A Challenging Existence: A Conversation with Kate Gladstone

A Challenging Existence: A Conversation with Kate Gladstone May 20, 2016

Image via Pixabay

After I posted the first in what has become my series on religion and autism — or perhaps at this point, I should say about autistic people and religion — I received an E-mail from Kate Gladstone, detailing much of her experiences as an autistic person raised in a Jewish household. Kate’s response shocked me in many ways — many good ways — and the amount of information she provided was of such a great volume that I initially asked her if she would mind editing it down for publication as part of the series. She graciously agreed, and you can find that post here. (If you haven’t read it yet, go do that. It’s required reading to fully understand the rest of this post.)

But in truth, so much had to be excised from what Kate initially sent that it seemed to me a shame to just leave it at the one post, and so I invited her to continue talking about her quite unique experiences. Somewhat to my surprise, she asked if we could talk on the phone in more of an interview style. We finally connected last week for what ended up being an intensely fascinating conversation, just shy of two hours long, on a variety of issues — not just Kate’s own background but also whether atheism will end up developing rituals of its own, personal labels, the insistence of others to define your beliefs and experience by their own guesswork, dealing with individuals more concerned about their personal narratives than the truth, and finally the importance of figuring out how to raise all children as human beings.

I don’t think I could do the depth of the conversation justice in just one post — certainly not one of a readable length! — so I’m going to break up our discussion into a few posts, trying to weave together some of the threads that we touched on at various points.

[NB: With Kate’s permission, I recorded our conversation, but some parts of the recording were almost entirely inaudible, which is my fault. I have always preferred to convey as directly as possible the words of the autistic people who have been kind enough to share their perspective with me, and unfortunately this information gap will require me to do some summarizing. It is my hope to keep this to a minimum and refrain from editorializing much, and where possible, I have quoted Kate with only minimal editing to clear up the normal foibles of impromptu spoken language.]


I scarcely had turned on my own recording when Kate hit the ground discussing her family background. Our previous E-mail exchanges leading up to the idea of a phone conversation had focused on the omission from the initial post about the “performances” of religion that were demanded of her as young as five years old, what she described in an E-mail as “pulling a ritual to shreds, trashing half the shreds, stapling the rest together out-of-sequence/out-of-context/bleeding at the seams, and performing the results at the command of someone who despised the unshredded version and any attempt to retain its integrity.”

In particular, Kate (and to some extent her sister) was, in her words, “drafted to do what amounted to decontextualized bits of religion as some sort of entertainment or gratification for my parents when they felt like having a little trifle of it or something.” To hear her describe it, these performances were altered on the fly, rearranged and edited into a ritual bearing no resemblance to the original and having no consistency from performance to performance, a wholly capricious act of directing.

The impression I got consistently from Kate’s exposition of these performances is that she gave these rituals far more weight than her parents did. “They thought knowing or wanting to know what the [Hebrew] words mean was fanatic,” she said. “Even various ethical commands were dismissed by them as pure ritual, things like giving to charities or good causes. There were times when my school would be raising money for this cause or that cause, and even if it was one they agreed with, they regarded it basically the way that you or I would regard the Catholic selling of indulgences.

“A lot of their notions of Judaism came from bad movies about Catholicism, actually,” she continued. “They hadn’t really had a lot of experience with it, but my parents had been in the generation where public schools still involved a lot of Bible reading, and I can remember times when my mom was very mixed up about what was in the Old Testament versus what was in the New Testament, and I would correct her not only about specific things but about assumptions underlying some of the stories. She assumed, for instance, that a Jewish service was basically about people sitting around and praying for God to give them the faith to believe in Judaism, and it’s not like that. You might see that in various branches of Christianity, but it’s just not the way we think.”

Understandably, this wasn’t a very encouraging response. “If you’re going to speak against what I’m doing, at least be aware of what it is because if you want to be a good critic, a polemic, don’t you need an accurate knowledge of your opponent’s position?”

“And for many years she thought I was just being horrible,” she added. “How dare I tell her that her beliefs about my beliefs were incorrect?” (This was one of the moments where Kate’s delightful sarcastic streak was quite evident.)


This was hardly the last time, Kate informed me, that she would have to push back against people making declarations about her religious views or practices out of sheer, arrogant ignorance. College — in this case, the University of Pennsylvania — would prove to be little better:

One thing that happened to me when I was at school, and this happened to other people, was that college, which was supposed to be so much a liberation, was in many ways a rerun of what was going on with my parents. And I was not the only Jewish person of any stripe, be it Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, just Jewish, wondering, undecided, whatever, who would not be able to get off for some exam and take a makeup even though the school policy was that this had to be allowed for anything marked as a religious holiday on the school calendar, which all the Jewish stuff certainly was.

But many teachers — and many of my teachers happened to be department heads, so for them there was no appeal — would take on themselves, whether they were Jewish or not, that, “Oh, that holiday isn’t an important one,” or “I didn’t hear of this going up, so I don’t think it’s real; it must be like just some recent thing that was just made up.” And you could sit there and you could show them. You could bring in books; you could bring in sources; you could bring in the rabbi from the Hillel Foundation, and he could talk to the dean or your department head or to whoever until everyone was blue in the face and you either didn’t get it, or if you did get it, the person doing it for you, the person granting this great favor of letting a certain percentage have their exams later and take a makeup exam, would give a very condescending little speech about how “these people insist on their rituals which we think are not significant, so we shall provide it in our graciousness.”

There are very few more horrible things than to have the professor of your class, who is a sort of Church-of-England-sounding person, whose teaching assistant is basically uneducated Jewish, basically unite in saying that you don’t get to take an exam on a different day, even if you offer to take it earlier. To have one person who’s not a member of Judaism literally say, “Well, I really do not feel that this particular observance can be important. Can’t your community just do it on another day or can’t you do it privately on another day? I would think that in a modern, civilized society, you would simply have decided to move any inconvenient dates that were in the middle of the week or the middle of the day to the following Sunday afternoon like civilized people. Why can’t you just do that?”


On the other side, Kate ran into others with much darker stereotypes in mind, of human sacrifice and demonic features:

One of them, annoyingly, was one of my three roommates my first year of college.¹ She was a minister’s daughter from the Virgin Islands…and when I basically told her, “Come on, we don’t do that, and we don’t kill animals in our temples, either,” she got very upset because she’d been taught as part of the beliefs of the sect in which her father was a minister that this is what the Jews do. Also, she happened to be in a sociology class, and she was very upset because, as she interpreted what she was learning, I was being very insensitive to her by “trampling on her narrative.” She didn’t use those terms, but she and her community had these beliefs and felt unified because of these beliefs, and she didn’t feel that these beliefs were very harmful because back where she was, there were no Jews for these beliefs to be true or false about. Just as it’s not harmful to me if someone believes that there are pink unicorns — I wouldn’t care if someone believed that pink unicorns killed Mahatma Gandhi because there are no pink unicorns out there to be harmed if someone believes that.

But here she was, and she believes that her membership in her community, her membership as it were in her tribe (although she did not use that word), was being threatened because how dare I be something that she had been told I wasn’t?

To her, Jews were a symbol of certain ways of thinking about God or a symbol of what had been before Christianity, and here was a symbol that wasn’t acting properly like a symbol; it’s not taking the meaning you assign to it, it’s getting off the page and standing up and saying, “No, no, no, I’m something different. I’m not what you are using me to symbolize.” And she didn’t like that because she just thought it was very rude on my part — apparently, very rude on the part of all Judaism — not to be what she had been told it would be.

What do you do when your very existence challenges the beliefs of others?

More on the rest of this conversation later. This is only the tip of the iceberg!


Kate GladstoneKate 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.


Image via Pixabay

¹ Kate has informed me after our conversation that she was able to confirm that this actually occurred in her second year of college, not her first. Amusingly, she has said that the error was in confusing two individuals from different backgrounds who made statements arrogantly presuming a greater knowledge of Judaism than her. (The freshman roommate happened to be Mormon.) ^
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