Today’s guest post is by Kate Gladstone. For more information on this series featuring autistic voices, see this introductory post.
Content Note: Ableist/dehumanizing language, bullying, verbal abuse
I’m a fifty-three-year-old woman with several neurological disabilities, who’d have liked to be reared as a human being.
Instead, I was frequently informed (usually by my mother) that I was a “retarded, subhuman spectacle” — a “vegetable,” “handicapped monstrosity,” “travesty of humankind,” being reared out of my parents’ sense of duty, so as not to burden others with my existence. I was daily shown that, whenever anyone played with me or seemed friendly, they did this purely under orders: for instance, under a parent’s or teacher’s commands in order to avoid being punished for avoiding me.
My disabilities (dyspraxia, dysgraphia, severe Asperger’s, and more) are invisible. However, their effects led to my being perceived as retarded despite a tested IQ above 150 on at least two professionally administered tests.
At no time, on any professionally administered test, have I tested below 125 IQ: however, scores on a few subtests — just which subtests varied from test to test — hovered in the 80-90 range. By this standard, I lack some reasoning power. How best can I undo the damage done by my situation itself (my impairments, and my recognizing them) and by an upbringing that was influenced at least partly by what I was and am?
Making things worse: my parents, and most of my grandparents, were non-religious Jews — almost completely anti-religious Jews — who’d nonetheless decided to send me to a religious Jewish private school for reasons they never pinned down. At home, they forbade even mentioning religion or anything that had to do with it — which meant I was punished and told I was a bad girl whenever I fully and truthfully answered my mother’s or father’s question: “What did you learn in school today?” (My parents asked this every school afternoon. Silence, incomplete answers, and answers suspected of incompleteness, were punished — so were truthful answers, for which I’d be punished and told I was lying “because nobody could believe anything so absurd was taught or practiced by anyone.”)
Although sometimes my parents broke their own rules about what never to discuss, their exceptions were so unpredictable and unstable that I could never discover what principle governed them. There may have been no principle, just simple caprice, because my mother was very angry that I should ever want an explanation or a principle, let alone even have to seek an explanatory principle when — as she never tired of telling me — other people could simply absorb from the environment, subconsciously and automatically, whatever they needed to know about each other. She considered it wrong, vicious, and unnatural of me to need and want a way to make sense of things, and to have to seek this out, instead of just understanding “by instinct” just when, in just which ever-changing context, a family rule could (or must) be broken by the adults although it remained binding on the children.
For example, it was all right for my parents to ask me to describe a particular belief or practice that I was being taught at school, but it was wrong for me to answer the question, or to answer partially (because that was talking about a forbidden subject), or not to answer (because that was disobedience).
My parents had chosen this school because the local public school was well known to encourage violence and other damage against anyone either smarter or duller than the average…and, as explained above, I’m simultaneously both. Further, the administrators of available private schools had made known that they did not want children with problems.
So my parents sent me to a religious school (the only school left) without fully understanding that this was a religious school, because they were only incompletely aware that Judaism is, well, a religion (among other things). They’d assumed, given their own upbringing and acquaintanceships, that Judaism’s “religious side” was probably almost extinct, and that nothing was left but some “harmless cultural stuff” that they themselves knew very little about, but thought it might be nice to be exposed to.
So they hated and despised me for answering — correctly — their questions on what I was learning. They swore I was making it all up. So when I persisted in my “lies and idiocies” (as they called my description of what I was being taught) instead of consenting to repeat that I had “obviously concocted all this craziness” on my own, they sent me to a therapist (the first of many) who had never heard of any of this stuff either.
His job was to cure me of believing that I was being taught such things, although indeed I was being taught them — as I tried to document for him and for my parents, from schoolbooks and other class materials which they flatly refused to look at. For instance, my homework assignments in first grade included persuading my parents to study and follow the rules of Judaism. (I was five-and-a-half, and no good at getting my parents to change their lives on a schoolteacher’s say-so. For this failure, my teachers and classmates abused me as severely as my parents abused me for the mere attempt. This was in addition to my getting low grades on such assignments, then being punished at home for getting less than “A” in anything.)
Two years later, my parents finally found a quite different school: one which had been established for gifted children, and which was (in theory) willing to ignore psychological or other problems if the child scored sufficiently high on the IQ test required for admission. The guiding principle of this private school, though — insofar as it can be called a “principle” — was that nothing can be considered a fact: nothing was definitely right or definitely wrong, or definite in any way, ever. (And they were quite definite on that! Though they held that there were no facts, they also held as fact that I was a “problem behavior case” for pointing out that contradiction.)
At this school (where I remained until the end of ninth grade), teachers actively encouraged physical assaults on the persons and property of students, as long as the teacher (or a majority of classmates) considered the attacker a more welcome, likable, or socially adept person than the target. When fights broke out, a teacher would give the attacker some tips on how to win, and the target would be punished far worse than the attacker: punished for fleeing, punished for defending him- or herself, and punished on suspicion of having wanted to do so.
In every class I attended at both of these schools, I was the designated target or one of a few designated targets — as if it were an official title. In the second school, and to some extent in the first, teachers’ justifications for my victim role included assertions that I was ideal to be a target and to thereby raise the self-esteem and leadership motivation of my schoolmates, that I should rejoice to serve the majority in this way, and that I was being inconsiderate if I disliked or tried to evade my opportunities to do so.
For instance: When, very rarely, I managed to do something right in gym class, there was disappointment all around — nobody had planned for this, so it was called “unkind” of me to put the others to the trouble of possibly needing to find a new target when the old target had been so serviceable. Those two schools were the ones I attended the longest, and were also the worst ones — so there’s no reason to discuss the others.
The consequences of growing up this way are easily predicted. They include an immense fear of other people, and a feeling (which I’ve been unable to change or vanquish) that I am indeed subhuman and should be rejected by anyone I admire, anyone worth dealing with. This feeling persists despite productive adult achievement in the personal and professional realms.
For instance, although I could not write legibly by hand until I was age 24 and in graduate school, at that age I designed and pursued some self-remediation which let my handwriting become very legible and rapid — soon thereafter, I founded a handwriting instruction/remediation business which has clients worldwide.
Yet, with all that, I’ve been unable to revise or extinguish the feelings I felt as a schoolgirl when my mother shouted that I was a disgusting specimen of botched humanity, and when teachers informed the class that I must be cheating instead of actually trying to learn, because “nobody who writes like that could really have the least spark of the intelligence or motivation” that I “merely seemed to show” in other ways. (The teacher decided that I must have somehow cheated during the class spelling bee, because nobody who “scribbles like an ape in human form” could have been smart enough to remember how to spell any of the words, let alone all of them. Therefore, at the suggestion of several of the better-liked children who’d done almost as well, the points I had earned by winning the bee — one point per word — were removed from my record and distributed among those “better-performing” children who’d made the suggestion and had come in second, third, and fourth.)
I am certain that having this as my childhood has irremediably excised or stunted a great many of my own potential capacities (such as they are, or were, or might have been). However, I hope I can be proven wrong.
Therefore I wonder — and here again, hope to be proven wrong — whether surviving all this has turned me into a mental and emotional monstrosity, even if I didn’t begin as one, despite my best efforts to grow into anything else.
Have the conditions of my growing-up made me in truth what my mother so often called me falsely: a blot on humankind? A missing link? A failed, degraded not-quite-human?
If I was none of those things when I was treated as being all of them — have I unwittingly become those things, against the best of my will and effort, because of such treatment? I was, after all, incompetent to vanquish or prevent such treatment and its consequences — that is likely to say something about me.
A better, stronger person could have come out of this better.
If I had been more intelligent and otherwise competent, I’d simply have succeeded with one or more of my childhood attempts to sneak out of a damaging home or school and locate and enter a non-toxic environment on my own — sneaking into it, and taking whatever consequences came my way.
Or, if indeed no better home or school could be found and entered, it is nobody’s fault but my own that I lacked whatever intelligence and other competence would have been adequate to at least persuading my parents, teachers, and other people to treat me at least somewhat more rationally.
I could not manage even that. If I were indeed intelligent and adequate, the very least that I should have managed — if not then, then certainly now in adulthood after literally decades of trying — would have been to get my emotions in line with what I know to be true. Since I have signally failed to get my feelings (of intrinsic inferiority, inadequacy, being subhuman, and so forth) into line with the factual data and reasoning which demonstrate that (and how) such feelings are based on errors — that failure itself is adequate proof of my inadequacy. An adequate, competent, intelligent person would have succeeded by now: not merely in refusing to act on feelings which the facts contradict (which is all I have managed), but in correcting the erroneous feelings themselves.
So — How can I “undamage” myself? What should I have done (as a child) to prevent being damaged by the actions and events described above? Although Mom has finally renounced her earlier beliefs about me, this decision of hers was just a few years ago — this doesn’t magically undo what she did for decades previously on the basis of those beliefs. Even her sincerely held commitment to do better — which she does her best to act on — does not remove the effects of her past actions. (Other family members, of course, present other situations: equally complex.)
What insights do I need on the best way for me to overcome the consequences of improper, toxic rearing: to gain a correct mental state (and every other power I should have had) despite it all?
Image via Pixabay
Kate Gladstone is a handwriting expert and autism activist from New York. Since 1992, she has worked to help others repair their handwriting both in person and through distance learning. She is currently the director-in-chief of the World Handwriting Contest and has been covered by the Christian Science Monitor, the Boston Globe, and the New York Times, among other publications. Her work also includes collaborations with educational software firms on handwriting applications. More information about Gladstone and her work can be found at HandwritingThatWorks.com.