.

From the earliest stages of my life, I see that I have been driven to understand – I gather information with the zeal of an explorer desperate to reach the summit first.  It is not that there’s a right or wrong route, but the more I understand life’s processes the more tameable the whole chaotic process feels.  Yet, it is a delusion that we are ever in control of our mental state and existence.  There are occasions when doing nothing – letting the emotional moment slip from my brain’s grip – is the only thing to do.  But, being aware of that approach is important information to know.  So, whilst emotions must form part of that data flow so that I can shape the world around rather than being shaped by it, I will never stop fact seeking for my brain is designed to sit still, accept or assume – it prods and shakes, for fear it will be taken in by the promise of a dinosaur once more.

 

Zoe Vail Smith hails from London. She was diagnosed with Asperger's two years ago, and is Mainspring Arts' resident blogger. She brings a fresh, autistic perspective to reviews of the arts.

 

 

Quiet please: a love letter to libraries

I love libraries, I recently wrote to a friend, they’re my faith, my church, full of facts and fiction.  Libraries and, if you wish, my relationship to them, are at the heart of many of my more significant memories, formative layers in my identity.

 

When I recall childhood visits to my local library, joyful sensory details bubble up through the years.  Dusty motes of sunlight cascade from windows far above my head; there is the smell of paper, paper both loved and dirtied with use; the smooth warm wood of the desk.  I’d lean, fingers gliding along its long curved edges, waiting for the librarian to neatly re-stack my pile of books into an order he wanted, before beginning – and never sharing – the task of stamping each book with a pleasing inky bang.

With hindsight, I see how I was destined to love a library.  They soothed my senses – the environment was my friend:  Shush, please, no talking.   Actively encouraged to be quiet I could allow myself to slip away down any path I chose.  I remember certain books that I inhaled with an intensity that surprised and delighted my parents.  There was the Dorling Kindersley toy reference book, packed with all sorts of details about Steiff bears, porcelain dolls, Kewpies, provenance and manufacturing details, auction value...  Then there was the illustrated costume book which contained a male and a female reference costume for every decade from 1600 -1970s.  I pored over that book adoringly and have returned many times since, trying to track it down.  I spent hours copying and internalising the details – reproducing them in my own drawings.

Of course, libraries function according to strict rules.  Delighted by the Dewey system, I took great joy in checking a book was available before carefully tracking it down, according to the numbers and letters provided.  There was great satisfaction in leaning sideways, shuffling along, finger tips following the bumpety bump of spines until they alighted upon the correct combination!  So long as the book wasn’t missing it was a brilliantly predictable treasure hunt.

My university library was to be my intellectual oyster: the font of all knowledge and future dreams.  It was all I’d really thought about before I packed up and left home for that first term.  I didn’t really think about all the ‘other’ stuff, the strangers, the making of friends, nights out.  I’d developed this highly romanticised notion that university was my opportunity to leave behind the misery of sixth form college and would be where I could immerse myself in literature, floating through prose, plays and poetry, floating away from my troubles, becoming an academic wraith.  As I finally approached it, my mood was elation mingled with reverence: this is what I have come here for, this building the repository of all my hopes … and yet, rapidly those amorphous hopes were quickly spun into nightmarish ghouls.

It is neither lie nor exaggeration when I admit that I never properly learnt to find a library text in my three year degree and yet I graduated with a 2:1.  I could not understand the system, I didn’t know who to ask and I was too terrified to admit I didn’t know.  Possibly I missed an induction and I think my poor housemate did once try to explain the process but I couldn’t grasp the steps, the chemical interaction of embarrassment and anxiety cancelling out any chance of recall.  Thus, finding texts was potluck.

 

However, this was only the half the story.  I had assumed that being in the library I could at least wander haplessly and stumble upon things whilst feeling safe, disconnected from the outside world, protected by flanks of books.  Again, I was wrong. All these people, these confusing anonymous hordes of people, were definitely doing some form of studying but they were also doing a lot else which was both disagreeable and distracting.  Unable to concentrate, I closely observed glances and games, whispers and tears, relationships starting and possibly ending… As I watched I resented them, for bringing this behaviour into my hallowed place, for intruding upon my one chance for uncomplicated quiet.

What I discovered in my university library was a treasure trove of sensory issues that would to take me another decade or more to fully uncover.  As my childhood memories are so rich in sensory memory and evoke emotional warmth, my university years trigger traumatic sensory memories.  As I sat at my carrel; my hopes, expectations and ambitions bobbing like many multi-coloured balloons over my desk, over the course of days, weeks, months, they deflated – and some popped. Not only was I unable to navigate the library system I was deeply uncomfortable at the intrusion of social life, nor could I sit still long enough to block it all out.

My body was corrupted by its anxiety and I simply couldn’t concentrate for the confusing crossfire of sensory messages: I was too hot then too cold; the light was too bright or too dim; I constantly adjusted the volume of my Walkman (probably the same song or album on endless repeat); my stomach rumbled as I starved it; I was thirsty as I didn’t understand the importance of hydration.  I wasn’t hung over because I barely touched alcohol for fear of being out of control besideswithin 6 weeks of starting first year I was prescribed an anti-depressant and had been advised I shouldn’t drink.  

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Unfortunately, my sensory issues intruded upon the weekly taught sessions too.  I remember being mortified after a particular tutorial: not only had I failed to include a reference list (too embarrassed to admit I’d read none of the texts because I couldn’t find them I was therefore unable to explain that the ideas were all my own – thus how could I have referenced them?!) I was clearly out too much because I was falling asleep during class.  Yet, I was barely out.  What could I say?  Nowadays, I am aware that my body needs a fairly constant stream of movement in order to stay alert.  I move, I fidget, I re-position, I avidly note take and I doodle in detail.  However, no matter how intrinsically motivated I am, if the room is too hot and I am not moving… I will fall asleep. 

I have a different local library these days.  I regard its existence as a minor miracle: it is compact and squashed between shops on a busy high road.  But it is needed, it is used, it is loved.  The culture has changed vastly since I was a child… my frequent fines don’t prevent me from getting out more books! Child rumpuses are common and getting to stamp books is de rigeur.  I most commonly go with my children in tow… and watch them making beelines towards their favourite stacks and shelves, ready to repeat my old fashioned mantra: books not DVDs!  Mostly, I watch, waiting for that window of opportunity where I can vanish out of their sight for moment, just long enough to scan a row of books – select on a whim a name, or colour, or key word, hold it in my hand and flick through.  Those moments are the making of an entire day.

Zoe Vail Smith blogs for Mainspring Arts.