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.